No. 1: Ice Cream!

By Wendy Carson

First off, suicide, as well as the depressive hopelessness that can lead to it, are no laughing matter and these things should never be taken lightly. However, survivors dealing with the impact of the act, and trying to understand/heal afterwards all have different ways of doing so.

In “Every Brilliant Thing,” Ben Asaykwee brings us playwright Duncan Macmillan and comedian Jonny Donahoe’s story of a seven-year-old boy’s struggle to help his mom find some sort of joy in her life so she will continue living it.

While the show is not autobiographical, it is an amalgamation of numerous true stories of those who have lived through these situations, including Macmillan and Donahoe themselves.

Our Narrator (Asaykwee) tells the life story of the boy who, at seven, is taken to the hospital by his father because his mom “is sad” and “has done something stupid.” Determined to find a way to help, he begins to make a list of “Brilliant Things” that make one happy in order to show her there is a lot out there to live for. While he is aware that she has read at least the start of his list – she corrects his spelling – she doesn’t seem to understand its purpose, so his work on the list continues.

We are privy to his life story throughout: his teenage angst through her second “episode,” falling in love at college, marriage, separation, the inevitable funeral, and survival beyond it, all the while seeing the growth and development of the list.

Audience members are not just observers of the story, they are participants. Upon arriving, you will be given one or two numbered items on the list that you will shout out when they are added. A few audience members will also portray some characters required for the narrative, to the great delight of all. There is a surprising amount of laughter in this heartwarming production. There is also the added treat of ice cream after the show, per item #1 on the list.

A talk-back afterwards is available for anyone who feels the need to discuss or decompress as well (you still get ice cream).

Throughout the ups and downs of the boy’s journey, Asaykwee shows us the full emotional range of the character, as well as his impressive acting and improv skills. Recently open about his own mental struggles, he finds this a challenging and important role. Director Kevin Caraher is also familiar with stories of personal growth through trauma, having been in plays such as “Bill W.” and “Small Mouth Sounds.”

Of the three productions of this script I have seen, this is by far my favorite.

So, come out to not only watch the list grow throughout this story, but also feel free to take a Post-it afterwards and add your own Brilliant Thing to the list. Produced by Stage Door Productions, performances are through Sunday, June 26, at the District Theatre, 627 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis. Get tickets at indydistricttheatre.org.

Phoenix show reminds us ‘Magical’ isn’t always good

By John Lyle Belden and Wendy Carson

Hard to describe is an understatement for the one-woman show “No AIDS, No Maids, or Stories I Can’t F*ckin’ Hear No More,” written and directed by Ball State graduate Dee Dee Batteast (which she has performed elsewhere as a Fringe show), performed by LaKesha Lorene at the Phoenix Theatre.

In a stage set reminiscent of Mister Rogers (shout out to designer Mejah Balams), Lorene enters and, appropriately, changes her shoes. But the lessons she has are not for children.

With film and television stills and clips for emphasis, we are confronted with the fact that Black and Gay characters continue to fall into predictable tropes, visual stereotypes, and predictable – even expected – caricatures. Even if we go beyond the gay man (usually played by a straight man) suffering and dying of HIV/AIDS, or the Black person relegated to servitude (Are we actually past that? “The Help” was in 2011.) there is one character type that never goes away, the legendary Magical Negro, as well as our best friend, the Magical Gay.

You would expect a show with sitcom and movie comedy bits and an upbeat woman to be funny. But when our Moderator implores us, “Laugh for me!” it suddenly becomes difficult. What we see before us in this moment is a shuffling, dancing Minstrel player, someone an audience 100 years ago would have laughed at easily and heartily – perhaps even 75 years ago. This shock to the system even wears on Lorene, as she struggles to keep the Magical past in our yesteryear, and work towards a new norm.

However, she laments, we are “shaping the new generation in the mold of the old.” To get a role, to make a living, you must pass the audition, where the white casting directors have their expectations, and will eventually find the eager young actor willing to bend to them.

While this is more a lecture, or elaborate sort of TED talk, rather than the stand-up one-person you might have expected, “No AIDS, No Maids” is not dry. You are challenged, but also amused (some laughs you won’t feel guilty for) and even a little entertained while you get plenty to think about one the ride home, as well as be reminded of when you see a non-white and/or non-straight character on the screen. This presentation gives perspective to the push for more “normal” characters of the types we used to automatically treat as otherwise.

Batteast’s trust is well placed in Lorene, who commands our attention for the full hour, even when she has ducked out of sight for a moment to put the old suit on – or to cast the damn thing away. We look forward to seeing her in her next role, which we suspect won’t involve cleaning up or helping some White person find their purpose.

This show runs through May 22 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois, Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.

Beautiful genius returns to Indy stage

By John Lyle Belden

A couple of things I learned about Hedy Lamarr: Her first name (derived from Hedwig) is supposed to be pronounced with a long “E” – “heedie.” Also, she was not amused at all by her name being used as a running gag in Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles.”

Actually, the “Hedley” joke was all I knew of her growing up, as her classic films like “Samson and Delilah” weren’t in movie houses at the time. By then, the actress had retreated from Hollywood and the world in general. Later, I found out about her invention – “frequency hopping” technology meant to help the military in World War II that now serves everyone in our WiFi and cell phones. So, I always thought of her as a genius first, then a movie star.

For an earlier generation, she was “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World” (a fitting title hung on her by movie mogul Louis B. Meyer), the sexy Austrian in the controversial film “Ecstasy,” and later numerous leading roles with stars including Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart, and as Delilah with Victor Mature. It also seemed there were nearly as many marriages as hit films.

So where did I learn the facts at the top of this story? From the lady herself – sorta.

“HEDY! The Life and Inventions of Hedy Lamarr,” the one-woman show written and performed by Heather Massie, returned to Indianapolis recently for a brief engagement at The District Theatre on Mass. Ave. The original under-an-hour production was featured in the 2016 DivaFest and won the audience award at the 2017 IndyFringe. Massie also performed it to widespread acclaim across the U.S., Europe and Africa. Massie has since added more well-researched material to give us the 90-minute performance Indy audiences saw March 18-20.

From Beyond, Ms. Lamarr comes to visit us. She is drawn by our curiosity – not about all the unsavory elements of her biography (though she gives us a bit of those) but about how a part of her came to live in every person’s pocket or purse.

She tells of childhood in Vienna, where her father Emil would interest his “ugly duckling” in the workings of machines and encourage her to think for herself. Of course, doing so resulted in her headstrong insistence in becoming a film actress. After being “tricked” into an infamous movie nude scene, she sticks to stage work, where she is wooed and wed by a rich arms dealer. Her husband’s customers, including Italian and German officials, ignore the beautiful girl in the room as they talk openly about “the torpedo problem,” something she will remember after escaping Austria, just ahead of the Nazi takeover, to Hollywood, with a new name, glamour and fame.

As for glamour, she says all one has to do is “stand still and look stupid.” She definitely does neither as she tells her story.

Massie also channels notables from Hedy’s life including Mayer, Gable, good friend Stewart, and a starstruck G.I. who dances with her in the Hollywood Canteen – all in entertaining fashion.

We get the story of the Secret Communication System, created with composer George Antheil – it uses 88 radio frequencies, a salute to George’s piano – which is awarded a U.S. Patent that she turns over to the U.S. Navy. The military does use the technology – in the 1960s. During World War II, they thought the pretty starlet was better suited to selling War Bonds, which she also did in genius fashion.

This show is gloriously entertaining and inspiring, while presenting a very human woman with her own flaws and setbacks. Even showing this side of Hedy, Massie manages to make endearing. Whether you have never heard of Lamarr, or been a lifetime fan, you will adore “HEDY!”

For more information on the show and upcoming performances, visit www.HeatherMassie.com. In a continuing salute to women in science, Massie is also working on a show on the life of astronaut Sally Ride (the first American woman in space). Given her good relationship with Indianapolis, here’s hoping we will be seeing it soon.

A fresh face on a miscast character

By John Lyle Belden

On a recent evening, we had the opportunity to see, live and in person on Indianapolis’ District Theatre stage, film icon and entertainment legend, the one and only, Mickey Rooney! He was charming, suave and still prone to talking and acting like the old-Hollywood character he was. And for someone who has been dead since 2014, he looked so…

Asian.

J. Elijah Cho presents “Mr. Yunioshi,” a one-man Fringe-style show he created in which he gets into the role of the five-foot-two bigshot, entering the mind of the man who played this show’s title character in the 1961 motion picture, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Yunioshi, an ethnic-Japanese photographer, was altered for comic effect from a character in the original Truman Capote book. In a move that even got mixed reviews at the time, director Blake Edwards had the very white Rooney portray the role in heavy makeup, large glasses and buck teeth, with a heavy stereotypical accent. In recent decades this flaw in an otherwise lauded film is held up as an egregious example of Hollywood “Yellowface.”

Cho’s Rooney has no racist intent at all, exhibiting a charming cluelessness that is made easier to swallow by seeing an Asian face giving the excuses. Also, we witness an extraordinary talent that gives us, not a tit-for-tat caricature of the offending actor, but a respectful tribute to the man. Cho also slips into moments of Capote and Edwards, as well as Mickey’s all-time best friend, Judy Garland. Cho (and Rooney) even try on classic Japanese film star Toshiro Mifune in a vain attempt to lend Mr. Y. some authenticity.

This show is both a charming window into 1960s Hollywood and an exploration of how it could get something so embarrassingly wrong. In the end, Cho steps out in front of his character to say that the next non-martial-arts Asian leading man could be standing right in front of us – or at least the next Mickey Rooney.

As no one is making an Andy Hardy reboot anytime soon, Cho, with producers Ari and David Stidham, will continue making appearances in “Mr. Yunioshi.” Having recently performed in Los Angeles and New York, he could pop up anywhere. Get details at mryunioshi.com.

Bradbury’s ‘Fire’ at District

By John Lyle Belden

We have become strangers to death. Even during the present pandemic, we look around at largely clean, safe spaces. In the future, we can take this ideal even further. Perhaps, by the year 2349, we can be rid of all morbidity, the imagining of terrible things, even the media that brings them into our imagination. Everything cleaned away, into the fire.

In legendary author Ray Bradury’s “Pillar of Fire,” one man who died in the 1940s stays in suspended animation through intense passion, spending years absorbing lost incinerated stories of the macabre, until that day in the mid-24th Century when workmen come close to excavating his coffin, and his passion realized, William Lantry rises.

“He came out of the earth, hating,” as the story puts it. 

TV/movie actor and Bradbury superfan Bill Oberst Jr. performed his recitation of this short story at The District Theatre in Indianapolis on October 28-29 (a nice lead-in to Halloween). No stranger to spooky roles (including a notable “unsub” on “Criminal Minds”), he fully embodies our unliving man, moving without feeling, speaking without breathing. You can also feel in his delivery of the text his great respect for the author (Oberst last appeared in Indy portraying Bradbury himself!). 

Lantry could experience nothing in his once-living senses, only rage at his country’s fulfilled future. He sees the city’s central incinerator, where he had been destined to go. He finds people who seem content, afraid of nothing as there is nothing to fear. This seems inhuman to him: “I will make night what it once was!” 

Looking upon his dark deeds, Lantry is approached by a stranger, who seems only amused that he is a walking dead man. This person even offers him a ride into town… 

Oberst developed this performance in Los Angeles, directed by Ezra Buzzington, who provides the voice of Lantry’s companion. The show is presented with the cooperation of the Bradbury estate and, in Indy, the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at IUPUI. 

The story, first published in Planet Stories magazine in 1948, helps develop some of the ideas Bradbury would later incorporate in his classic “Fahrenheit 451.” However, this tale takes a more nuanced view of the incineration of reading material. After the performance, I found myself wondering: Was Lantry the “hero” of the story? His actions to re-introduce terror to what he sees as a numbed population have devastating results. The world he sees negatively as sterile, another might call sanitary. And it seems telling that the stranger is so understanding.

Needless to say, this is an extraordinary theatrical experience, as well as a thought-provoking glimpse into the mind of one of the masters of science fiction.

The theatrical reading of “Pillar of Fire” is available on Audible. For more on Oberst’s work visit billoberst.com.

IndyFringe: Abraham Lincoln, Hoosier Hero

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

The stage has just a chair and a 36-star United States flag – and Abraham Lincoln. Yes, I know it’s actor and historical interpreter Danny Russel, but it feels like this is the closest anyone could ever come to seeing America’s 16th President in the flesh.

He puts us at ease immediately with his famous sense of humor – one can tell he grew up in Indiana from his corny jokes – and he feels a little relieved that as much as he loved theater, this venue (at the Murat Oasis) doesn’t have a balcony.

He establishes his Hoosier bona fides, noting that at age 7 he moved from Kentucky to then-wilderness Indiana, and his father placed in the already-tall boy’s hands an axe – which he said served him well. But even more useful to him were books, including his mother’s Bible, his first “library.”

This brilliant first-person history fills in so much of what we little know or long forgot about Mr. Lincoln, including what a prodigy he was, writing all the correspondence for his illiterate father at age 10, self-educating not only from his Step-Mammy Sally’s books (he had less than 300 days of formal education in his life, he said) but later from law books to become an Illinois pioneer lawyer, arguing 5,800 cases.

The jokes and humorous observations are tempered with moments of dark drama, shedding tears not only over various family members who died, but also in rage as he saw the evil of slavery first-hand on a trip to Louisiana. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong!” he declares.

Lincoln notes that he is the only lawyer to ever have the nickname, “Honest,” and elaborates on how he actually earned that sobriquet.

