Phoenix ‘Fudge’ sweet and salty

By John Lyle Belden

2020 seemed to ruin everything, and in “The Rise and Fall of Holly Fudge” at the Phoenix Theatre, it’s messing with Christmas as well.

Carol (Milicent Wright) lives for the Yuletide, and her holiday Holly Fudge (named after her daughter, as well as its festive décor) has been the Number One Blue Ribbon winner in town for eight years. Friend and neighbor Chris (Emily Ristine), a fitness trainer who now Zumba’s over Zoom, has taken an interest during the year’s shutdown in making confections herself. They look forward to Holly (Terra Mcfarland) coming home from Seattle for the holiday, and learn she is bringing her new love interest, Jordan (Jaddy Ciucci).

This play by Trista Baldwin is not just a new twist on a holiday story, but on the “coming out” play as well, as, while Carol is accepting of Holly choosing to go from a past with boyfriends to living with a woman, it throws the Gen-X mom that rather than tagging herself a lesbian, Holly opts for “queer.” As events progress, the LGBTQ issue becomes trivial as more typical intergenerational strife comes to the fore.

Carol just wishes things could be as they were, for at least one more Christmas – the fact that the noise on the street outside isn’t carolers but Black Lives Matter protesters doesn’t help.

This sophisticated comedy, in a style much like cable shows or situations in “Modern Family,” brings a lot of laughs even as tensions build to the breaking point – which occurs in a fitting, hilariously dramatic (dramatically hilarious?) fashion. Director Daniella Wheelock said this play resonates with her, especially when going from her home in Chicago to relatives in Connecticut. Mcfarland and Ciucci both commented after opening night that it reflected their own memories of holiday homecomings and letting folks know their true selves.

Mcfarland makes an impressive debut in her first professional-level role. She admitted there was some pressure in having not only a lead but also the title character, but noted she learned a lot working with theatrical veterans, especially Wright. On stage, any nerves were channeled through her apprehensive character, a woman finding herself judged against the girl her mother wanted her to be, wanting to be seen for the person she is becoming and respected for her work as a journalist.

Ciucci and Ristine both nimbly play characters who mean well yet happen to say or do the right thing to make it feel wrong for Carol. As for Wright, typically playing the rock of an ensemble, this time she masterfully portrays a soul adrift, working to get her bearings on something familiar in a very unusual time.

Everyone join in: “Fa-la-la-la-la, No Justice, No Peace!” Performances run through Dec. 23 at the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center, 705 N. Illinois St., downtown Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.

Larson’s sense of time running out drives musical

By Wendy Carson

Welcome to 1990 and Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical tale of his struggles to become a successful Broadway composer, “Tick, Tick… Boom!” While it was only a budding one-man show during his lifetime, playwright David Auburn (“Proof”) reworked the script into this beautiful Off-Broadway smash, finding its local premiere at the Phoenix Theatre.

It is the story of three friends Jon (Patrick Dinnsen), his best friend/roommate Michael (Eddie Dean) and his girlfriend Susan (Gabriela Gomez). While each has sought their future on the stage, only Jon is still true to his vision.

Michael has foregone his acting aspirations to pursue a more lucrative career as a marketing executive and is moving out to a luxurious yuppie abode. Susan still dances on occasion, but mostly earns her income trying to teach rich, untalented children ballet. While she and Jon are still in love, she can’t help but want to leave the dreariness of New York.

Meanwhile, Jon approaches his 30th birthday while mounting a workshop of “Superbia,” the musical that he is sure will be the ticket to his dreams. While he could use the support of his friends, they seem to be more focused on their own issues and he seeks solace in the arms of his lead actress.

Things then go from bad to worse, but a spark of hope still glows at the end.

Throughout the show you can see glints of impending plotlines that will end up in Larson’s masterpiece, “Rent.” It is chilling to know that his own demise was on the horizon and though he didn’t actually see it coming, he realized it was a strong possibility.

Gomez gives Susan a loving and sympathetic touch, yet never stops her from being true to herself. She also portrays numerous other characters, including Jon’s agent and the aspiring actress. Each one is endearing, highlighting her range of skills.

Dean shows Michael’s loyalty, with a distance that builds to a poignant resolution. He also fills in the numerous other roles required throughout, giving him more chances to spotlight his humorous side.

