Experience Venice through the eyes of its visitors in IRT’s ‘Appoggiatura’

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Repertory Theatre play “Appoggiatura,” by IRT playwright-in-residence James Still, is a “Venecia story:” A story of Venice, Italy.

Venice, the centuries-old artistically and architecturally rich city of gondola-filled canals, is a unique place, and it can’t help but become a character in any story set there. I understand this, because I once spent the day there; so I, too, have a Venecia story – but that’s not what we’re here to discuss.

This play is also the third in Still’s loose “trilogy” involving characters related to a man named Jack, who died on 9/11. But this is not about him, except that relatives give brief mention in the way you can’t help but talk of someone you loved so dearly and lost so tragically. And it is not at all in the same style as the two previous plays: “The House That Jack Built” (premiered by IRT in 2012), a family drama set around a New England Thanksgiving table; or “Miranda” (on the IRT upperstage last year), a spy thriller set in Yemen. This play truly is, you must understand, a Venecia story.

Venice is not only rich in art, architecture and history, but also in music. The strains of violin and operatic voices are performed throughout this show, framing and accentuating scenes (yet this is not a musical) with a masqued man who might even be the spirit of Venice-born composer Vivaldi. Venice is a city of patient natives and multitudes of tourists, which our characters can’t help but bump into. It is a city of labyrinthine narrow streets between the canals, so that the directions of “go right, go left, go straight, go straight” will take you virtually anywhere, especially to the centrally-located world-famous Piazza San Marco.

In this setting, we meet Helen (Susan Pellegrino) and her grown granddaughter (and Jack’s daughter), Sylvie (Andrea San Miguel), who arrive in Venice on a rainy night with luggage missing and their rooms not ready. They are accompanied by Aunt Chuck (Tom Aulino), who is definitely not happy with the way things are turning out. But he also still feels the loss of his husband, Gordon, who had previously been Helen’s husband.

The next morning, they are greeted by their “tour-guider,” Marco (Casey Hoekstra), who reassures them that they and their luggage being lost is only part of their Venecia story, which they will eventually come to treasure. As it turns out, Marco isn’t much of a “guider,” but still a good man to have around.

As she wanders the city, Helen is reminded of her own previous Venecia story, crossing a bridge into the past and encounters with a young Helen and Gordon (San Miguel and Hoekstra) on their honeymoon. Chuck also finds echoes of the man he loved at a Venecian fountain. The blending of time and space, especially when 21st-century technology gets mixed in, would be concerning to a hard-core sci-fi fan, but this is a romantic tale – and no dangerous side effects of paradox seem to take place.

Still’s characters are charming and likeable, even the extras (performed by wandering musicians Andrew Mayer, Paul Deboy and Katrina Yaukey) such as a man (Deboy) walking and singing to his two (puppet) dogs – based on a memory from Still’s own personal Venecia story. San Miguel plays her Millennial character as impatient, searching and a bit cynical, but not whiny; a measure of how much we care for Sylvie is that we understand her perspective during a heated Skype conversation with her fiance (Yaukey) in the States. Pellegrino and Aulino touch our hearts as two people united by their longing for the same man, each taking an opposite approach: she always sunny, he ever under a cloud. Hoekstra’s Marco is eager and a bit of a hustler, but with an easily detected good heart.

As Venice is a literal maze of history and blended eras, I can forgive fantasy elements that wouldn’t work as well in other settings. And, while I know a trilogy is supposed to be just three stories, I feel that there should be a follow-up with what happens between Sylvia and her beloved in Vermont. It is refreshing to see a story with elements of same-sex love that never dwells on it; it’s just a part of normal relationships. And it is notable that in the 20-teens, references to 9/11 no longer shock, yet retain their sting. I must also note how truly funny this play is at various points, but it’s not a full-on “comedy,” just a lifelike reflection of both the comic/drama masks we all wear.

Otherwise, this is a hard show to critique, as its blend of music, drama, love, and comic moments stands alone and could only be categorized as – dare I say it again: A Venecia story.

