IRT gives mouse-eye view of stage magic

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Repertory Theatre presents an excellent introduction to the world of live theatre for the smallest patrons – preschool to the early school grades – with “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.”

The show is immersive, encouraging audience participation in a gentle manner. Children take their seats on the floor right next to the “stage” area, which includes two paths running through the audience (parents or guardians can sit with them, or to the back in regular chairs). There is an opening introduction led by an IRT staffer, such as actor/educator Beverly Roche or play director Benjamin Hanna, to let everyone know what to expect and get them in the proper mood.

Everyone in the excellent cast play mice — with humans, hazards and a pesky cat (giant from our perspective) portrayed by light and sound effects to aid young imaginations. Claire Wilcher is Granny, matriarch of the Boot family, who resides in an old work shoe in a barn in The Country with grandson William (Grant Somkiet O’Meara, the lone kid actor). They are visited by Town cousin Montmorency De Vere Boot (Paeton Chavis), who informs them that William has inherited a nice piece of luxury footwear in an attic closet in a house in the heart of the city. When Monty brings William to Town to claim his new home, they come across the “tame twins,” white mice who escaped their pen to roam free about the house. Snowey (Carlos Medina Maldonado) is friendly and welcoming, while Silver (Brianna Milan) is mean and mistrusting, trying to trick William into dangerous situations.

While I would find it problematic if the theme emphasized the danger of exploring new places and that one is better off where they “belong,” the lesson emphasis here is on being brave – both in confronting new things and in stepping up to help someone else. The play program has an easy activity worksheet that includes questions on the topic of bravery, and the cast returns after the play to help lead a discussion on being brave.

The play is by British playwright Vicky Ireland, based on the traditional Aesop fable. A bit of the Queen’s English slips in – like “ready, steady, go” – but not in unfamiliar accents.

All the children present at my showing (emceed charmingly by Roche) appeared to enjoy the play, even smaller ones who were fussy at first. Be prepared for learning new dance steps, like the mouse “greeting” and the hot-pipe crossing – bits of physical storytelling that helped keep the young audience engaged. It also helped that the star is a bit closer to the age of the playgoers. When one kid asked during the talkback if he could give a high five, he headed straight to O’Meara. While Chavis being a small woman helped her to connect, Wilcher was nicely maternal and Maldonado and Milan were like oversized children (think Big Bird, but with fur).

Some parents noted after the show that there aren’t many opportunities for small children to experience live theatre like this. For information and tickets to this play, running through March 25 on the Cabaret floor of the IRT – 140 W. Washington St., downtown Indianapolis – visit www.irtlive.com.

Phoenix’s ‘Human Rites’ challenges

By John Lyle Belden

Indy’s Phoenix Theatre has embraced the edgy and controversial since its founding. Still, the new drama, “Human Rites,” by Seth Rozin, under renowned Chicago director Lavina Jadwhani, hits particularly sensitive subjects in today’s global culture – including how truly “global” a perspective can be.

The three-person cast of Rob Johansen, Milicent Wright and Paeton Chavis are total professionals putting in some of their best work. They help to humanize what turns out to be a contentious, eye-opening and challenging argument.

On an American university campus, Michaela (Wright), the college Dean, calls Alan (Johansen), one of her professors, into her office for a meeting. Through their conversation, we find that they once had a sexual affair, but the topic at hand regards complaints about an academic paper that Alan had one of his classes read – a paper, based on his years of research in Africa, that calls into question assumptions regarding female “circumcision” (also referred to as Female Genital Mutilation).

Being an African-American woman, Michaela is appalled at what she reads and challenges the paper’s findings. She also invites a native African graduate student, Lydia (Chavis), with the intent of having her conduct her own study on the topic. The young woman from Sierra Leone is surprised at this and reluctant for reasons of her own. She has much to say, challenging both American academics in the room, as well as all of us watching.

Rozin, who was present for the opening night reception, said the play’s assertions are based on actual research findings. But just as important in this drama is how we as Westerners react to, accept or challenge the data and opinions presented. Lydia’s own perspective calls into question how “civilized” we assume American cultural norms to be.

Since humans are complex creatures, the strong emotions sparked by the characters’ exchange include humor, with quite a few nervous and raucous laughs extracted from their situation. Though you might find yourself with a lot to think about and maybe a bit uncomfortable with those thoughts, this play is worth the challenge – and entertaining in its unconventional way.

Performances continue through Aug. 14 at the 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair near Mass. Ave.); call 317-635-7529 or see phoenixtheatre.org.

Review: Quirky ‘Crumble’ holds up

By John Lyle Belden

Theatre on the Square presents the tragic comedy – or comic tragedy – “Crumble (lay me down Justin Timberlake),” through June 18.

This is one of those stories with characters so quirky, in so many ways, that they somehow feel like someone you know. Even, in this case, entities that are not even technically alive.

