Phoenix: Faith, belief, and relationships tested in ‘The Christians’

By John Lyle Belden

On my own spiritual path, I have found there are generally two kinds of people in regards to faith: Those who find comfort in certainty — some things are always true and must be believed — and those who find comfort in doubt, that there are things we’ll never fully know, and we can question them and change our minds.

But, can both points of view get along in the same body of believers? That is the central dilemma of “The Christians,” the Lucas Hnath play now on stage at the Phoenix Theatre.

An American megachurch has everything going its way. It is growing and thriving with a joyful congregation and popular ministers, and it has just paid off the debts on its huge building. During the celebration, its leader, Pastor Paul (Grant Goodman) delivers a sermon that shocks his Evangelical staff and members: He no longer believes in Hell as a place of eternal punishment.

He even backs this idea up with scripture (this is an actual subject of debate in progressive churches). He is then challenged by his Associate Pastor (Ray Hutchins), who leaves and starts his own church.

The “cracks” that Paul had hoped to fix with his hopeful message instead widen as church members start an exodus to the rival congregation. This worries the megachurch board, represented by Elder Jay (Charles Goad). The congregants have their own questions, especially choir member Jenny (Kelsey Leigh Miller). And Paul’s wife, Elisabeth (Jen Johansen) has her own views on the subject.

The two types of believers find it nearly impossible to communicate, with those of certainty speaking of what is “right and wrong,” and the pastor, feeling free to doubt, speaking of what is just and merciful.

The narrative is much like a recollection by Pastor Paul — with “and then this happened”-style notes — done in the overall style of a church service with the audience as congregation (hymn lyrics are projected so we can sing along) and a choir that includes Miller, Bambi Alridge, Aaniyah Anderson, MaryBeth Walker Bailey, Adam Blevins, Caryn Flowers, Abby Gilster, Bridgette Ludlow, Marlana Haig and Dave Pelsue. Thus this show relates the hard lessons for Paul and those around him, and a parable for us all.

Goodman, Hutchins and Johansen deliver convincing performances of where each character stands on the Word. Miller and Goad ably portray people caught in the middle, each in their own way.

There is a lot to unpack when one comes away from this play, questions of faith and doctrine, of how much one should be willing to compromise, and of what happens when it’s revealed your perfect organization was too good to be true. It delivers the message without preaching, just a look at fallible humans wrestling with the answers — kinda like a Bible story.

Amen.

“The Christians” runs through April 14 on the Russell main stage at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

 

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Phoenix: Check out this quirky ‘Hotel’

By John Lyle Belden

What do a hat box, the song “Afternoon Delight,” the television show “Bewitched,” and a toy giraffe have in common? As you find out, you’ll discover that the taxi driver is not Carl, the dispatcher is not an astronaut, and wait until you meet the human pincushion in purple!

This is all part of your stay at “The Hotel Nepenthe,” a surreal comedy by John Kuntz (and not by Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch on mushrooms as I’d suspected) now playing at the Phoenix Theatre.

Kuntz embraces the term “schizophrenic noir” for his web of intersecting plots. Ben Asaykwee, Jolene Mintink Moffatt, Betsy Norton, and Scott Van Wye play multiple characters in and around the titular hotel — including Van Wye as the busy bellhop. There has been a murder, and others may die. Things are lost and found. And then there’s the mystery of who, when, where, what and why is Tabitha Davis? We get a provocative look at celebrity stardom, as well as lessons on possibility and parallel universes. All this, delivered with moments of both exquisite tension and gut-busting hilarity.

In the end, it will all seem to make a sort of sense. Or not. Either way, this foursome deliver outstanding performances, slipping in and out of various characters, sometimes right before our eyes. The atmosphere breathes with an impressive soundscape masterfully woven by Brian G. Hartz. Kudos also to scenic designer Daniel Uhde, and costume and props designer Danielle Buckel, for the walls of curiosities that add another layer of depth to the intimate confines of the Basile “black box” stage. Phoenix artistic director Bill Simmons directs.

For anyone open to the unusual, you will find something to enjoy at “The Hotel Nepenthe.” Make your reservation by calling 317-635-7529 or visiting phoenixtheatre.org. The Phoenix is located at 705 N. Illinois downtown.

Even the bitterest fruit can revive sweet memories

By Wendy Carson

The term “comfort food” exists for a reason. Some of our happiest and most vivid memories consist of the scent and taste of a dish that exudes love and safety. Therefore, even though the apples are not as sweet and fresh in the dead of winter, a home-baked pie can still transform a dank prison cell into the warm, inviting kitchen of one’s childhood.

This is the crux of Jennifer Fawcett’s new play, “Apples in Winter,” at the Phoenix Theatre.

Miriam arrives in a prison kitchen to bake the apple pie that is her condemned son’s last request, under the watchful eye of the guards. The audience bears witness to her efforts and the story of how she came to be in this situation.

Her story is all too common: A loving mother does the best she can to raise her child well. However, due to forces beyond her control (or were they?), he turns down a darker path. Was she too naïve to realize what was happening or to prevent his escalation? That you can decide on your own, you are merely here to listen to her tale. Judgement has already been made and is what has brought us all to this place and time.

Jan Lucas gives a poignantly heart-wrenching performance as Miriam. She deftly brings forth the loving memories of her radiant child but never pulls the punches on the troubled soul he evolved into. She perfectly turns the wretched situation into a confession of love, guilt, and sorrow, without overwhelming the audience with bitterness.

Now, a few words about that pie. During this show, Lucas actually prepares and bakes an apple pie, from scratch, in front of the audience. At the end, a lucky audience member wins it in a charity raffle to bring it home for their own consumption. Tickets are sold before the performance, which has no intermission.

John and I happened to win the pie on the night we attended (winter weather limited the audience, helping our odds, and it was truly a random drawing – yes, John paid for his ticket). So, to share our bounty, I feel that a short review of the pie is appropriate: First, it is beautifully made with a lattice-style top. The crust was lighter and crisper than I’ve had before (more like a cookie), and my favorite part. Though the apples used were not the best quality (as per the script, and it being January), they were perfectly spiced and brought forth a nice flavor. I suggest serving it with a scoop of a quality vanilla ice cream to fully enjoy the experience.

All in all, this show is a moving tribute to a mother’s love and determination to persevere throughout whatever challenges she must face. Performances continue through Jan. 27 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St.; call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

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.

‘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.