Dinnsen is superb as Jonathan, the only static character in the show. He also brings the hopefulness as well as the hopelessness of a man chasing a dream that seems insurmountable.

Under Emily Ristine Holloway’s direction, we get a lively, upbeat look at another side of Larson and what made him actually tick (before the “boom”). The show benefits from a versatile stage design by Zac Hunter that foreshadows the “Rent” set, as well as on-stage band of Ginger Stoltz, Ainsley Paton, Eddie McLaughlin, and Kristin Cutler. Having musicians visible is a nod to the way Larson originally performed this piece, and it should be noted that “Superbia” was an actual musical he worked on – one of its songs is featured in this production.

Performances run through Oct. 30 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St., Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.

ALT: What happened there

By John Lyle Belden

In the early 2000s, by annual average there was a suicide in Las Vegas roughly every 26 hours. However I feel about this, I can be confident it is true, as someone checked. The serious and fraught topic of self-harm is what gives the play “The Lifespan of a Fact” its riveting emotional heft, but at its core is the principle noted in the previous sentence.

This drama – with hilarious comic moments to get through the serious context – by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell, is presented by American Lives Theatre, directed by Chris Saunders, at the Phoenix Theatre. It is based on a book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal detailing their struggle with D’Agata’s 2010 essay in The Believer magazine.

Editor Emily Penrose (Eva Patton) calls upon intern Jim Fingal (Joe Wagner), a recent Harvard graduate, to fact-check the piece by D’Agata (Lukas Felix Schooler), which is ready to go to print in just a few days. Fingal is told to give it his best effort, as the writer is known to take liberties with details. “Give it the ‘full Jim’,” Penrose instructs, and boy, does she get it.

The essay, focusing on a teenager’s suicide – jumping from the city’s tallest casino tower – to comment on the greater culture of Las Vegas, is riddled with factual errors, starting with the lead paragraph. While the death itself is well-documented, various added details are wrong. Penrose tells Fingal to bring them up directly to D’Agata, which he does by flying out to visit his Vegas apartment.

At first the altered “facts” are trivial, inspiring much of the humor. When Penrose is alerted to one that could get the magazine in legal trouble, she, too, travels from to New York to Nevada, just hours before the presses in Illinois roll for national distribution.

I must note my own bias here. I am an experienced journalist, including a university Journalism degree and experience at four daily newspapers (most recently the Daily Reporter in Greenfield, Ind.). In my mind there was no question that D’Agata was in the wrong with the initial version of the essay. Deviations from the truth, even in details having nothing to do with the core event, and especially easy to confirm and debunk, hurt the credibility of not only the periodical and the writer, but also the valid point of the story itself.

However, D’Agata argues, this isn’t a news “article” but a non-fiction “essay,” and “the wrong facts get in the way of the story.” He justifies altering events for his writing’s symmetry, or because the wording doesn’t “sing” to him otherwise. What could appear as indulging in ego he sees as a higher calling to a deeper “truth.” Having gone to extensive research, interviews, and discussions with the deceased’s family, he feels too personally invested to submit to the smallest correction or alteration.

For his part, Fingal appears absurdly nit-picky – what color were the bricks, how many strip clubs were there? But what we would call “white lies” also contain more misleading falsities, and if any were detected by a reader, he notes, that same person could decry the whole essay as a “hoax” on social media.

Penrose understands the writer isn’t, strictly speaking, a journalist, and her magazine is more literary than hard-news, but she insists on having standards. Still – the writing was so good she senses this could be a major milestone for the publication, if she could just get everyone in agreement on the actual text.

Patton, Wagner and Schooler deliver riveting, top of their game, performances. No winks at the audience, this is serious business involving real people and real incidents (both the publication of the essay and the death that inspired it). The humor is purely situational, the absurd that comes with doing one’s job, this time with higher stakes.

“Trigger Warning” is very much applicable here, if you hadn’t guessed by the subject matter. The play contains the most heart-wrenching moment of silence, and an ending that lets no one off the hook.

The ALT play runs through Sept. 25 at the Phoenix, 712 N. Illinois St., Indianapolis; details and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org or americanlivestheatre.org.

The best-selling 2012 book, also called “The Lifespan of a Fact,” is still available in stores and online. The essay in question is still online in its checked, edited, and published form (Note: intensive discussion and description of suicide) here.

Eclipse presents exceptional ‘Cabaret’

By Wendy Carson

When most people think of the musical, “Cabaret,” they consider Sally Bowles to be the main character. However, this is really the story of the writer, Clifford Bradshaw, and his quest to write a novel. It is, after all, based on semi-autobiographical stories by an actual writer living in 1930s Berlin.  

Yet, as crafted by Joe Masteroff (with songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb), it is actually the Emcee who is the storyteller and master manipulator of the entire plot. We see him pulling the strings, putting all of the pieces into play, joyously watching the outcomes, and savagely commenting on it all through song. This has never been so utterly clear as it is in Eclipse’s current production.

From the first second he takes the stage, Matthew Conwell’s presence as our host enthralls. We can’t help but obey his every command. Fortunately for the rest of the cast, he directs us all to pay attention to the other performers who are equally outstanding.

The Kit Kat Girls: Rosie (Reagan Cole Minnette), Lulu (Peyton Wright), Frenchie (Cora Lucas), Texas (Julia Murphy), Fritzie (Lizzie Mowry), and Helga (Emily Lynn Thomas), are all at the top of their game. Their dexterity, balance, and skill bringing life to Alexandria Van Paris’s choreography (which in some cases would make even Fosse impressed) shows that they are all destined for promising stage careers if they choose to pursue them. They also bring a hint of joy to the jaded seediness of their roles.

The Kit Kat Boys, Bobby (Isaiah Hastings) and Victor (Jet Terry) are both athletic and charismatic to the point of making you sad that the script doesn’t offer them more stage time.

Cynthia Kauffman gives Sally Bowles a happier outlook. She keeps her character intentionally ignorant to anything around her that is not currently making her happy and promoting her career.

Donathan Arnold’s turn as Clifford Bradshaw makes the character as All-American as apple pie, while reminding us that apples can be tart, rotten, sweet and that all recipes have secret ingredients within them. Being an African American makes casting sense, as in the era Black ex-pats often found Europe more welcoming than back home. And he does seem to enjoy Germany – until he doesn’t.

Judy Fitzgerald and Charles Goad truly break your heart as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, a couple so hopelessly in love but still wary of the dangers arising around them.

Mowry’s delightful turn as the dedicated “lover” of sailors, Fraulein Kost, helps bring some much-needed humor into much of the storyline outside of The Kit Kat Club. But her true loyalties are no laughing matter.

Scott Van Wye pours on the charm as the mysterious Ernst Ludwig. We almost don’t mind the true nature of his “work,” until it’s literally on his sleeve.

Eclipse is a program of Summer Stock Stage that gives the alumni of the youth program a chance to be part of a professional production. They not only learn from experienced director Carlos Medina Maldonado but also by working alongside Equity actors Fitzgerald (co-founder of Actors Theatre of Indiana) and Goad.

While I do admit that this musical is one of my all-time favorites, this production makes me feel like I have never actually seen it before. If I could, I would gladly watch every performance.

You can see it Thursday through Sunday, June 9-12, at the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois, Indianapolis. Find info and tickets at phoenixtheatre.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.

Phoenix: Coming of age in home haunted by history

NOTE: “The Magnolia Ballet” is not a “ballet” in the conventional sense. The Google/Oxford definition of ballet is “an artistic dance form performed to music using precise and highly formalized set steps and gestures.” This drama, the world premiere of a new play by Terry Guest at the Phoenix Theatre through April 10, is neither a musical nor danced-through, but displays its own rhythm as it deals with codified steps in a society long steeped in restrictive tradition. — JLB

By Wendy Carson

Ghosts exist, whether you believe in them or not. They are especially prevalent in the South where so much pain and struggle caused by slavery, racism, and general prejudices have caused countless souls unrest.

Young Ezekial (Isaiah Moore), “Z,” the sixth of his name, knows these ghosts all too well. Descended from slaves who bought freedom, only to be pressed into servitude again, they haunt his days and nights. His best friend Danny (Andrew Martin), has different issues — a mix of pride and shame in his family heritage of slave-owners, lynchers, and KKK members. 

