Phoenix goes bananas for ‘Xmas’

By John Lyle Belden

You know, it’s just not Christmas season without a visit from Anna Banana!

..Said no one ever. (But don’t tell Anna!) Now that she’s the fourth-most-popular female holiday icon (since most people can’t think of more than three) she gets to host “A Very Phoenix Xmas 13: Merry Superstitious” at the Phoenix Theatre.

As you can already tell, the oddball tone of the previous 12 incarnations of this holiday tradition is still very much alive. However, this edition — directed by quirky Q Artistry founder Ben Asaykwee — features an all-female cast. Past Phoenix stars Jolene Mentink Moffatt, Phebe Taylor, Jaddy Ciucci and Jenni White are joined by Shawnte P. Gaston, the powerhouse presence of Tiffanie Burnett, the instrumental prowess of Beef & Boards regular Sarah Hund and the manic energy of ComedySportz star Frankie Bolda.

While they all play multiple roles, it’s Bolda in the banana outfit, and Ciucci makes a feisty Virgin Mary. But while the comedy is a bit irreverent, the content doesn’t get sacrilegious or too mature. Something amiss does happen to Santa, though, that reverberates through the show.

The series of sketches has numerous authors, including Asaykwee, Jean Childers-Arnold, Lou Harry, Steven Korbar,  Zack Neiditch, and Steffi Rubin. Mariel Greenlee choreographed a touching dance scene, performed by the ensemble, inspired by a historic holiday event.

There are also witches, a history lesson, a look back at a (sorta) famous kick-line, breaking news, surprising mashups, and (in Harry’s contribution) what could be described as “Law & Order: Scriptural Victims Unit.” Plus, the cast tell us what’s on their wish list this season.

For an unusual — What other Christmas show has a talking banana? — funny and fully entertaining holiday treat, check out this “Very Phoenix Xmas,” with performances through Dec. 23 on the mainstage at 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

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‘Cabaret Poe’ right at home on yet another stage

By John Lyle Belden

For those who know of “Cabaret Poe,” the musical exploration of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and poems by Ben Asaykwee and presented by his Q Artistry productions, know that it has returned for its 10th year with its premiere with the Phoenix Theatre on its black-box Basile stage — complete with a couple of tweaks to adapt to its space and keep it fresh.

For those who have not yet seen it, this is a perfect opportunity to experience what is becoming a local fall tradition. It started a decade ago in haunted Irvington, and has since moved to Mass. Ave. and even Circle Centre Mall. Now, in partnership with the Phoenix, it and other Q Artistry works have a new home.

Asaykwee is Zolius, the gaunt acerbic leader of his little band, including fair ladies Morella and Berenice, and a mysterious Shadow that haunts the proceedings. He also has a small four-piece orchestra to provide music and much of the atmosphere. Our women are dual-cast; depending on the performance, you may see original performers Renae Stone as Morella and Julie Lyn Barber as Berenice, or Georgeanna Smith Wade and Jaddy Ciucci respectively.

They prefer you experience the suspense of not knowing what comes next, so there is no set published program, and I won’t spoil that here. Just know that many favorites will be recited and acted out, including “The Tell-tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and, of course, “The Raven.”

Rebekah Taylor slinks her way around the stage as the silent Shadow, and even gets to interpret one piece in a featured dance.

There are a few moments of audience interaction, so it truly is a little different at each performance. Changes to the set include lights embedded in the crypt-stage, used to good effect. Asaykwee’s style and his contributions to Poe’s words add clever dark humor, making for a thoroughly entertaining evening. There are no major scares, just a spooky atmosphere, and TV-PG language so this show is good for tweens and older.

Tickets have been selling briskly, so act fast. The show runs through Nov. 4 at the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois St. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Phoenix shines with ‘Bright Star’

By John Lyle Belden

A show like the musical “Bright Star” brings with it a lot of expectations.

It is co-written by the legendary Steve Martin (with singer-songwriter Edie Brickell), a connoisseur of the absurd, even as a playwright (see “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” “The Underpants”). But if one recalls the spirit of his film “Pennies From Heaven,” Martin also loves the innocence of a feel-good musical. And “Bright Star” delivers with its upbeat attitude (the title is also the third musical number) and just an edge of drama – sort of an “Oklahoma” set in the Carolinas. Wendy compares the feel to “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.”

We are alerted to the fact that this is based – loosely – on a true story. But, I would advise one not to read the story of the Iron Mountain Baby, printed in the program, until after you see the show, as it makes the plot more predictable than it already is. Besides, the true events happened in earlier decades, and in Missouri. “Bright Star” is a fictional tale (with the luxury of replying to “oh, that couldn’t have happened” with “it actually did, once”) taking place in Hayes Creek, Asheville, Zebulon and Raleigh, N.C.

In addition, there’s the burden of living up to being a Broadway hit. Considering it’s the Phoenix Theatre launching the local premiere, and the standing ovation by the packed audience at Thursday’s preview, this expectation has been well met.

At the end of World War II, Billy Cane (Ian Laudano) comes home from the Army to find his Daddy (Joey Collins) and childhood best friend Margo (Betsy Norton) waiting for him, but his mother passed on. Billy aspires to be a writer, and gives his essays to Margo, who runs the local bookstore, to edit for submission to magazines. He decides to take his best works and deliver them by hand to the Asheville Southern Journal – a fool’s errand, as copy editor Daryl (John Vessels) is a strict gatekeeper. But senior editor Alice Murphy (Molly Garner) sees something in this young man, and agrees to read his work.

We then get a look at Murphy’s past, and from there the story flows back and forth between the 1920s and ’40s, but Martin and Brickell’s plot – and director Suzanne Fleenor – don’t let things get confusing. Speaking of flow, the choreography, nicely done by Carol Worcel, seems to extend even to inanimate objects as furniture and setpieces on subtle casters seem to dance in and out of scenes as needed.

As a teen, Alice falls in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Patrick Clements), son of Zebulon’s no-nonsense Mayor (Charles Goad). She is seen as the “black sheep” of her family, headed by her Bible-toting father (Paul Tavianini) and mother (Maryjayne Waddell), so it isn’t surprising when she gets in trouble. Jimmy Ray wants to do right by her, but the Mayor wants no scandal and takes matters literally into his own hands.

In Billy’s era, he has been accepted as a writer for the Journal, but struggles to find his voice – while also dealing with advances by Daryl’s assistant, Lucy (Ashley Dillard). Meanwhile, back in Hayes Creek, Margo wonders if a new dress will be enough to wake Billy up to her growing feelings for him.

All the plotlines come together in ways you see coming but are still satisfying. This is aided by some first-rate performances – Laudano as the happy optimist, Garner giving Alice deep wells of strength, Clements with his powerful voice and effortless manner, Collins radiating wisdom through his aw-shucks hillbilly facade, Norton as charming as ever as Margo, the antics of Dillard and Vessels that lend comedy relief without getting too silly, Tavianini’s firm hand reaching toward the light, and Goad’s grasping hand committing to the role of villain. Ensemble members also get their moments, including Kenny Shepard as the Mayor’s assistant, and Conner Chamberlin as Max – the lonely guy who has no shot with Margo, but can’t help trying.

An excellent band of strings and bluegrass instruments, led by Brent Marty at the piano, occupies the back of the stage like a natural part of the environment.

I’ve heard from the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St., that the show’s run – through Oct. 7 – is selling out fast. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Phoenix: Try this ‘reality’ programming

By John Lyle Belden

“Cry It Out,” the drama finishing the Phoenix Theatre’s eventful 2017-18 season, impacts you with just how real it feels.

As I’m sure playwright Molly Smith Metzler and this show’s director, Chelsey Stauffer, are aware, this is an effective “issue” play in that the focus is more on the people going through the issue than the thing itself. In this case, it’s what’s considered a universal experience – becoming parents to your first child, focusing on doing so in today’s world, and the psychological toll we are only beginning to understand.

Metzler has found the perfect setting: a Long Island neighborhood where Jessie (Lauren Briggeman), an upper-middle class professional, lives right across her back yard from Lena (Sally Scharbrough), who is struggling working-class, while on a cliff just hundreds of feet away are the very rich, of whom we meet Mitchell (Michael Hosp) and Adrienne (Andrea Heiden).

Feeling alone in her new-mommy experience, Jessie reaches out to Lena, who is grateful to have a likely friend so close at hand. In their perfectly crafted and acted conversations, we see the psychological walls they hit when their social and financial differences are made clear, followed by the earnest efforts to bridge their gap – for the sake of their own sanity as well as the benefit of their babies – forming a bond that seems so natural, like that friend you just “click” with.

Seeing this from his lofty view, Mitchell decides to ask them if his wife can join them for one of their “coffee meetings” – in one of the most uncomfortably comedic scenes I’ve seen lately. But when Adrienne arrives, she is not happy to be there. Clearly, these people have issues.

