Bard Fest: Agape gets wyrd with ‘Macbeth’

By John Lyle Belden

Though it is the most familiar Shakespeare work in this year’s Bard Fest, the adaptation of “Macbeth” (“the Scottish Play” to the superstitious) by director Dr. Kathy Phipps for Agape Theater Company makes the famous tragedy fresh and fascinating. 

From the opening moments, we see the production has gone all-in on the “Wyrd Sisters.” Aside from the principal three Witches – Mary Zou, Hailey Ready, Laura Sickmeier – and Queen Hecate (Sylvia Seidle), we have a full coven, with Mia Baillie, Rebekah Barajas, Ashlynn Gilmore, Anastasia Lucia, and Maggie McKinney, as they make full use of song and movement to add atmosphere and propel the plot. They are envisioned as Wood Sprites, which gives them a clever supporting role in the play’s final battle. 

But don’t put the blame for what ensues on the Witches. As always, Agape (a youth theatre program of Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church) delves into human morality and the consequences of men’s – and women’s – actions. Temptation can tell us things, but it is up to us how we use the information. Heroic Macbeth (Aidan Morris) and comrade in arms Banquo (Nathan Foster) are told that the former will become King, while the latter is father to monarchs. Banquo senses something troubling in the sprites’ words. Macbeth, seeing part of the prophecy fulfilled, eagerly embraces the rest. And upon hearing of this, Lady Macbeth (Brynn Hensley) immediately goes into murder-mode.

We get solid work from the mostly high school- and college-age cast, including Jake Hobbs as prince Malcolm; Nathan Ellenberger as Macbeth’s rival, Macduff; Kyle Hensley as Banquo’s son Fleance; and Doug Rollins (an Agape parent usually working behind the scenes) as doomed King Duncan. Sickmeier also plays Lady Macduff. Notable in support are Virginia Sever as Ross, Grant Scott-Miller as Lennox, and Carter Thurnall as Angus. 

Morris takes on the title role with gusto, part of a tradition of Shakespeare leads who charge headlong into action before thinking it through. When he does hesitate, however, his wife is there to remind him to “screw (his) courage to the sticking place.” That brings us to Brynn Hensley; the Lebanon High School senior may have put in the best performance in a festival full of strong women in strong women’s roles. She makes the most of an arc that goes from power-mad to just plain mad, even bringing out in just a word or sharp glance the play’s dark humor. 

Other touches are well-served, like frequent appearances of the unsettled dead, a murder in silhouette (part of the excellent stage design by Ian Phipps), the effective use of banners to quickly change scenes, and even a nice “reenactment” in an early scene. Agape cast and crew have taken great care to give this cursed classic it’s due. A work of “sound and fury,” as always, but with some significance after all.

Remaining performances are Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 28-30, at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., in Lawrence. Get info and tickets at www.indybardfest.com and www.artsforlawrence.org

Agape kids return “Sound of Music”

By John Lyle Belden

Even when one of your musical’s biggest songs is, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” who expects to have to scale the peak of a global pandemic?

Agape Performing Arts Company (to which I’ve given much praise in the past), a youth theatre program hosted by Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church, bravely opened its production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music” in March of 2020, only to immediately close.

Because COVID-19, which shut the whole world down.

But director Kathy Phipps and the cast and crew kept following that dream of telling the beloved story of the Von Trapps. With the lineup largely intact, they perform a one-weekend engagement at the Basile Theatre in the Athenaeum downtown, in the heart of Indy’s again-bustling Mass Ave arts-entertainment-dining-etc. district.

Remaining live performances, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. today and Sunday (June 5-6), are sold out, but Sunday’s shows are available livestreamed at agapeshows.org.

The quality of the child/tween/teen performances is top-notch, as usual, with the bonus that the Von Trapp children actors are very near their characters’ stated ages. Liesl IS “Sixteen, going on Seventeen.” Agape wisely chose to keep college-student Elise Scrogham as the principal Maria, who anchored a solid ensemble Friday night.

To maximize the experience for all young actors, many roles are understudied and double-cast, with the alternate players taking the stage at different performances. Maria is also played by Meghan Wombles. Others include Elijah Beasley and Grant Scott-Miller as Captain Von Trapp, Rebekah Barajas and Silvia Seidle as Liesl, Devyn Knauss and Jackson Steuer as Friedrich, Josee DeBoor and Maggie McKinney as Louisa, Tobin Seiple as Kurt (God bless him), Evelyn Skaggs and Marygrace Rykowski as Brigitta, Adilyn Walker and Regina Kalscheur as Marta, Kesslee DeBoor and Victoria Franklin as Gretl, Olivia Schemmel and Jocelyne Brake as the wise Mother Abbess, and Clayton Muchman understudies Scott-Miller as collaborator Baron von Elberfeld.