The two families have long lived next to each other in rural Georgia in a tentative peace, but the current generation are close enough to be brothers. In fact, Z and Danny have apparently shared a lot.

Ezekial’s widower father (Daniel Martin), doesn’t think his son should be spending so much time away from the homestead and the endless chores needed for upkeep. While he’s not an outwardly affectionate man, he tries to do his best for his son. 

As the boys are working on a school project about the Civil War, Z is urged by his father to look through the shed for some of his grandfather’s old papers to help out. There he finds a trove of love letters that will forever change his life, showing him he has much more in common with Grandfather Ezekial than he imagined.

Floating throughout the story is an Apparition (Eddie Dean), ever-present and mostly observing rather than interfering. 

Moore is superb in his portrayal of a gay youth who just wants to enjoy his life and childhood. He brings out the joys and frustrations of the character, especially his quest to discover the truth of the letters and their author.

Daniel Martin gives a delicate performance as a father trying to do the best for his son by instilling in him a fierce work ethic while hardening him to the truth of the world. He also makes a delightful cameo as Danny Mitchell’s (white) father. 

Andrew Martin shows Danny as a simple country boy who, while not ashamed of his racist background, seems to not even notice that his best friend is black. While insisting he is not gay in the slightest, he does have a deep love for his friend that challenges his admonitions.

Dean ably takes on the role of the glue that holds this narrative together, the spirit of past and present that, in their own way, calls the tune of this “dance.”

In the first step of a National New Play Network Rolling Premiere (it will later be staged afresh in New York and Michigan), director Mikael Burke makes both subtle and bold choices, from the way Z shifts his demeanor between having to “man up” and being himself, to the thematic use of “outrunning the fire.” Kudos also to fight/intimacy choreographer Laraldo Anzaldua, and set design by Inseung Park. 

Designated “Part 1” of a planned trilogy, this “Magnolia Ballet” is a complete story with much to say, think upon, and discuss. Find the Phoenix at 705 N. Illinois, Indianapolis; find information and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.

Summit’s ‘Crew’ a bold workplace drama

By John Lyle Belden

You see the signs, and not just the unusual ones on the bulletin board. Management holds a lot of private meetings; rules start tightening up; workers leave and are not replaced; rumors circulate. The writing is on the wall, perhaps literally when notices go up: people are going to lose their jobs, and perhaps the entire workplace will soon close. 

What had been unthinkable in times of booming industry and union strength has become too common now. I went through a similar situation, perhaps you have, too. And in a recent era, this was the fate of Detroit auto workers in Dominique Morrisseau’s “Skeleton Crew,” the drama presented by Summit Performance at the Phoenix Theatre.

Faye (Dwandra Nickole Lampkin) is within months of 30 years at the plant. She is also: a proud UAW rep; a feisty cancer survivor who can’t – won’t – give up smoking; stubborn protector of her crew, especially Shanita (Akili Ni Mali) and Dez (Kerrington Shorter); practically a mother to the foreman, Reggie (Daniel A. Martin); wise and philosophical, always with something to say; eager to take your money in cards, but not always successful; and a multi-skilled worker who never seems to leave the factory. The fact that she is gay is honestly her least significant trait. 

Shanita is the best on the production line, proud of following her father and helping build something others will be proud to own. She doesn’t even let pregnancy slow her down. As for Dez, he’s got big plans, nice shoes and a gun in his bag. He talks smooth and means well, but the fire within him isn’t always under control. He and Reggie don’t get along, as they seem to assume the worst of each other. Then again, Reggie is right that Dez has been gambling on the premises. 

And as word swirls around that the plant is doomed, someone is quietly stealing from the plant – taking their severance one metal part at a time.

Needless to say, there is a lot of drama and tension as the uncertainty builds. But Morisseau has sprinkled in a healthy dose of workplace humor, and a bit of feeling among the members of this workplace family. It doesn’t take much digging nowadays for these skilled actors to bring the emotions – from concern to frustration – to the surface. Lampkin is a rock. Mali radiates confidence. Shorter gives substance to the angry-young-(black)man archetype. And Martin, known to many for his comic skills, again shows his true range.