The sense of reality goes beyond the fact that it’s easy to forget Briggeman and Scharbrough are not actually moms with sleeping babies just offstage. This drama plays with your expectations in a clever way, by taking your “oh, I know how this is going to go” we’ve been conditioned to by TV, films and wishful thinking, and bringing a twist that is just like what happens to people you actually know. Being largely told from Jessie’s perspective, the story also confronts her and us with our assumptions. And in the process, we get some situational laughs – like real life.

This is one of those plays (thanks again, Phoenix!) that I can’t say you’ll “enjoy” in the fun sense, more like the fact that you’ll savor first-class acting and come away with some great food for thought. Come hungry.

“Cry It Out” plays through Aug. 26 in the “black box” Basile stage – seating surrounds most of the stage area – at the Phoenix’s new permanent home, 705 N. Illinois St. Note showtimes are a half-hour different than the mainstage. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Stellar Summit debut with ‘Silent Sky’

By John Lyle Belden

A century ago, a woman helped revolutionize astronomy, a perfect subject to inaugurate Indy’s new woman-centered theater company, Summit Performance Indianapolis.

“Silent Sky,” by Lauren Gunderson, playing through July 22 on the Basile Stage of the Phoenix Theatre, is the story of Henrietta Leavitt, who, shortly before 1900, joined a team of women working for the astronomy professor at Harvard College (now University) near Boston. Acting as the “Hidden Figures” of their day, Dr. Pickering (who we never meet in this play) calls these women “Computers,” a word not yet attached to the modern device, but still apt. More crudely, they were also referred to as “Pickering’s Harem.”

Though women weren’t allowed to actually use the state-of-the-art telescope, Leavitt (Carrie Ann Schlatter) finds excitement in identifying stars and celestial phenomena on its glass photographic plates. She joins no-nonsense team leader Annie Cannon (Molly Garner) and feisty Scottish immigrant Williamina Fleming (Gigi Jennewien), Pickering’s former housekeeper and his first Computer. They are supervised by the professor’s assistant, Peter Shaw (Adam Tran), a man whose heart really isn’t in his work – until he meets Henrietta.

But the ties of family beckon, as Henrietta’s dear sister Margaret (Devan Mathias) calls her to their father’s Wisconsin home when he falls ill. Even there, she continues her work, seeking to make sense and pattern of the varying brightness in the stars she studies. Margaret tires of her sister’s obsession, and finds solace at her piano – what happens next, as the saying goes, is history.

Produced by Summit founder and Artistic Director Lauren Briggeman and directed by Lori Wolter Hudson, the play makes excellent use of the Basile black-box stage, with audience on three sides, as well as projected starscapes. The props are few but beautiful, including a very functional large desk and Henrietta’s period-appropriate hearing aid. Performances are superb, especially Schlatter expressing Henrietta’s passions and regrets, and Mathias showing Margaret’s tested but true sisterly love. Garner entertainingly transforms from dour to power as a budding feminist. Jennewien is ever the kind mother figure. Tran doesn’t allow his performance to slide into buffoonery, but he is definitely not the smartest “man” in the room.

This sweet drama explores the personal cost of ambition, as well as the struggle to overcome systems set against you. As Henrietta herself says in the play, “Life is about getting appropriately upset.”

Learn about and celebrate the woman who “measured the universe.” Note that the Phoenix is now at 705 N. Illinois St., and curtain times on this stage are 7:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m. Sundays, a half-hour off the mainstage times. For info and tickets visit www.summitperformanceindy.com or www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Asch’s work rises anew in Phoenix production of Vogel’s ‘Indecent’

 

Indecent kiss
The infamous kiss — Abby Lee (left) and Courtney Spivak in ‘Indecent’ at Indy’s Phoenix Theatre.  (Provided photo by Zach Rosing)

By John Lyle Belden

 

The Phoenix Theatre has never shied from – in fact it embraces – controversial stage works. With its present production of the Tony-winning drama, “Indecent,” by Paula Vogel, it goes another layer by showing how a popular play shocked Broadway nearly a century ago.

Polish-Jewish writer Sholem Asch wrote just one play, but it became a sensation throughout the Yiddish-speaking world, and even found fame in translation throughout Europe. But when an Americanized “God of Vengeance” went on Broadway (even after playing in New York’s Yiddish theatres with no controversy), the cast and producer were quickly arrested and charged with indecency. Not only was this a Jewish play by a Jew (a troublesome thing in 1923), but it is set in a brothel and features two women falling in love, kissing passionately on stage.