Caleb Wilson fits right in as a late casting addition as Franz, the butler. Virginia Sever is the housekeeper, Frau Schmidt. Maura Phipps makes Frau Schraeder (the Captain’s wealthy momentary fiance) likable, and even noble in her final gesture. Aidan Morris, on the other hand, maintains a sinister air around messenger-boy Rolf that only Liesl apparently doesn’t see. The large and harmonious chorus of Sisters of the Abbey are led by Brilynn Knauss (Berthe), Kat Seiple (Margaretta) and Gemma Rollison (Sophia). And we look forward to the energetic Nathan Ellenberger, here as conniving Max Detweiler, chewing up scenes for many shows to come.

You likely know this story (and many songs) by heart. But if you don’t, here’s the pitch: It’s an old-school story of the original Antifa. With music. And children. And nuns. Who sing, even if they’re not supposed to. If you are only familiar with the classic Oscar-winning Julie Andrews film, note that the popular tunes are not in the same order or context, and there are a couple more songs. But “Edelweiss” will still touch your heart.

Even in a volunteer organization, keeping the rights to a legendary show for a dark year aren’t cheap. Please consider buying some swag, making a donation, and making a point of seeing Agape’s future productions, including a one-act “Narnia” at this August’s IndyFringe, and their staging of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” during BardFest in the fall.

Agape work their magic in terrific ‘Tempest’

This Show is part of Bard Fest, central Indiana’s annual Shakespeare festival. Info and tickets at www.indybardfest.com.

By John Lyle Belden

“The Tempest” may be as close as Shakespeare came to what we now classify as sci-fi/fantasy. In its world, magic is assumed, without giving much backstory of how exiled nobleman Prospero came to own the spellbook, staff, and skills to use them. Maybe they were with him and his daughter in the leaky boat his treacherous brother sent to sea, allowing Prospero to summon a portal from the Mediterranean to an island near Scotland. Perhaps they were a prize from the witch who left behind her hideous son Caliban on that enchanted island. Perhaps he gained power as he found a way to release the faerie Ariel, who then swore obedience to him.

Sounds more like a cheap paperback than the Bard? Well, he did write fantasies for the masses — he just did it very well. And now we get an appropriately excellent production of “The Tempest” by Agape Performing Arts Company.

Agape, a church-sponsored youth program, gives teens and tweens the opportunity to explore moral lessons in various stage works, including “Les Miserables” and “Newsies,” and at a level of performance and production matching the various excellent “young performers” programs around Indy. 

Thus we have Evan Wolfgang play Prospero as a noble father who has a bold plan and the drive to see it through. He sees an opportunity for revenge, as the men who wronged him are on the open sea, and with a teleport spell and the ability of Ariel (Audrey Duprey) to call up and control a storm, brings them to his shore.

The tempest of the title is wonderfully portrayed with brilliant use of costume and movement. (Director Kathy Phipps designed the costumes and choreography is by Joel Flynn.) The boat rocks, the waves surge, and the crew cry out in barely contained panic. But all arrive safely, scattered by Prospero’s spell in accordance with his plans.

Prince Ferdinand (Grant Scott-Miller) is washed up alone and encounters Prospero’s daughter Miranda (Laura Sickmeier) and a courtship begins. 

Meanwhile, the prince’s father, King Alonso of Naples (Matthias Neidenberger) is with his brother Sebastian (Gilead Rea-Hedrick), advisor Gonzalo (Kathryn Rose), and Antonio, Duke of Milan (Nathan Ellenberger) — Prospero’s brother, whom Alonso allowed to take his title. Ever plotting, Antonio sees an opportunity for another power grab, which fortunately Ariel invisibly spies.

On another part of the island, the king’s jester Trinculo (Kennath Cassaday) and drunken butler Stephano (Maura Phipps) — who salvaged the booze — meet up with Caliban (Aidan Morris), who considers them gods for the power in their bottles, and persuades them to join him in his plot to kill Prospero so he can take over the island.

The large cast includes a number of sailors — including Jack London as Master of the Ship and Raymond Lewis as Boatswain — and Island Spirits, including Iris (Kidron Rea-Hedrick), Ceres (Evelyn Skaggs) and Juno (Gemma Rollison), who help celebrate the betrothal of Ferdinand and Miranda.

Yes, it’s a typically large number of names for this Shakespeare play that is like his comedies, but with dramatic elements and quite a bit of music  — lyrics by the Bard, music from traditional tunes, Gustav Holst’s “Planets,” and a composition by Michael Roth. But Kathy Phipps’ direction manages to keep the plotlines easy to follow.

Though all give great performances, notable turns include Duprey and Morris (both aided by excellent makeup by Angie Morris), as well as Maura Phipps, giving the best possible “drunken” performance by a person too young to imbibe.

See all set right with a spirit of redemption and forgiveness, in a most entertaining fashion and with all the spectacle that the District Theatre main stage can hold. Remaining performances are this weekend (Oct. 25-27), 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday.