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.

Returning to the stage

By John Lyle Belden

Things are starting to look more “normal,” and that includes the central Indiana stage scene. Of course, the pandemic is still around, especially with Covid-19 variants still infecting and killing many. But with improving numbers of the vaccinated and taking common-sense measures by all of us, we can still celebrate our arts.

Alas, even though I’m vaccinated against diseases, I’m still not immune to Gremlins. One such critter has affected the Stage Schedule page on this site. So, until we get it fixed, check out the list below for ongoing and announced shows. In addition, check IndyFringe.org for more events leading up to the festival in mid-august.

See you in the audience; Curtain Up!

***

Last updated: July 25, 2021

Schedules subject to change, especially with changes in public health conditions.

See websites or call for Covid-19 safety policies.

2021

June 24 -Aug. 15

“The Sound of Music,” Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre, 9301 N. Michigan Road; http://www.beefandboards.com

July 23-Aug. 2

“The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” Ricks-Weil Theatre Company at H.J. Ricks Centre for the Arts, 122 W. Main St. (US 40), Greenfield; fb.com/RicksWeilTheatreCompany

July 28

“Sleepaway,” Summit Performance Indianapolis at The Park at the Phoenix (Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center), 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; (Free tickets) summitperformanceindy.com

July 30-Aug. 7

“Anton in Show Business” (all-female) Betty Rage production at Outback Stage at The District Theatre, 627 Mass. Ave., Indianapolis; IndyDistrictTheatre.org

Aug. 5-7

“Godspell,” Eclipse Summer Stock Stage at The Park at the Phoenix (Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center), 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; phoenixtheatre.org

Aug. 6-7

“Tuesdays With Morrie,” Live staged reading by Carmel Community Players at PrimeLife Enrichment, 1078 Third Ave. SW, Carmel; carmelplayers.org/whats-on-stage/tuesdays-with-morrie/

Aug. 6-13

“Crazy For You,” Footlite Musicals, 1847 N. Alabama, Indianapolis; footlite.org

Aug. 6-14

“Alice In Wonderland,” Mud Creek Players (outdoors), 9740 E. 86th St., Indianapolis; mudcreekplayers.org

Aug. 8

Sam C. Jones w/ Hank Ruff, in concert at The Park at the Phoenix (Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center), 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; phoenixtheatre.org

Aug. 13-14

“The Silent War,” Live staged reading by Carmel Community Players at PrimeLife Enrichment, 1078 Third Ave. SW, Carmel; carmelplayers.org/whats-on-stage/the-silent-war/

Aug. 13-22

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” Zach & Zack productions at The Park at the Phoenix (Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center), 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; tickets.zachandzack.com, phoenixtheatre.org

Aug. 19-Oct. 3

“Newsies,” Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre, 9301 N. Michigan Road; http://www.beefandboards.com

Aug. 19-Sept. 5

INDYFRINGE (Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival) Mass. Ave. area, Indianapolis; http://www.indyfringe.org

Aug. 20-Sept. 5

“The Two Kids That Blow Sh*t Up,” Fonseca Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis; fonsecatheatre.org

Aug. 20-21

“Ripcord,” Live staged reading by Carmel Community Players at PrimeLife Enrichment, 1078 Third Ave. SW, Carmel; carmelplayers.org/whats-on-stage/ripcord-2/

Aug. 26-28

“Under the Big Top,” Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre at The Tarkington, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

Sept. 10-Oct. 3

“Always, Patsy Cline,” Actors Theatre of Indiana at The Studio Theater, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; atistage.org, thecenterpresents.org

Sept. 10-19

“Boeing Boeing,” Carmel Community Players at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way, downtown Carmel;; carmelplayers.org

Sept. 16-26

“Arsenic and Old Lace,” Epilogue Players, 1849 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis (corner of 19th and Alabama); epilogueplayers.com

Sept. 17-Oct. 3

“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” Footlite Musicals, 1847 N. Alabama, Indianapolis; footlite.org

Sept. 18-Oct. 3

“1980 (Or, Why I’m Voting for John Anderson),” Storefront Theatre of Indianapolis, 717 Broad Ripple Ave., Indianapolis; storefrontindy.com

TBA

“King Liz,” Fonseca Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis; fonsecatheatre.org

Oct. 6-31

“The Book Club Play,” Indiana Repertory Theatre, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis; irtlive.com

Oct. 7-17

“Dracula,” Main Street Players at Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St., Westfield; westfieldplayhouse.org

Oct. 7-31

“Alabaster,” Phoenix Theatre, 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; phoenixtheatre.org

Oct. 7-Nov. 21

“Phantom,” Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre, 9301 N. Michigan Road; http://www.beefandboards.com

Oct. 8-23

“The Color Purple: The Musical,” Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; http://www.civictheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org.

Oct. 8-17

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” Bard Fest production at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way, downtown Carmel; http://www.indybardfest.com

Oct. 9-10

“Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Buck Creek Players (outdoors), 11150 Southeastern Ave., Indianapolis (Acton Road exit off I-74); buckcreekplayers.com

Oct. 22-31

INDY BARD FEST (Shakespeare Festival): “Measure for Measure” at IndyFringe (downtown Indy), “Antony and Cleopatra” and “Love’s Labors Lost” at the Cat (Carmel), “Macbeth” at Theater at the Fort (Lawrence); http://www.indybardfest.com

Oct. 28-30

“There’s No Place Like Home,” Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre at The Tarkington, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

Oct. 29-Nov. 21

“Lombardi,” Actors Theatre of Indiana at The Studio Theater, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; atistage.org, thecenterpresents.org

Nov. 5-14

“Rosie the Riveter,” Buck Creek Players, 11150 Southeastern Ave., Indianapolis (Acton Road exit off I-74); buckcreekplayers.com

“Elizabeth Rex,” Indy Bard Fest at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave. (Lawrence); http://www.indybardfest.com.

Nov. 19-Dec. 12

“Holiday Inn,” Footlite Musicals, 1847 N. Alabama, Indianapolis; footlite.org

Nov. 26- Dec. 18

“A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; http://www.civictheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

Nov. 26-Dec. 26

“A Christmas Carol,” Indiana Repertory Theatre, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis; irtlive.com

Nov. 27-Dec. 19

“Bakersfield Mist,” Phoenix Theatre, 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; phoenixtheatre.org

Dec. 2-12

“The Christmas Express,” Epilogue Players, 1849 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis (corner of 19th and Alabama); epilogueplayers.com

Dec. 3-4

“The Nutcracker,” Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre at Pike Performing Arts Center, Indianapolis; gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

Dec. 3-5

“Holiday Shorts,” Carmel Community Players at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way, downtown Carmel;; carmelplayers.org

Dec. 3-24

“Elf: The Musical,” Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; http://www.civictheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

Dec. 9-19

Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” Main Street Players at Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St., Westfield; westfieldplayhouse.org

Dec. 10-19

“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” Buck Creek Players, 11150 Southeastern Ave., Indianapolis (Acton Road exit off I-74); buckcreekplayers.com

2022

Jan. 26-Feb. 20

“Fahrenheit 451,” Indiana Repertory Theatre, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis; irtlive.com

Jan. 28-Feb. 20

“The Big Bang: The Musical,” Actors Theatre of Indiana at The Studio Theater, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; atistage.org, thecenterpresents.org

“Love Bird,” Phoenix Theatre, 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; phoenixtheatre.org

Feb. 4-13

“Good People,” Buck Creek Players, 11150 Southeastern Ave., Indianapolis (Acton Road exit off I-74); buckcreekplayers.com

Feb. 4-19

“The Diary of Anne Frank,” Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; http://www.civictheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

Feb. 7-27

“Calendar Girls,” Epilogue Players, 1849 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis (corner of 19th and Alabama); epilogueplayers.com

Feb. 10-20

“Of Mice and Men,” Main Street Players at Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St., Westfield; westfieldplayhouse.org

Feb. 12-27

“The Black Dahlia,” Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre at The Academy of GHDT, Carmel; gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org

Feb. 25-March 6

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” Carmel Community Players at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way, downtown Carmel;; carmelplayers.org

March 11-26

“Wait Until Dark,” Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; http://www.civictheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org.

March 17- April 10

“The Magnolia Ballet,” Phoenix Theatre, 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; phoenixtheatre.org

March 23-April 10

(TBA), Indiana Repertory Theatre, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis; irtlive.com

March 31-April 10

“Flaming Idiots,” Main Street Players at Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St., Westfield; westfieldplayhouse.org

April 1-10

“Fly Babies,” Buck Creek Players, 11150 Southeastern Ave., Indianapolis (Acton Road exit off I-74); buckcreekplayers.com

April 7-9

“Exodus,” Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre at The Tarkington, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

April 20-May 15

“The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin,” Indiana Repertory Theatre, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis; irtlive.com

