Girl seeks protection from the forces of history in ‘Golem of Havana’ at Phoenix Theatre

By John Lyle Belden

Just the title of the new musical playing at the Phoenix Theatre, “The Golem of Havana,” suggests the complex nature of its story, but the various threads weave together into a fascinating historical tapestry, set in Cuba during its 1950s Revolution.

The title entity is dreamed up by a Jewish girl in Havana, inspired by the legends her family brought with them from eastern Europe (having survived the Nazis and gotten away from Soviet occupiers). Rebecca (Lydia Burke) creates a homemade comic book about the Golem – a giant clay guardian crafted and enchanted by a Rabbi to protect the people – that followed the Jews across the ocean to continue its service.

Her father, Pinchas (Eric J. Olson), is a struggling tailor living on dreams, while her mother, Yutka (Lori Ecker), tries to keep his ambitions grounded. Meanwhile, family friend and government policeman Arturo (Carlos Medina Maldonado) promises to help them through his connections.

Rebecca befriends the family’s black Cuban maid, Maria (Teneh B.C. Karimu), who worries about the fate of her son, Teo (Ray Hutchins), who has joined the Revolutionaries. While praying for her son’s safe return, Maria introduces Rebecca to her faith in the goddess Yemaya, and at a time when the Hebrew god seems so distant, this local deity feels more responsive when it seems, at first, that things are changing for the better.

But the faith and humanity of all are tested when Teo arrives at the family home, injured, and hunted by authorities seeking to execute him. Yutka confronts conflicting urges to protect the man or to turn him away and protect her family, while remembering what happened to her and her sister (Betsy Norton) when they were betrayed to the Nazis in Hungary.

The cast also features Wheeler Castaneda, Rob Johansen, and Paul Nicely as Cuban President Fulgencio Batista.

The songs and music (under the musical direction of Karimu) flow nicely with the story. Under the steady hand of director Bryan Fonseca, the gripping drama of people caught in the changing tides of history keeps the focus on the heroic and tragic stories of individuals rather than the background events – a good thing, since neither the doomed Batista regime nor the imminent Castro victory are celebrated by history.

Burke gives us an appealing and endearing character. Hutchins reveals the pain that informs Teo’s choices. Olson’s happy optimist and Ecker’s pragmatic pessimist show how opposites do attract and make a family we can root for. Maldonado also does well in his layered portrayal of a man of mixed loyalties. Nicely shows his skill in revealing just enough humanity in a cold-hearted character to make him truly frightening.

As Rebecca says, stories matter, and “The Golem of Havana” matters not just as a Jewish story or a Cuban story, but also as a human story. It runs through July 16 on the Phoenix mainstage at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

How an orphan became a legend

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is putting his reviews here — for now.

By John Lyle Belden

The Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indy starts its season with the local premiere of Tony-winning play “Peter and the Starcatcher” – based on the book by humorist Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson – a prequel to the popular adventures of Peter Pan. The production is not a musical, though a few strains of song figure into the plot, and while maintaining panto-esque silliness, is not a roll-in-the-aisles comedy. Consider it a fantasy that refuses to “grow up.”

Fortunately, the Phoenix has a couple of regulars seemingly blessed with eternal youth: Nathan Robbins as the Boy without a name – at first – and Phebe Taylor as Molly, the girl who turns out to be the other half of the play’s title. They are easily the most complex characters, with the Boy’s justifiable distrust of adults and whimsical wish to always remain a child, and Molly’s intellect, desire for adventure and devotion to her noble eccentric father, Lord Aster, played by Paul Nicely. They also stand out as all other characters are mostly caricatures.

Being broadly drawn is just fine for our villain Black Stache (known by a more familiar name eventually), played with grinning gusto by Eric J. Olson. Other notable performances include Dan Scharbrough’s faithful and scene-stealing Smee; John Vessels Jr. as the “beautiful” Mrs. Bumbrake; Michael Hosp as simple and smitten Alf; Tyler Ostrander as Prentiss, the young “leader” no one follows; and Ian Cruz in multiple roles, including an unusual island native chieftan.