According to program notes, when Vogel was approached about writing this play, she said she immediately pictured a ragged troupe of actors in an attic. That’s who we meet as the lights come up: Lemml the stage manager (played by Nick Jenkins) and his troupe portrayed by Mark Goetzinger, John Goodson, Abby Lee, Jolene Moffatt, Bill Simmons and Courtney Spivak.

Goodson spends most of the narrative as Asch, bringing his surprising new work to a Warsaw writer’s salon, taking it – with Lemml’s help – to the stage, and dealing with the fallout of the indecency trial. He embodies the role well, in all stages from an eager genius to a bitter man focused on the next phase of his writing.

Lee and Spivak are wonderful, portraying women who fall in love both within the play and offstage. Under the direction of Martha Jacobs, their sublime affections bloom beautifully. Phoenix regulars Goetzinger, Moffatt and Simmons are solid, as usual. As for Jenkins, his work is astounding, especially as we come to why we encounter the troupe as they were in the opening scene.

Indecent Lemml-Asch small
Nick Jenkins (left) as tailor-turned-stage manager Lemml and John Goodson as celebrated Yiddish writer Sholem Asch. (provided photo by Zach Rosing)

 

The multiple languages involved in telling the story are portrayed in part by easy-to-read projected captions. Often the dialogue is in English but the projected cue will say something like “In Yiddish” to maximize understanding and dramatic flow while keeping everything in context.

In the end, it’s like we’ve seen two great plays – we get a Cliff’s-notes understanding of “God of Vengeance (Got fun nekome)” as well as the full measure of Vogel’s work. But you only need to get one ticket. Performances are through July 8 at the Phoenix, now located at 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indianapolis; call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Phoenix: A dream for better women’s lives coming true

By John Lyle Belden

OK, a feminist, a Jew and a Catholic walk into a play…

This is no joke.

In “The Pill,” a drama by Tom Horan in its world premiere run at the new Phoenix Theatre, five women play all the roles – male and female – in the story of the development of the first oral contraceptive.

In the 1950s, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger (Constance Macy) and former suffragette Katherine McCormick (Jan Lucas) discuss the need to find an “off switch” to pregnancy, something biological that can be taken like an aspirin. Society (mostly men) tells them that such an interference with nature is not possible and not needed. Not accepting either notion, Sanger persuades Dr. Gregory Pincus (Adrianne Villareal) to work on developing a birth-control pill. Once the drug proves effective in animals, these three talk to Dr. John Rock (Jan Johansen) – over Sanger’s objections due to his Catholicism – for help in conducting human trials.

Meanwhile, Sanger receives letters from Sadie Sachs (Jenni White) a young woman who hoped for a career as a nurse, but instead goes through multiple births and miscarriages as her husband insists she continue her “wifely duties.” She is literally dying to get the “secret” that Sanger’s associates are working on.

Directed by Bill Simmons, the play is performed in the round, in the intimate space of the Phoenix’s new black-box Basile Stage (the first production performed there). There is a dreamlike aspect to the flow of the scenes and minimal furniture, with a bit of whimsy and situational humor tempered by Sanger’s hard-edged persistence and Sadie’s heartbreaking visits. It’s a factual fantasia, full of feminine energy. Each scene and vignette is accented by the ringing of a bell; it’s meaning unclear – perhaps reminiscent of an old drugstore pharmacist alerting us the prescription is ready. Still, in moment after moment, it never quite is – Ding! Ding! Ding! We need it, can we have it now?

It would be difficult to praise this cast too much – Johansen, Lucas and Macy are local legends, Villareal a savvy Phoenix veteran, and White (previously seen in Phoenix’s “Barbecue” and starring in Buck Creek Players’ “Nuts”) is incredibly talented as well. They take charge of the material, relieving Simmons of any charges of “mansplaining.” As for the male playwright, it is obvious Horan did his homework, and treats the subject and the people affected with utmost respect.

With The Pill being around and available since the 1960s, it’s too easy a half-century later to take it and its influence on society for granted. This play is important to remind us all – men and women – why this pill was needed and how difficult it was to get it even made. If progress stops, it can be rolled back, or as Sanger says, “We haven’t come this far, to only come this far.”

Performances run through June 10. The Phoenix Theatre is now located at 705 N. Illinois St., Indianapolis, just north of the Scottish Rite Cathedral downtown. Call 317-635-7529 or visit http://www.phoenixtheatre.org.