April 21-May 1

“Becky’s New Car,” Epilogue Players, 1849 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis (corner of 19th and Alabama); epilogueplayers.com

April 22-May 8

“The Fantasticks,” Carmel Community Players at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way, downtown Carmel; carmelplayers.org

April 27-May 22

“Working: The Musical,” Actors Theatre of Indiana at The Studio Theater, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; atistage.org, thecenterpresents.org

April 28-May 22

“No AIDS, No Maids, or, Stories I Can’t F*ckin’ Hear No More,” Phoenix Theatre, 712 North Illinois St., Indianapolis; phoenixtheatre.org

April 29-May 14

“Matilda: The Musical,” Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; http://www.civictheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

May 10-June 5

“Steel Magnolias,” Indiana Repertory Theatre, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis; irtlive.com

June 2-12

“Rumors,” Main Street Players at Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St., Westfield;; westfieldplayhouse.org

June 3-19

“Little Women: The Broadway Musical,” Buck Creek Players (outdoors), 11150 Southeastern Ave., Indianapolis (Acton Road exit off I-74); buckcreekplayers.com0

June 9-11

“Antony and Cleopatra,” Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre at The Tarkington, Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Carmel; gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org, thecenterpresents.org

June 10-19

“A Medley of Murders,” Carmel Community Players at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way, downtown Carmel; carmelplayers.org

June 16-26

“Now and Then,” Epilogue Players, 1849 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis (corner of 19th and Alabama); epilogueplayers.com

Aug. 12-21

“Shipwrecked! An Entertainment,” Carmel Community Players at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way, downtown Carmel; carmelplayers.org

Historical heroes share power of friendship in ‘Agitators’

By John Lyle Belden

One interesting bit of American history is that two of the most influential civil rights figures of the 19th century, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, were also close friends. That relationship is explored in “The Agitators,” by Mat Smart, now at the Phoenix Theatre.

Douglass (played by Jerome Beck) was a former slave who spoke out on the evils of that institution. He meets Anthony (Lauren Briggeman) through her activist Quaker father. The initial meeting is a little rough, but Douglass tells her, “I am your friend.” “Though I put you off?” Anthony replies. “It is a trait I most admire in a friend,” he responds.

Indeed, the play’s title is not only apt, but embraced. “Agitate, agitate, agitate!” Douglass advises. And they do, both to end slavery and to secure equal rights for women. At first it is abolition that is the cause. They host a stop on the Underground Railroad, making beds with books — the seeds of knowledge denied to slaves — as pillows. They approach the oncoming war with hope and worry for the nation’s future. Then, in Reconstruction, the spectre of compromise raises up as it appears that black men will receive the vote ahead of women.

These two share a deep friendship, and fiery yet eloquent arguments — “Don’t quote me to me!” — but never stay apart long, standing steadfast for each other. Beck and Briggeman portray these very human heroes with excellence, helping us to feel their ongoing struggles against society, injustice, politics, and occasionally each other. Though it is just these two we see, the Phoenix mainstage is barely big enough to contain them, on a creative stage design by Inseung Park, with lighting by Zac Hunter. Mikael Burke, who also captained the IRT’s “Watson’s Go To Birmingham,” directs.

As Black History Month has given way to Women’s History Month, we still have so much to learn of both. As Douglass implores at a critical moment in the play, “Look at what is before you, and see what I see.” 

Performances of “The Agitators” run through March 22 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois in downtown Indianapolis. Free tickets for students are available. Call 317-635-7529 or visit PhoenixTheatre.org.

Summit: Finding life’s meaning in unlikely ways

By John Lyle Belden

Summit Performance explores connections, being in the moment, and the fears that affect both, in the comic drama “Be Here Now,” by Deborah Zoe Laufer, directed by Amy Lynn Budd.

Bari (Carrie Ann Schlatter) is an aspiring professor of philosophy, specializing in nihilism, who needs to finish her dissertation. Being in a process that requires a lot of work to argue that nothing at all matters, she’s stuck. Also, her headaches aren’t helping.

Patty (Cynthia Collins) and Luanne (Zariya Butler), coworkers at her other job, a distribution center for knicknacks of various faiths, dislike Bari’s “smug gloom” and seek to somehow make her happy. Desperate, Patty sets up a date with her cousin Mike (Ryan Ruckman), who has issues of his own.

Suddenly, Bari collapses. After a brief seizure, she awakens to unheard music, experiencing fantastic visions — and the realization that absolutely everything is awesome.