We learn of his courtship of Mary Todd, his many business failures, and his political career, including his famous verbal sparring with Stephen A. Douglas in the 1858 Senate race.

Things get a little more serious as he relates his tumultuous Presidency (1861-65) and the horrors of the Civil War, which would claim three percent of the U.S. population, he notes. Lincoln relates his proudest moment, when, with a tired but steady hand, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation – “My soul is in it.”

After one of the most horrific battles of the War, he is asked to speak at the dedication of a cemetery for the fallen. After the era’s greatest orator holds forth for over two hours, Mr. Lincoln steps up on that Gettysburg platform to say just a few words…

Please don’t miss your opportunity to see arguably our greatest President, live and in person.

IndyFringe: Deadpan Jan – My Life is Not a Sex Party, Or Is It?

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Jan Gudaitis is quite the enigma. She speaks in a monotone voice, she makes sharply hilarious observations, and her etomology of the English language is sublime.

Her flat vocal cadence is reminiscent of the great comedian Stephen Wright, and like him, her content is exceptionally funny.

Here you will learn why Bhutan is the happiest country in the world; how to kill your husband with a business card; who is on her list of people she’d “like to pull the plug on;” as well as which topics are not permissible when doing comedy at a nursing home.

If you search on Urban Dictionary, you will discover that her last name is defined as a “sex party”. This is due to a drunken posting by a nephew. But does she live up to that description? That is for you to decide. I can guarantee that there will be some intercourse during the performance, as well as a strong possibility of ejaculation.

Performances are on the Indy Eleven stage of the IndyFringe Theater.

IndyFringe: Do Jokes Still Work?

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

“I saw a homeless guy with a laminated sign,” Stewart Huff says, “he put money back into the business!”

Huff is full of funny and off-the-wall observances, such as: It amuses him to no end that the replica of Noah’s Ark in Kentucky has a “No Animals” sign.

His show, “Do Jokes Still Work?” includes bits of storytelling, memories, and observances of the stupidity of fellow humans – “You can’t hate science, and love NASCAR!”

But he has a generally optimistic outlook, noting that noisy anti-science people are nothing new – relating various historical events in hilarious fashion. Huff believes that “all human beings are artists,” that the pinata is among our greatest inventions, and if Bigfoot is real, it’s better if we don’t find him.

When you see him take the District Theater stage, it’s a little surprising, as IndyFringe publicity materials have an old clean-shaven photo. With his salt-and-pepper beard and aging-hippie ponytail, Huff looks like your cool uncle who can tell you one hell of a story.

And he does.

Huff’s show is not for the easily offended – either by language or opinions – but otherwise an essential visit for any Fringe-goer.

IndyFringe: Joyous Faggotry – The Ron Popp Story

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Ron Popp is back, and his comedy chops are as honed as ever. He chose the title for this show because it sounded like something from a Tennessee Williams play.

Topics here range from how he coped with the Covid lockdown; to his favorite book as a child; to dating, marriage, and drugs.

You will also learn some fun ways to get revenge on your conservative family members without them knowing it. Also, why are guns the only thing that someone can purchase to collect in order to make others feel threatened?

As with his last show here, I am at a loss to say more about the show without spoiling his jokes. Needless to say, he will have you close to rolling out of your seat with laughter. Popp is quickly becoming one of my favorite comedians of the Fringe and you should really see him now before he becomes so famous he won’t do shows in Indy anymore.

See him at the Indy Eleven Theatre.

IndyFringe: Chasing Temples

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

It’s raining as Betsy Murphy is on the way to sign her divorce papers. It’s been ten years, she’s had four children, how did this happen? Still, she and her ex are still friends. After signing the papers, she gets a sore throat and loses her voice for three weeks.

Two years later she tries to join eHarmony (their site has pictures of how she wants her life to look) but they reject her because her personality is not optimal for a long-term relationship. She tries psychics, retreats, gurus, etc, and nothing is helping her fill the void she feels in her life.

After another 10 years her children decide to go live with their father. Still searching for her truth, she thinks she has it figured out when Menopause hits. However, she is given a chance to make a real difference in the world so she jumps on it.

She ends up in Zimbabwe during the most severe economic crisis they’ve ever endured. She’s caring for children that have been abandoned by their parents because they can’t afford to feed or care for them, The heat is unbearable, she doesn’t know anyone and she is allergic to everything.

Into her life comes a handsome professional soccer player who takes her on a journey to find her lost spirituality, connection to the earth, the truth of who she really is, and her divine destiny. These lessons are not easy and do come with a cost but they also allow her to finally find her voice.

Come witness her story.

Performances on the Indy Eleven stage of the IndyFringe Theatre