In this play, we meet a house (Clay Mabbitt) that used to be considered a mansion, but has been falling into disrepair. He feels so lonely at the neglect by and indifference of his human occupants that he might have to kill them in hopes of getting better people to move in. The residents are neurotic mother Clara (Carrie Ann Schlatter) and hyper daughter Janice (Paeton Chavis). The husband/father Gary (Joshua C. Ramsay), dead for about a year at Christmas, is a shadowy ghost.

Ramsay is also the vision of Justin Timberlake that comes alive from the poster on Janice’s bedroom wall to advise and confess his love to her before flying away. As she sings macabre songs and deconstructs a doll, Janice works on her holiday surprise.

Meanwhile, Clara tries to keep her sanity while making four-star gourmet meals like she prepares at work for herself and her daughter. She speaks in poetry, and her only friends are her crazy-cat-lady sister, Barbara (Amy Hayes), and a phantom celebrity of her own.

The presentation as a single 80-minute act helps builds tension towards something frightening and dangerous, but with moments of surprising dark humor on the way. The five veteran actors are each excellent in their own way. Chavis convincingly plays a disturbed tween struggling to understand what has happened, while convinced that some part of it is her fault and only she can make it right. Schlatter easily carries us along on her mental roller coaster, so desperate to connect with her daughter that she buys all seven unusual items on Janice’s gift wish list. Hayes is endearing as the ever-helpful sis who stays willfully blind to her own issues. Ramsey turns on the charm, adding humor and emotional depth to his moments as helpful hallucinations.

And aided by the clever script by Sheila Callaghan and direction by Rob Johansen, Mabbitt makes the house a fully-realized character, perhaps the most “real” person in this drama.

Overall, this is the kind of story that only works as a stage play, and an example of why an active theatre scene like Indianapolis enjoys is so important. There are mature topics, and Janice expresses herself very colorfully, so this show is for teens and older.

Find TOTS at 627 Massachusetts Ave. Get info and tickets at www.tots.org or 317-685-8687.

(This was also posted at The Word [later The Eagle], Indy’s LGBTQ newspaper)

Review: Folk tales not so foreign as they seem

By John Lyle Belden

The Spanish word leyenda can be translated to mean legend; in the new play “Leyenda,” on the main stage of the Phoenix Theatre through May 1, the meaning is closer to folk or fairy tale.

This world premiere work was written by Phoenix playwright-in-residence Tom Horan with producing director Bryan Fonseca, using traditional Latino tales, each with its own moral.

Bridgette Richards plays a sort of Latina Scheherezade, telling a cruel ruler story after story to keep him from growing dissatisfied and killing her. To extend the drama (and her life) she doesn’t give the endings right away, leading to a layered narrative that is still easy to follow.

Richards and fellow cast members Jean Arnold, Paeton Chavis, A.J. Morrison and Keith Potts act out the stories with the help of colorful costumes, masks, some dancing and even puppetry.

The dialogue is best described as “Spanglish” – but with enough English mixed in for non-Spanish speakers to follow (one story, “Coazones de Fuego/Hearts of Fire,” is almost entirely in Spanish, but is mostly “told” in dance). One tale even features an English-speaker who struggles with Spanish, a welcome reflection of the audience’s possible difficulties.

This show is not only an excellent view into Latin American culture, but also a revelation of how universal some stories are, as we find aspects of tales we’ve heard from other sources, like Aesop or the Brothers Grimm. A few moments, like appearances of El Cucoy (the Bogeyman), get intense, but otherwise this play is good for all ages.

Performances are Thursdays through Sundays, and April 30 and May 1 shows will be entirely in Spanish. For more information and tickets, call 317-635-7529 or see phoenixtheatre.org.

(Also posted at The Word)

 

Review: Online life taken to disturbing depths

By John Lyle Belden

In the near-future, the Internet evolves into the Nether, where people log on immersively to work, go to school and be entertained. Some never leave. This world is explored in a disturbing new drama, “The Nether,” playing through Nov. 22 at the Phoenix Theatre, 749 N. Park Ave. in downtown Indianapolis.

A detective (Sarah McGee) investigates “Papa” (Bill Simmons), who has developed, within the Nether, the Hideaway, where residents can indulge the most depraved of urges – but if it’s virtual and all participants are adults, what’s the harm? When desires that are dangerous in the real world are fulfilled to your five senses, even if no one is physically hurt, does it still chip away at something within you?

Deep, uneasy questions are explored, confronting the dark possibilities of our online culture. Sure, in the bright and happy musical “Avenue Q” we sing that “The Internet is for Porn,” but when Papa says it in a firm voice of affirmation, it no longer seems so amusing.

The impressive set splits the stage between the cold sterile interrogation room and a beautiful Victorian parlor within the Hideaway. The lush virtual world is in contrast to the ruined outside world hinted at in conversation — with references to an environment with few trees and little natural beauty remaining — a world it would make sense one would want to escape, maybe even permanently.

Rich Rand plays a Hideaway user, and Paeton Chavis and Scot Greenwell portray Nether avatars; they, Simmons and McGee all give compelling performances. Unless easily offended or triggered, mature audiences should welcome the challenge of this play. Info and tickets at 317-635-7529 or phoenixtheatre.org.