TOTS hosts a play for the masses (literally)

By John Lyle Belden

“Well, of all things!” A 1959 French play by a celebrated Romanian absurdist about the destructive but seductive effects of mass conformity finds resonance in Indianapolis, U.S.A., in 2017.

No Holds Bard and Catalyst Repertory present Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” on the Second Stage of Theatre on the Square through Aug. 13. The play is set in a near future in which most animals are extinct and most color is gone – frowned upon, even – but the people deal with it in a very orderly black-and-white world in which logic can be argued to the point that facts can mean anything.

Slovenly, drunken Berenger (Zachariah Stonerock) doesn’t fit in. And worse, he has gotten into an argument with his only friend, proud, self-sure Jean (Tristan Ross). But suddenly, a rhinoceros comes charging up the street. Did everyone see what they just saw? Of course not. There are no zoos, there are no circuses, there are no rhinoceroses. Then, a rhinoceros comes charging down the street in the other direction. Thus the question becomes: Is it the same rhinoceros? And are one or both African or Asian? This latter point, and the counting of horns, naturally becomes the most vital issue.

The next day, Berenger comes in late to work, but Daisy (Abbie Wright), who he is sweet on, covers for him with the boss, Mr. Papillon (Josh Ramsey), who, in turn, is upset with Duduard (Tim Fox) and Botard (John Mortell) not getting to work as they argue whether the rhinoceros sighting was real. Duduard has seen the beasts and is more accepting of events; while Botard did not, assumes its a hoax, and if anything did happen, it was part of a grand conspiracy by dark forces. Then Mrs. Beof (Denise Jaeckel) arrives, saying she can’t find her husband, and she’s being pursued by a rhino – when the animal destroys part of the building, she discovers the beast is her husband, somehow transformed.

After this, nearly everyone starts changing into rhinoceroses. As you do.

Stonerock garners our sympathies as the individualist everyman – misunderstood, put down and unsure of what he wants and how to get it. He, and we through him, are never on solid ground as the more sober he gets, the more mad the world becomes.

His castmates deal well with the play’s broadly-drawn characters. Wright embodies the contradicting impulses of dependence and independence women have dealt with in the nearly 50 years of this play’s existence, showing her own strength regardless. Fox is appropriately glib, Mortell brightly brusque. Jaeckel throws herself into her role. Ross, who also directs, takes charge on stage as well; and Ramsey is sharp as ever, including his turn as a “professional logician” who tortures language into submission. The cast is ably rounded out by David Mosedale and Sarah Holland Froehlke – who extracts a lot of laughs from a dead cat.

The script’s length, adapted from three acts to two, and pacing can drag at times, but it’s all worth seeing the eventual “rhinoceros parade.” While this a comedy, with plenty of hilarious situations and comic turns of phrase, beneath the mirth is the hint of something strong and violent that can trample to ruin anything in its path.

Good thing it’s only a play, eh?

Join the herd at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave., call 317-685-8687 or get info and tickets at tots.org/rhinoceros/.

Footlite’s sweet ‘Dream’

By John Lyle Belden

Simply put, the Footlite Musicals’ production of “Dreamgirls” is a triumph.

The whole show gives off energy, channeled through the performances of our Dreamettes/Dreams – Deena (Kat Council), Lorrell (Tiffany Gilliam) and especially Effie (Rayanna Bibbs) – along with Effie’s songwriting brother C.C. (Tyler Futrell), ambitious manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Ollice Nickson), faithful Marty (Jalil Stephens) and the electric James “Thunder” Early (Brenton Anderson).

In a story inspired by the struggles of African-American singers, especially girl groups, to make it big in the mainstream music scene in the 1960s, a hopeful trio from Chicago enters the famous Apollo Amateur Night in New York. They don’t win, but get their break as Taylor, then a car salesman, exploits opportunities and arranges for the Dreamettes to back Early under Marty’s management. From there, their arc goes upward, even if it takes cash payola to get their songs on the charts over white imitators. Taylor’s manipulations become more and more brazen, until Marty quits and Effie finds herself replaced (by Michelle [Vanessa Web]) and left crying backstage. Act II finds our characters in the 1970s and the transition from R&B to disco. How has success, or lack thereof, treated our Dreamgirls?

If you know how that turns out – see it for the beauty and power of it in your presence again. If you haven’t, see it, it’s one heck of a show. If you have only seen the movie (excellent in its own way), see the difference with its inventively single set and churning pace. Feel the heat from Early’s performances. Get blasted by Effie’s pipes.

Hats off to director Damon Clevenger, something this good couldn’t happen by accident.

And I am telling you, you should be going – to the Hedback Theatre, 1847 N. Alabama St., weekends through May 21. Call 317-926-6630 or see www.footlite.org.

At TOTS: A story of street-lights people who don’t stop believin’

By John Lyle Belden

The rock hits of the 1980s form the tapestry of “Rock of Ages,” the Broadway musical in its first local production at Theatre on the Square.

Sarah Hoffman plays Sherrie, a small-town girl, livin’ in a lonely world; Davey Pelsue is Drew (a/k/a aspiring rocker Wolfgang von Cult), a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit – you know how the song goes.