While this play is Bari’s story, Mike is a complex presence as well, with a tragic past and an eccentric present life of gathering cast-off items and building them into little houses. And he has a pet crow. Ruckman is solid, maintaining an easy charm that makes his oddities quaint rather than disturbing.

The setting, a little town just a couple of hours away from New York City, is sort of a metaphorical character of its own: Cooperville, where nearly everyone has the last name of Cooper, including Patty. She believes in astrology and fate, and easily justifies her fear of ever leaving town by citing the dangers of the Big City. Collins plays her a little curmudgeonly, but with a big heart. By contrast, her niece Louanne blithely walks the thin line between optimistic and naive. Butler serves up a perfect dose of sweetness.

As for Bari, Schlatter expertly carries her philosophical load, expounding on questions that would give Hamlet a stroke, at times seeming to babble like one who is high (which technically the character is “tripping” at times) yet thanks to Laufer’s script, giving profound insights. This being modern times in enlightened society, she (and the others) understand there is likely a serious medical explanation for what is happening to her. But realizing that even if it’s endangering her life, it does seem to make her feel happy for perhaps the first time, does she really want to give that up?

When all is said and done, you might find yourself looking for the “garbage house” in your own backyard. See for yourself to understand what I mean. “Be Here Now” runs through Feb. 2 on the Basile Stage at the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

‘Big Day’ for little guy at Phoenix

By John Lyle Belden

Phoenix Theatre’s holiday tradition continues with “Winston’s Big Day: A Very Phoenix Xmas 14.”

(Note the originator of the series, Bryan Fonseca, also has a holiday variety show at the new Fonseca Theatre Company, but think of them not so much as competitors as companion pieces — each with its own nice yet mildly naughty take on the winter holidays.)

The Phoenix production works on a theme developed by director Chelsea Anderson over the course of the year. It’s Christmas Eve, and elf Winston (Dave Pelsue) — who had been planning to leave the North Pole to pursue a music career, with Rudolph (Ramon Hutchins) as his manager — is tapped to be co-pilot of the Sleigh. But Santa is missing! That means it’s up to the reluctant elf and his bright-nosed companion to make the deliveries and save Christmas. 

During the night, Winston looks in on several scenes, performed by the cast of Nathalie Cruz, Andrea Heiden, Jan Lucas, Pearl Scott, John Vessels, and Justin Sears-Watson. Scenes and songs are by a diverse lot including Anderson, Pelsue, Paige Scott, J. Julian Christopher, Jen Blackmer, Riti Sachdeva, Zach Neiditch, and Phoenix playwright-in-residence Tom Horan.

There is an abundance of wonderful performances, including Lucas and Heiden as ghosts of Charles Dickens; Vessels at his manic best; and dancer Sears-Watson’s smooth moves, as well as showing his singing and acting chops. 

Perhaps one of the best scenes, showing off all the talents on hand, is Blackmer’s “The Twelve Theatrical Genres of the Totally Non-Denominational, Absolutely Inclusive Holidays…” This gentle jab at both political correctness and community theatre, when its reach goes way beyond its grasp, results in a hilarious holiday scene so “inclusive” it hardly appeals to anyone: The Misguided Mechanicals present something like, “Stella and the Zombie Cats of Thebes” (that’s my best-guess title for it; you’re welcome, Chelsea). 

And, of course, there’s Pelsue and Hutchens, doing a great job of tying this whole silly and sweet mess together, as they struggle to rush through their duties, hoping to make their stage time at Fa-La-La-La-La-Palooza. 

Also impressive is Zac Hunter’s stage design, including a turntable with pop-up-book effects, and frequent clever use of the trapdoors.

Yet another holiday tradition to add to your schedule, performances run through Dec. 22 at the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois, downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Phoenix uncorks wine that makes you spill

By John Lyle Belden

“In Vino Veritas” means “in wine, there is truth,” referring to the way social beverages can loosen tongues so that unintended honesty spills out.

In the play, “Vino Veritas,” by David MacGregor, at the Phoenix Theatre, the central device is a vintage with a special ingredient (not grapes) that makes it a truth serum. After our characters imbibe, like Jim Carrey in the film “Liar, Liar,” they can’t not tell the truth. And for us in the audience watching the revelations unfold, it is fascinating, thought-provoking, and incredibly hilarious.