Save the cost of airfare to Italy and head downtown to 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis. Performances are through March 31. Call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.

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Zach & Zack’s ‘Angry Inch’ measures up

By John Lyle Belden

Once again, internationally ignored superstar Hedwig Robinson takes the stage in Indianapolis, fronting “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” The German glam goddess tells her story while shadowing former partner Johnny Gnosis, who is on another stage, reaping the benefits of scandal.

“Hedwig,” the acclaimed Off-Broadway musical, is a transcendent sensory experience when done right — and Zach (Rosing) & Zack (Neiditch) may have succeeded with this month’s production on the Epilogue Players stage.

That’s right, this punk youthquake is in the little corner theatre that typically showcases older actors. But on the other hand, given her Cold War backstory, the character of Hedwig isn’t so young anymore. The show was originally performed and set around the year 2000, so to keep the story fresh this play blurs the last 20 years into a spacetime setting of its own — not hard to reconcile for folks like me for whom the 20th century feels like yesterday, but might require some don’t-think-about-it for younger viewers.

Tim Hunt is Hedwig, with face, voice and attitude much like the show’s creator and original star, John Cameron Mitchell. Her look is made complete by exquisite costumes and headpieces by costumer Beck Jones, especially during “Wig in a Box.”

Hedwig’s present husband, Yitzhak, is portrayed perfectly by Kate Homan, from his sulking resentment and grudging fidelity to an outstanding transformation at the end.

They are backed by a solid onstage band of Jacob Stensberg, Matt Day, Steven Byroad and Andrew McAfee. They perform on a punk-aesthetic stage complete with cleverly used discarded-but-functional televisions.

As fans know, the “Angry Inch” refers to more than the band; it’s the result of the botched sex-change operation in East Berlin when young Hansel Schmidt became Hedwig. So, needless to say, there is mature content in this show (but no nudity). And as the historical context slips further into the past, and it being less unusual to see a Trans entertainer on stage, we are confronted with the other, larger, more universal theme of the play — the personal search for completion.

This world’s foundational myth (in the “Origin of Love”) is that humanity was only content when each “person” was a complete set of two individuals fused together. But in the longing for finding one’s other half, they ironically lose or give away parts of themselves. This is Hedwig’s journey — losing her “parts” to gain a man, yielding her creativity in the attempt to hold another, then denying Yitzhak his own completion for as long as her own soul is fragmented.

As the many puzzles presented come together, we all share in the completion of a beautiful experience, a feeling no one can tear down.

Performances are Thursday through Sunday (Jan. 11-14) at 1849 N. Alabama St. Click here for info and tickets.

Phoenix craftily regifts classic bits in annual Xmas show

By Wendy Carson

Welcome to North Pole University! The students and staff are all here to make sure you are up to speed and ready for the next semester. That is the framing conceit of this year’s installment of Phoenix Theatre’s A Very Phoenix Xmas, “Up to Snow Good.”

The cast members pose as different NPU characters in order to introduce the various scenes making up the show. Since this will be the final presentation in the current location, all of this year’s skits are glowing highlights from past shows.

While you may have seen all of the vignettes before, each one has been carefully reworked in a totally new way. In fact, my all-time favorite number, “The Baby,” has been transformed into an awesome puppet show and I feel that it is a far superior rendition to the original.

Also, since these shows have been going for over a decade, it is easy to forget some of them. “Les Miserabelves” is one such example. I had honestly forgotten the hilarity resulting from blending a certain Christmas classic with a French Revolutionary musical. Needless to say, it stands the test of time.

Devan Mathias’s tender take on “Hard Candy Christmas” is hauntingly beautiful especially as she slowly transforms into a her next skit’s character as she sings.

Paul Collier Hansen’s stirring portion of “Hallelujah Hallelujah” is pure sweet sadness with a tiny touch of hope.

Rob Johansen amazingly transforms from a hard-edged Private Eye in “Christmas Heat” to a sleek acrobat in “You Can Fly”.

Nathan Robbins gives a solemn turn in the sweetly insightful “A Requiem for Shermy,” with Gail Payne as another nearly-forgotten character, a scene which will leave you reassessing how you watch a certain popular Christmas classic.