Director Melissa Mowry strikes the right balance in the look and feel of the play. The stage (designed by Mejah Balams) is a plant break room, a temporary respite from the noise and stress just outside the back-wall door. Opaque windows show images of industry, and at transitional points in the story, silhouettes of cast members moving rhythmically – men as machines – choreographed by Mowry with the actors. It’s a brilliant visual element that sticks with you.

Powerful drama with strong performances, “Skeleton Crew” has two weekends remaining, through March 13 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St. For tickets, visit phoenixtheatre.org or go to summitperformanceindy.com.

Phoenix: ‘Love’ in an unusual place

By John Lyle Belden

True story: In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, an area bigger than many countries, there is a vast sea of human-generated garbage. Now, what if a solitary seabird called Nigel, who lived on a remote island off New Zealand (also true), instead occupied a tiny patch of land in those plastic-infested waters?

This sets the stage for “Love Bird,” a play by K.T. Peterson at the Phoenix Theatre. Note that I write “solitary” above rather than “lonely,” as in this fantasy, Nigel (portrayed by Scot Greenwell) constructed a couple of companions from the washed-up flotsam.

Elegant Saundra he adores, and wishes would return his affection. Nigel creates an extravagant nest, and even composes a song for her on his homemade instrument. But also, there’s easygoing Jessica, who likes to hang around in a nearby tree (a shrubbery, she corrects in his head). She’s the kind of friend who is easy to talk to.

“What a world we create for ourselves,” Nigel remarks, with no sense of irony.

He has a ring-pop secreted in a shell-covered box for his true love. The nearby pod of whales converse mainly with each other, so Nigel instead argues with some oncoming storm clouds. Suddenly, another flesh-and-blood seabird appears.

Norman (Bill Simmons) has different plumage, a gregarious personality, and likes to draw in the sand – mostly portraits of eggs. He comes bearing a gift of clothespins. He also seems to have been observing Nigel from afar, which is bothersome. 

Concerns are put aside, however, as Nigel sets up a wonderful dinner party for Norman, a double-date with Saundra and Jessica. Eventually, the storm butts in, and changes everything.

The portrayals of these birds (Nigel is a gannet, Norman is unspecified but resembles a brown boobie) are fascinating and highly entertaining. With the help of creative makeup, clownish clothing by Beck Jones, and movement to mimic creatures not used to walking everywhere, what we get is anthropomorphic but not human. Rather than seeing bird costumes revealing the personality within, we observe pure personalities with the hint of an avian exterior.

I wanted to love this play more than I did. There was much affection for Nigel among the audience, partly because Greenwell is just so darn adorable. In fact, it is the stellar talents of both him and Simmons – who provides contrast, tension, and eventually revelation – that elevate this performance above issues I had with the text. The human-relatable metaphors get muddled, as the characters make references both to being birds (“when I was a fledgling”) and being stuck in an office job with a “Karen.” And is it really that necessary for a bird to have a boat?

One obvious point in the play is the ubiquitousness of the garbage, from which Nigel makes his world,* and that Norman is tempted to eat. (This brings on one hilarious literal “gag.”) The fact that it goes without comment should perhaps be distressing to us, as our junk becomes “normal” to the creatures who live there. But in its colorful arrangement by set designer Kyle Ragsdale, and the way Nigel/Greenwell relishes its pieces, it comes across more quaint than invasive.

Directed by Jolene Mentink Moffatt, with the quirky weirdness you often get in plays like this (which has long been a hallmark of the Phoenix), this romantic comedy like no other might not be for everyone. But it is worth a look for its visuals and performances. At the core, it’s just a couple of bird-brains looking for companionship, and we can all relate to that.

One weekend of performances remain, through Feb. 20 on the mainstage at 705 N. Illinois St., downtown Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at PhoenixTheatre.org.

(*The trash was not a factor in the life of the real Nigel, as he lived on a relatively clean island with concrete gannets placed by researchers to attract the birds. Poor Nigel was the only taker, making him Internet-famous. The lone but not lonely bird passed away in February 2018, next to his concrete “mate.” Other live gannets have since taken his place on Mana Island, two miles north of New Zealand. [Source: Washington Post])  

Phoenix: Story of treasure in unexpected place

By John Lyle Belden

Once upon a time there was a woman, a trailer-park resident, who purchased an interesting abstract painting from a junk shop. Somebody told her it could actually be a long-lost work by a famous artist.