It felt to me at times the show tried too hard to be funny, especially with modern references sprinkled in which felt dissonant with the 19th-century setting, but overall the show is sure-fire entertainment, sure to make your heart and imagination soar.

The play runs through Oct. 23 at 749 N. Park Ave. For info and tickets, call 317-635-7529 or see phoenixtheatre.org.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Review: Not your kids’ puppet show

By John Lyle Belden

In “Hand to God,” the outrageous comedy on stage at Indy’s Phoenix Theatre through July 17, it takes a possibly-possessed hand puppet to show the inner demons in all of us.

Just be warned: Though this play is set at a church, and involves youths working on a puppet show, it is most definitely NOT for children. For content, language and sex, this is very much an “R” rated event, and not for easily-offended churchgoers.

Jason (Nathan Robbins) and his mother Margery (Angela R. Plank) work through their grief at losing his father/her husband by putting on a puppet show at church at the suggestion of Pastor Greg (Paul Nicely), who has the hots for the new widow. The other kids in the puppet ministry, Timothy (Adam Tran) and Jessica (Jaddy Ciucci), are barely cooperative. But things really get out of hand (pardon the pun) when Jason’s puppet Tyrone starts speaking out. In expletive-loaded bursts, he says what others are only thinking, and then some. Jason sees the danger, but it’s too late, as after Tyrone is supposedly destroyed he comes back – with teeth.

Possibly coincidentally, these characters start acting way out of their comfort zone – including acts that would in the real world end in arrest. One can then wonder, to what extent do we think “the devil made them do it,” or was it just hidden desires suddenly given license? It’s telling that Jessica’s desperate ploy to get past Jason’s cloth alter-ego to reach the real boy she cares for involves one of the most shocking yet funny scenes of the play.

For wild can’t-believe-I’m-laughing-at-this hilarity and thought-provoking drama, this show is highly recommended. But even more amazing is the ability Robbins – a confessed puppetry novice – shows in displaying two completely separate characters, making Tyrone in voice and manner seem like a whole other person, despite being at the end of the arm of the helpless, scared boy coincidentally moving his lips.

This is likely not the first review of this play you’ve seen; the run started in June. But let me add to the chorus of satisfied audiences saying – if you’re not too easily offended – you really should see “Hand to God” at the Phoenix, 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair just north of Mass. Ave.). Call 317-635-7529 or see www.phoenixtheatre.org.

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

Review: “Silence!” raw but raucous

By Wendy Carson

What can you say about a farcical musical based on “Silence of the Lambs” other than: Be prepared to be shocked and surprised.

In “Silence! The Musical,” now at the Phoenix Theatre, from the opening, in which the “Sheep” begin telling Clarice’s backstory, you know that the author of this production had his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.

While the plot of the story remains mostly intact, there are a few changes to mainstream the narrative in favor of song breaks. The aforementioned Sheep portray not only a Greek chorus but also slip into and out of the guises of various supporting characters in the play.

The songs and dialogue in general are not only outlandish but somewhat offensive. The fact that the biggest production number of the show is based on an obscene line should be a warning. However, the cast is thoroughly game for it all and their level of commitment makes it all bearable.

Chelsey Stauffer, as Clarice Starling, highlights the character’s overwhelming drive to prove herself to the FBI and avenge her father, as well as her gentle naivete of what she has to deal with to accomplish this. Of course, her exaggerated accent just adds to the whimsy of her character.

Paul David Nicely showcases his broad range of talent as Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Singing, dancing and threateningly looming over everything, he pulls out all the stops in embracing the character.

Scot Greenwell is sublime in the role of the deranged serial killer, Buffalo Bill, whom the FBI is desperately trying to hunt down and stop. He fully embraces the campiness of the character in every way possible.

While the irreverence of the production has the potential to be a hot mess, under the skillful hands of director Bryan Fonseca and choreographer Kenny Shepard, it transcends into delightful silliness.

Again, I warn you that due to the content and language, this is a show that should be enjoyed by a mature and not-easily-offended audience. However, if you’re up for some laughs and a wonderfully satirical take on the film, get your tickets now. Call 317-635-7529 or see phoenixtheatre.org.