These, along with Jean Arnold, Andrea Heiden and Carlos Medina Maldonado, are all such standout talents. And with such great material, under the direction of Phoenix boss Bryan Fonseca, they all work together so well without chewing the scenery or stealing scenes.

Given the Phoenix’s well-earned reputation for edgy and controversial fare, we’re happy to note that even with their tongue in cheek, there is nothing too over-the-top (though the creche catapult in the War on Christmas scene comes close).

So pull on your ugliest Christmas sweater, gather your loved ones and snuggle up at the Phoenix Theater, 749 N. Park Ave. in downtown Indy, with a spirited take on the holidays as we know them, on the main stage through Dec. 23. Get info and tickets at www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Bardfest: The wild woman vs. the wacky womanizer — with music

By Wendy Carson

The biggest complaint I have heard from people, regarding Shakespeare’s plays, is trouble following the plot due to the antiquated language. In her Bardfest production of “Taming of the Shrew,” Catalyst Repertory founder and play director/adapter Casey Ross has tackled this issue with the periodic inclusion of pop songs to assist the viewer in comprehending the message of the narrative. Being that the story is fairly well known, this style just makes a fun show even more enjoyable.

For those of you who don’t know the plot: Younger sister Bianca can’t marry until older sister Katherine does. Katherine has no intention to marry anyone. Their father is wealthy and offers a large dowry to whomever can take Katherine off his hands. Cash-strapped playboy Petruchio takes the challenge and not only ends up changing Katherine’s ways, but they both fall in love in the process. There’s also the sub-plot of various suitors trying to secure Bianca’s love.

The setting of this interpretation is a Vegas-style resort casino in the 1970s, with the daughters being cocktail waitresses, their father the owner, and Petruchio a traveling singer looking for a place to earn some money before his debt collectors catch up with him.

Hannah Elizabeth Boswell as the fiery Katherine (or Kate) is a sassy bundle of empowerment, while Davey Pelsue’s Petruchio boldly becomes every bit the hilariously lusty womanizer that the character suggests.

Abby Gilster’s delicate take on Bianca shows the character’s sly knowledge of her situation that is often overlooked in many productions. Bradford Reilly and Robert Webster Jr. as her two suitors (Lucentio and Hortensio), in disguise as tutors, bring a delightful comic desperation in their attempts to secure time with their desired.

Audrey Stonerock adds to the fun as the hottest “Widow” in the club, and Donovan Whitney is at his scene-stealing best as Tranio, a servant pretending to be the rich man while his master plays a humble tutor (see above). The proud – and relieved, when Kate is wed – papa is a charming Godfather-light performance by Tony Armstrong.

All in all, this is a rollickingly great production of a hilarious show. One note though, as we have mentioned previously, this show is not for all ages. Consider it PG-13 at least, though worldly kids might learn a new appreciation for Shakespeare if they see it. Also, bring a few dollars to tip your waitresses and maybe tuck into the clothes of some of the performers.

Performances are Friday, Saturday and Sunday (Oct. 27-29) at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair. Find more information at www.indyfringe.org.

Bardfest: And now for something completely different

By John Lyle Belden

Yes, the title here is stolen from Monty Python, which has nothing to do with the third annual BardFest, now in Indianapolis – in the IndyFringe building – after a couple of years in Carmel. However, we are dealing with things that are British and unusual.

Shakespeare’s plays – aside from being public domain – tell such good stories that they lend themselves to numerous times and places. Thus the Bard’s three plays in this year’s festival get reinvented in interesting ways.

Thus BardFest 2017 presents:

* “Cymbeline,” presented by Garfield Shakespeare Company, a play with elements of both the Comedies and the Tragedies. Originally based on the legend of a British king during the Roman Empire, this version is in a parallel world right after the American Civil War – as though West Virginia had declared itself a separate kingdom, and the Republic was cool with it, as long as the taxes are paid. Adapted and directed by Anthony Johnson, it stars John Mortell as the title king, Ashley Chase Elliott as his Queen, Elisabeth Speckman as our heroine, Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen, and Chris Burton as heroic Posthumous (yes, his actual name in the play).