Lauren (Carrie Schlatter) and Phil (Wolf J. Sherrill) have a good life as professional photographers, having settled down from globetrotting to running a portrait studio while they raise their family. Lauren, who longs for adventure, resents what they’ve become, while Phil is quite happy. No longer risking his neck, he tracks how he outlives the lifespan of various animals, part of the endless useless trivia he knows — a trait that further irks Lauren. But she has brought home the rare and mysterious wine from their recent vacation in South America, and is eager to share it with their neighbors and best friends — Ridley (Michael Hosp) and Claire (Sarah Hund) — when they visit on Halloween prior to going to a neighborhood costume party.

The other couple arrives. While Claire, the reigning costume champion, has an intricate gown she worked on for months, Ridley, a doctor, takes advantage of the fact he is still technically on duty for a few hours to dress “ironically” as a doctor. 

Despite the obvious stress they all ignore, they agree to try the wine. After all, they have known each other for years, living next door to each other, attend the same church, and their children play with each other. What dark secrets could they possibly have? As it turns out, plenty.

The plot is in a similar vein to plays like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “God of Carnage” wherein situations get more and more out of hand with each revelation, and alliances constantly shift among the foursome. While some serious issues of trust, intimacy and truly understanding one another are addressed, it all comes packaged in wacky exchanges that leave you gasping from laughter. Hosp, a great physical comedian, actually plays it kind of easy, getting big laughs from small moments. Schlatter gets a lot of mileage from playing a personality who loves to stir the pot, while Hund is at turns masterfully manic and silly. Sherrill mainly displays an aw-shucks demeanor that meshes perfectly with the various neuroses on display. Phoenix artistic director Bill Simmons directs.

It’s said that the truth will set you free — will that be the case here? Find out at the Phoenix’s smaller Basile stage; in performances through Nov. 24. Note Saturday times are 2:30 p.m. matinees instead of evening shows. Find the Phoenix Theatre at 705 N. Illinois in downtown Indianapolis; call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

The King turns Queen in Phoenix’s ‘Georgia McBride’

By John Lyle Belden

Phoenix Theatre opens its 2019-20 season with the fabulous Off-Broadway comedy, “The Legend of Georgia McBride” by Matthew Lopez.

Set in the Florida Panhandle, just as Casey (Sam C. Jones), a budding Elvis impersonator with a bit of high school musical experience, is finally getting his act to work, Cleo’s Bar on Panama City Beach decides to change its entertainment. Desperate for a bigger (or any) audience, bar manager Eddie (Ty Stover) takes a chance on his cousin, drag queen Miss Tracy Mills (John Vessels).

Casey is in a bind, as his wife Jo (Bridgette Ludlow) is pregnant, so he stays on as bartender. Then, when Miss Tracy’s fellow entertainer, Anna-Rexia Nervosa (Jonathan Studdard), can’t go on, Casey is pressed into service in dress, wig and makeup, and Georgia McBride is born!

Once our hopelessly hetero hero accepts his new persona, “her” popularity rises on the beach-bar scene, but Casey can’t bring himself to tell Jo what he’s been doing. It’s easy to see that a reckoning is coming for Florida’s newest Queen.

This play is loaded with both humor – in side-splitting comic moments – and heart. In Jones and Ludlow’s performance, you can tell Casey and Jo truly love each other, though he tests her patience with his immaturity, and she his with her bouts of pessimism.

Vessels is amazing, whether playing the confident woman backstage or the hilarious performer in the spotlight. Studdard is excellent in double-duty as Rexy, who informs Casey that the drag life is more than just a lip-synching gig; and as Casey and Jo’s landlord and friend, Jason – his double-take when he find’s out about Casey doing drag is priceless. Stover as Eddie is in his element, as he plays a thin-tempered but lovable Falstaff with bills to pay.

The drag scenes are played to the Phoenix audience as the bar’s audience, so cast members informed us after opening night that people sitting up front could tip them like in a regular drag show. Those scenes include clever musical mash-ups, and wonderful costumes by Stephen Hollenbeck. Suzanne Fleenor directs.

The “Legend” continues through Oct. 6 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois in downtown Indianapolis. Information and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.

Summit: Feel the love of ‘Mary Jane’

By John Lyle Belden

“Mary Jane,” as the name of both central character and the play presented by Summit Performance Indianapolis, refers not to a quasi-legal substance but to an American everywoman – dealing with one of the worst nightmares a mother could face.

In the drama by acclaimed playwright Amy Herzog (staged Off-Broadway in 2017), Mary Jane – played with bold optimism by Bridget Haight – is the primary caretaker for Alex, a nearly three-year-old boy with cerebral palsy and other conditions likely caused by a brain-bleed during premature birth.

Presented on the intimate confines of the Basile Stage at the Phoenix Theatre, the play is presented without intermission (as intended) but its scenes present the narrative in two acts: In the first, we are in Mary Jane’s apartment, which includes various medical equipment (much of it unseen behind Alex’s door) and a visiting nurse (Nathalie Cruz). In the second, we are in a hospital which becomes for Mary Jane a sort of home – her son still being cared for just off-stage.

The “third act” is the audience’s ride home, reflecting on what they have seen, heard and felt. Yes, it’s that kind of play. Expect no easy answers, or an ending that brings triumph or catharsis. This is a reflection of real struggles, how we find the strength to confront them, and the search for understanding among others in a similar situation, as well as through faith.

Cruz plays a doctor in the latter half; others in the cast take on dual roles as well. Mara Lisabeth Malloy twice plays a mother with a special-needs child – first a new mom receiving an avalanche of advice from Mary Jane on how to cope; later a Jewish mother of seven who, having faith and family for support, takes the mentor role. Kelsey Johnson is a young woman wanting to help but out of her depth, first as a visitor, charmed by the little boy then overwhelmed by the reality of the situation; later as a musical therapist shaken into not becoming yet another part of Mary Jane’s problems. Jan Lucas bookends the story, at first as a helpful apartment Super, and later as a serenely savvy Buddhist nun.

The play is directed by Summit founding artistic director Lauren Briggeman, who – like Herzog – has some understanding of being a caregiver. It’s easy to see the devotion she and all involved had in giving their production genuine heart – including many moments of appropriately uplifting or soothing humor. Haight plays Mary Jane with great strength, even in passing moments when the facade cracks. Castmates all exhibit empathy so convincingly it seems there truly is a sickly toddler residing on the corner of the set.

If you go to theatre for “the feels,” or are open to, I encourage you to visit “Mary Jane,” with performances through Aug. 18 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.summitperformanceindy.com.

Phoenix hosts stunning tribute to artist’s life, GHDT’s ‘La Casa Azul’

By John Lyle Belden

“La Casa Azul” translates to “The Blue House,” the place where Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s life both began and ended, the place she always called home, no matter where her celebrated and tragic life took her.

“La Casa Azul: The Musical” is a newly-revised production by Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre playing at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indianapolis. It combines dance and sung-through drama, much like a cross between a ballet and an opera with Latin-flavored music. The actors all embody various individuals and chorus parts, with the exceptions of Valerie Nuccio as Kahlo and JL Rey as her husband, muralist Diego Rivera – who vividly resemble their real-life counterparts – and Abigail Lessaris as La Muerte, the beautiful dancing embodiment of Death.

The whole these parts combine to is an exceptional theatrical experience: stunning, sad, humorous, thought-provoking and inspiring.

Nuccio holds our focus throughout, the hero of the story, winning our hearts despite no effort made to make us love her. Kahlo was brash and outspoken, an unapologetic Communist who hated America and its citizens’ condescending attitudes; still, above all she was a proud woman devoted to her homeland. But the stage also belongs to Lessaris, as Death is ever present. Never speaking a word, her movement and constant attendance speak volumes. At times, Kahlo can even sense her dancing near, occasionally even helping her to her feet to live another day – La Muerte is patient.

The ensemble includes Alyssa Lopez as Kahlo’s sister Christina; Johnathon Contreras as the boyfriend who was with her in a near-fatal accident; Bill Book as her father, who encouraged her to paint during her recovery; Onis Dean as various doctors who rarely give good news; and Dick Davis as Henry Ford (who Kahlo despised) and exiled Leon Trotsky (with whom she had an affair). Jessica Crum Hawkins, who played Kahlo in the 2015 premiere of “La Casa Azul,” portrays Trotsky’s wife.

Gregory Glade Hancock not only provided the choreography, but also the costume design, music and lyrics – with Kate Ayers. The songs flow as easily as the dancing, easing us through the plot. For clarity, a full synopsis is printed in the program. Stage direction is by Mexican artist Georgina Escobar.

The costumes are a vibrant tribute to Mexico and its culture, as well as the dapper decadence of New York in one scene. The set is adorned with a fractured portrait of Kahlo, a reminder of her many facets which only come together when we see her life completed.

For anyone with an interest in Frida Kahlo and her art, seeing this is almost a duty. Performances run through July 28 on the Russell main stage of the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St. See LaCasaAzulTheMusical.com for information and tickets.