She reportedly replied, “Who the f#@& is Jackson Pollock?”

This true story is the touchstone for the comic drama “Bakersfield Mist,” by Stephen Sachs, on the main stage of the Phoenix Theatre through Dec. 19.

Jolene Mentink Moffatt is Maude Gutman (not the actual woman’s name, so there is room for dramatic license), hard drinking and filthy mouthed, but refreshingly honest and likable. Her cozy home appears to have been invaded by an antique mall thrift store, but she treasures every trashy trinket and questionable bit of wall art. Given the set decoration and California climate, it’s anyone’s guess whether the decorated Christmas tree indicates whether it’s the holidays or not.

She nervously awaits the arrival of fussy art expert Lionel Percy (Joshua Coomer), who can’t help but have a sour first impression of this situation, even before he gets to see the potential Pollock. 

But gaze upon it he does, and using only the expertise in his brain and the “blink” of his eyes, he confidently declares the painting a clever forgery.

Maude refuses to accept this. “What if you’re wrong?” she demands.

Thus the battle of wits is engaged, though for Maude it began before Lionel even entered her home. And the New York expert who literally wrote the book on this kind of art (more than once!) finds that while she hasn’t been to college, Maude has come to know a lot about Jackson Pollock.

Like all great theatre – or seemingly random color swirls on a white canvas – this play resonates beyond what we first encounter, as with the help of some purloined whiskey these two delve deeply into what art is, what evidence is necessary to confirm its value, and what it truly means. As art reflects life, what is genuine and what is false about the work that is us? Director and Phoenix regular Constance Macy gets a wonderful, gritty, and frequently hilarious performance from this duo, climaxing in a moment that – even if you know how this event actually resolved – has you on the edge of your seat. 

Not your typical December show, but, as I noted, there is a tree, and a bowling pin painted as a snowman, and plenty of spirit. It would be a shame to miss “Bakersfield Mist” at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St., downtown Indianapolis. For info and tickets, call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Scars and healing in ‘Alabaster’

By John Lyle Belden

“I’m not polite company,” says June, the lone survivor of a tornado that ripped through her family’s farm a few years ago. She was left with countless scars, many of which are on her body. 

This has brought a renowned photographer to rural Alabama — famous for celebrity portraits, Alice has taken on a project to feature the scars on various brave women, showing their defiant beauty. But then, she has deep wounds of her own.

Also on the farm is Weezy, a common goat gifted with insight she shares verbally with June, and compassion for her mother Bib, an old nanny-goat without long to live.

This is “Alabaster,” by Audrey Cefaly, the long-awaited drama that re-opens the Russell main stage of the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indy. Originally part of the 2019-20 season, the play is directed by Jolene Mentink Moffat, with brilliant performances by Maria Argentina Souza (June), Lauren Briggeman (Alice), Joanne Kehoe (Weezy), and Jan Lucas (Bib).

There are many themes at play here — loss, mourning, pain, recovery, holding on, letting go, and facing what comes next. There is also a constant stream of gentle humor, as one would expect when the narrator is a talking goat. Cefaly says in her program note that Weezy is “an instrument of the Divine.” I like to think of it as, “What if Jiminy Cricket were a goat?” Regardless, Kehoe takes on the role with a determined smile, giving the animal’s natural traits a sage quality.

It’s become routine in these reviews to dwell on how completely and comfortably Briggeman embodies her every role, and this is no exception. However, Souza matches her in a skillful portrayal of a character with spiky walls, a soft interior, and a mood that turns on a dime. June, who spends her days painting artworks on broken barn wood, is a soul both standing in the eye of her storm and still caught in its vortex; taking her outside these two states is Weezy’s wish, and becomes Alice’s mission — but is it a directive from her worried brain or her healing heart? 

Though Bib only speaks “goat,” Lucas can still communicate so much with a single look, as her character bides her time until her catalyst moment.

To stay a step ahead of pop-culture trivia experts in the audience, there are references to a certain popular book-based movie — which this play is kinda like, but kinda not — but only the goat truly goes meta (in a scene that even involves yoga). 

Perhaps we can all use a barnyard animal to talk to. Performances of “Alabaster” run through Oct. 31, see www.phoenixtheatre.org for info and tickets.