* “MacBeth,” presented by First Folio Productions, the familiar cursed tragedy adapted to a tense 90 minutes by director Carey Shea. Medieval Scotland is transformed into a modern urban wasteland, where King Duncan (Ryan Ruckman) keeps order like a local sheriff or police chief. He awards a title to faithful MacBeth (Adam Tran), who had just had that promotion prophesied to him by a trio of weird women (Nan Macy, Janice Hibbard and Leah Hodson) – didn’t they also say he would become king? Lady MacBeth (Devan Mathias) is just happy her husband is finally in line with her murderous plans to seize the crown. However, Duncan’s lieutenants Macduff (Chelsea Anderson) and Malcolm (Nathan Thomas) quickly become suspicious of the ambitious couple when the king is killed.

* “The Taming of the Shrew,” presented by Catalyst Repertory, freely adapted by Catalyst founder Casey Ross. The famous Shakespeare comedy finds its misogyny mutated into a sassy, outrageous sort of musical, using modern pop songs to help tell the story – this is not “Kiss Me Kate.” At a late-20th-century tropical resort, bawdy innuendoes fly as lusty lounge singer Petruchio (Davey Pelsue) seeks to tame curvy, catty Katherina (Hannah Elizabeth Boswell). Meanwhile, noble Lucentio (Bradford Reilly) slyly wins the heart of Kate’s younger sister Bianca (Abby Gilster). Will boss Baptista (Tony Armstrong) see his daughters married off in birth order? Did you ever think a rockin’ anthem by The Darkness could be made into a heartfelt ballad?

* And for purists… well, as close as you could get was a manic production of the comedy, “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged,” presented by the Improbable Fiction Theatre Company during the festival’s first weekend. The Reduced Shakespeare hit by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield was taken on by local thespians Ron Richards, Ryan T. Shelton and Adam Workman, under the direction of Christy Clinton with occasional necessary assistance from stage manager Tamara Rulon.

Remaining performances are on both IndyFringe stages at 719 E. St. Clair, Thursday through Sunday (Oct. 26-29). “Cymbeline” is the more family-friendly (though its length could test the patience of younger patrons), while “MacBeth” is very violent and “Shrew” is very not-for-kids. For information and tickets, visit www.indyfringe.org/bard-fest.

Wendy and I will try to get more in-depth reviews of the individual shows up tomorrow, and will link back to here.

IndyFringe: ‘White Collar Sideshow’

By Wendy Carson

The band, White Collar Sideshow, brands itself as “Shock-n-Roll,” and while that is accurate, it falls all too short of describing what this show is about.

Probably the most apt way is a quote from two fellow audience members: “It was far less scary and a lot more inspiring than I expected.”

The show is part heavy metal concert, part performance art, part delirium, and entirely enjoyable. The three-member band — TD Benton on vocals and drums, Faceless Woman on bass, and the indomitable Herr Schwein, also on drums — may look intimidating, but they are all talented musicians and the show is quite enjoyable.

The set list sets itself up as a soundtrack to the grindhouse-style film (produced by the band and featuring Schwein) in the background. There are also a few audience interactions, but nothing dangerous or too creepy. It comes off similar to a classic Alice Cooper concert.

In all honesty, words fail to describe the experience, so I strongly urge you to see it for yourselves. It’s a truly fresh offering to our traditional Fringe lineup and an experience you won’t soon forget.

John’s note: Free earplugs are provided due to the accoustic assault in close quarters. I appreciated the protection, but it did blur the song lyrics (or maybe I’m just getting old). There is a spiritual-lesson aspect to the show (like Rob Zombie hosting a tent revival), and you can get a lot of context from the visuals, so you don’t have to hear every word. The background film is quite impressive on its own as well.

Remaining performances are matinees, 3 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday (Aug. 26-27) on the main stage of the Phoenix Theatre, 749 N. Park Ave.

Festival info at www.indyfringe.org.

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/.