They work at the Bourbon Room, an LA bar and club owned by Dennis Dupree (Dave Ruark) with Lonny (John Kern), our Narrator – they want nothing but a good time, and it don’t get better than this.

But foreign developer Hertz Kleinaman (Bryan D. Padgett) and son Franz (Zach Ramsey) have plans to tear down the Sunset Strip. When City Planner Regina Kuntz (Andrea Heiden) objects, the Mayor (Josiah McCruiston) fires her, so she leads the resistance, reminding all that they built this city on rock and roll.

Facing the final countdown, the Bourbon Room has one last show, headlined with newly-solo rock god Stacee Jaxx (Thomas Cardwell) and featuring Wolfgang’s debut. In all that’s happening, Drew loses Sherrie, and it will take more than words to win her back. And yes, “Oh, Sherrie” is also in the show (but not the title song, as they couldn’t get rights to Def Leppard’s hits).

This exceptional, energetic cast includes Paige Scott as “Mama” Justice, owner of the nearby Venus Gentleman’s Club; Jonathan Krouse as Joey Primo, Jaxx’s replacement in Anvil; a dancing chorus including Jessica Hawkins, Jordan Fox, Tessa Gibbons, Katherine Jones, Janice Hibbard and Jessica Hughes; and Hannah Boswell as the wonderfully anonymous Waitress No. 1. Director Ty Stover let Boswell expand her role to help smooth scene changes, she said, and she has become an audience favorite.

Not everyone is radio-perfect in reproducing the old FM-band tunes, but this isn’t meant to be a revue. Some lyrics and verses are altered by context, and some songs nicely mashed-up, to serve the musical’s story. The performers front-and-center, however, are stellar – especially Hoffman, as well as Pelsue, who delivers as though this musical was written for him.

The show is incredibly fun, whether you remember the decade of big hair and big attitudes, or only know the 30-year-old songs (yes, that old) from the Classic Rock station. The onstage bar actually offers retro sodas and beer before each act, and cast members occasionally cross the fourth wall to sit with you.

Got too much time on your hands? You have no excuse not to see this. Here they go again at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave., through April 1. Call 317-685-8687 or visit www.tots.org.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Soured friendship flavors ‘Suite’ farce

By John Lyle Belden

A Hollywood star-studded 1940s benefit for the war effort is the backdrop of the comedy “Suite Surrender,” on stage through Feb. 26 at Carmel Community Players.

Claudia McFadden (Gergeanna Teipen) headlines the big show at the Palm Beach Royale Hotel, but her former friend and hated rival, Athena Sinclair (Jill O’Malia) is on the bill as well. Fortunately, hotel manager Mr. Dunlap (Sydney Loomis) has them booked in suites on opposite sides of the building. Unfortunately, they both feel entitled to the Presidential Suite, and make themselves at home in its east and west bedrooms.

It is up to Dunlap, Claudia’s assistant Pippet (Thom Johnson) and Athena’s assistant Murphy (Addison D. Ahrendts) to keep the divas from even seeing one another, lest the sparks fly hotter than the fires started by rowdy shore-leave sailors in the downstairs lobby. Caught in the middle are hapless bellhops Otis (Colton Martin) and Francis (Steve Jerk), local socialite and event organizer Mrs. Osgood (Kate Hinman), and nosy journalist Dora Del Rio (Marjorie Worell).

Naturally, this all results in one hilarious farce, with goofy misunderstandings, frantic wild takes and lots of well-timed physical humor. Loomis is a master of manic mannerisms. Johnson’s minion-under-pressure shtick works perfectly. Teipen and O’Malia practically purr in their cattiness. Worell is literally whacked like a tennis ball to great effect. Hinmon hits the right comic notes, but don’t let her sing. Martin and Jerk recall the great pratfalling comics of the era. Ahrendts adds a touch of romance while getting in a few funny moments herself. And the biggest trooper of them all is little dog Sergio as Claudia’s Mr. Boodles.

As the hijinks work their way to the inevitable happy ending, watch for the twist, with its bit of wry commentary on show business.

Find CCP at 14299 Clay Terrace Boulevard, north of downtown Carmel. Call 317-815-9387 or visit carmelplayers.org.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source, which has a brief version of this and other theatre reviews.

Catalyst’s ‘Tooth’ gives us much to chew on

By John Lyle Belden

When you enter the Grove Haus theater to experience “Tooth of Crime,” presented by Catalyst Repertory, you enter another world.

It’s a dystopian potential America of the 2080s, a Mad-Max atmosphere in which the battles aren’t over oil but fame – and your place on the rock ‘n’ roll charts. Those on top find themselves “marked,” with life and death consequences.

Hoss (Davey Pelsue) is an aging Marker at the top of The Game. He respects the Code, as well as the country and blues musicians that inform his down-and-dirty rock style. He doesn’t test the wrath of the Keepers, but is not too happy that other performers are bending the rules, especially Gypsies who don’t abide by the Code at all.

Vexed and paranoid, Hoss fires his stargazer, Mirra (Ryan Powell), for advising him to be cautious. A Deejay, Rudio Ran (Jay Hemphill), reassures him he’s still on top, but he suspects it’s flattery. His manager and girlfriend, Becky Lou (Sarah Hoffman) is worried, and the drugs Doc (Nan Macy) give him make him even more unmanageable. Then, right-hand man Chaser (Zach Stonerock) informs Hoss that a rival has marked him, and a Gypsy by the name of Crow (Adam Tran) is on his way to do battle. Chaser finds an impartial Ref (David Molloy) to adjudicate.

The culture of this play has its own dialect – though after a while you can “suss” it out – and the duel is mainly psychic, through words spoken and sung. Though they brandish guns and knives, Hoss and Crow strive to break each other’s mind and soul before fatally attacking the body.

For the audience, this requires paying close attention as much as possible, but not getting too concerned that you can’t tell exactly what’s said or even going on. This drama with music was written by Sam Shepard in 1972 and rewritten in 1997, which helps explain its vibe being somewhere between “Easy Rider” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” filtered through Greek tragedy.

This show isn’t for everyone, but if you go with it, you can witness a stylish indictment of the corrosive nature of celebrity, and experience the passion that Pelsue and his castmates put into their performance. Hoss practically sweats every word and lyric he utters. Crow is like a preening bird, but with a dangerous edge even when knocked off-balance.

An on-stage band provides excellent accompaniment to the show’s proceedings. The music was provided by Shepard, with additions by T Bone Burnett in the 1990s, and director Casey Ross found a more recent hit to finish the play.

Performances are Fridays through Sundays through Feb. 26 at 1001 Hosbrook St., near Fountain Square. Get info and tickets at uncannycasey.wix.com/catalystrepertory.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Getting through the holidays with TOTS

By John Lyle Belden

While most people are familiar with the “Nice” offering by Theatre on the Square, a live stage version of “A Christmas Story,” the show on the smaller second stage, “A Christmas Survival Guide” – tagged “Naughty” – is a little more obscure. So that’s what we’ll discuss here.

As for the naughtiness, it’s mainly for some language and Grinchy-Scroogey attitude as a jaded quintet – Gabby Niehaus, Shauna Smith, Anna Lee, Josiah McCruistion and Eric Brockett – their piano accompanist, Levi Burke, and stage manager, Nikki Sayer (her actual position, not just a role) deal with going through yet another holly-jolly season, whether they like it or not.

Still, a show is a show, and when the spotlight is on one of this ensemble, he or she shines, whether it’s Niehaus cooing “Santa Baby,” Smith crooning the “New Years Eve Blues,” Lee abducting “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” Burke tickling the ivories in a solo, or McCruistion frankly singing anything.

It helps that the cast are given copies of the book, “A Christmas Survival Guide,” from which we hear excerpts in the recorded voice of TOTS staffer and local uber-talent Claire Wilcher.

The best bit in this revue of songs and comedy features Lee as a lonely woman dealing with two rather needy and misunderstood roommates, portrayed hilariously by Brockett and McCruistion.

One note to shy audience members: Sitting down front could get you pulled onstage when the gang find themselves a reindeer short.

For something a little different (for teens and older) with a ring of the familiar, in a cozy intimate setting, this show makes a nice change of pace from your typical holiday fare. Performances of this and “Christmas Story” run through Dec. 23 at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave.; call 317-685-8687 or see www.tots.org.

Phoenix provides much-needed Xmas relief

By Wendy Carson

2016 has been one of the most trying years for many people. Between political intrigues, celebrity deaths, the economy, family, and various other issues, we really need something to bring us out of this funk — and The Phoenix Theatre’s holiday show, “A Very Phoenix Xmas 11: I’m Dreaming of an Intersectionally Thoughtful, Multicultural Winter Holiday,” is just that. In the show’s 11th incarnation, we are provided with some escapism, harsh truths, many laughs, and thoughts to help us refocus on the positive still left in the world.

I was struck initially by the desolate stage presented. Garbage cans, steel beams, old tire, and fencing are among the mishmash of items that create most of the set pieces for the various vignettes.

The theme of the show seems to be Holiday Traditions throughout the world. Your host shares tales of some, and then some are presented for you to enjoy. Just remember, this is The Phoenix, and not everything here is as sweet as a candy cane.

The skits include a traditional song about a missing rabbit and a memorable Christmas dinner; an anxious traveler possibly encountering an angel of sorts; a surprising look behind the scenes at a popular Disney attraction; a variety of puppetry styles; winter solstice at Stonehenge; and a ’40s swinger version of a holiday classic, just to name a few.

The most stand-out piece of the show, though, was the immensely touching, “Homs for the Holidays” which shows you that peace, love, and the Christmas spirit can be found in the most surprising places, no matter where or with whom you are celebrating.

This year’s offering has no real audience participation but you are invited to sing along a time or two and yell out a few “Mad Libs” style suggestions. The show is also a lot more family-friendly this year (still not for all ages, but not risqué or as bawdy as past ones).

I really felt uplifted and filled with the holiday spirit afterwards. So, round up family and friends and head out for a nutty yet spicy take on this time of the year, playing through  Dec. 23 at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair just off Mass Ave.), Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or go to phoenixtheatre.org.