Phoenix drama where steel of resolve reaches its breaking point

By John Lyle Belden

“Sweat,” the Pulitzer-winning drama making its Indy premiere at the Phoenix Theatre, is a riveting mystery wrapped in a stark examination of recent events.

Set in a Pennsylvania Rust-Belt town, we first meet Jason (Nathan Robbins) and Chris (Ramon Hutchens) as they talk to their probation officer (Josiah McCruiston). The former best friends are released from prison in 2008, having served time for what they did eight years earlier. Neither has come to terms with their act; Jason literally wears the shame on his face.

Much of the rest of the play takes place in the year 2000, in a bar near a local factory where generations of men and women have worked good Union jobs. But the changing times, aided by economic factors such as NAFTA and the decline of labor unions, have cast an air of uncertainty over the town. One plant, where Chris’s father Brucie (Dwuan Watson) worked, shut out its workers and may never reopen. But his mother, Cynthia (Dena Toler), is doing fine at her workplace, where she and her friends Jessie (Angela Plank) and Jason’s mom, Tracey (Diane Kondrat), even consider going for a recently-opened management position.

Bartender Stan (Rob Johansen) used to work at the factory, but thanks to an on-the-job injury he settles for just selling his old friends drinks. He is helped by good-hearted Oscar (Ian Cruz), who patiently puts up with the patrons assuming he’s Mexican (his family’s Columbian) and that he’s an immigrant (he was born in the town, like everyone else).

As for individual performances, director Bryan Fonseca has once again brought out the best in a very solid ensemble, familiar to Phoenix audiences.

As we see the social and economic darkness descend upon these characters, and we get to know their feelings and fears as we watch the inevitable from our perspective of over a decade later, one haunting truth lingers in the background: Something very bad is going to happen to one of them. We never really know until the moment it happens, and at that point, we truly feel the dark side of 21st-century America.

For a look at the hot human aspects of cold economic realities, experience “Sweat,” through March 4 at 749 N. Park Ave. (the last mainstage show at this address before the Phoenix’s big move). Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

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Phoenix: Unforgettable encounter with ‘Don’

By John Lyle Belden

Underlining the drama of “Halftime With Don,” a new play at the Phoenix Theatre, is the proposition – likely a fact – that America’s favorite sport is killing its players.

While Don Devers (an awesome performance by Bill Simmons) is fictional, the NFL heroes he mentions whose lives ended violently, often by suicide, were very real. Years after retiring from 10 seasons of pro football as a star defensive tackle, enduring, in his words, “a thousand car crashes a season,” Don’s body is in ruin with his brain succumbing to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Caused by long-term repeated head impacts, CTE symptoms include dementia, mood swings and violent impulses. It has been found, in autopsy, in numerous football players and other athletes.

About a week before the Super Bowl, devoted fan Ed Ryan (Michael Hosp) visits his idol in a meeting arranged by Don’s estranged daughter, Stephanie (Lauren Briggeman), and Ed’s wife, Sarah (Chelsea Anderson). Both women happen to be pregnant, with Stephanie due to deliver any day.

However, Ed finds that his hero, barely able to stand without a walker, spends all day in a reclining chair, a dozen pill bottles by his side, surrounded by what appears to be an endless supply of products he might have endorsed in his playing days – cans of Pringles chips and bottles of Gatorade. Don’s lifelong habit of writing Post-It notes (originally for motivation and inspiration) is now his lifeline, with little reminders of daily facts and random thoughts all around him. But when Don finds a note he wrote saying, “He’s the One,” he opens up to Ed, and in his moments of lucidity he knows how this young man will help him.

Hosp’s natural ability to play an aw-shucks type character suits him well here, while imbuing Ed with surprising depth. He finds himself in a situation befitting a madcap comedy, but with serious consequences, and nails the performance. Briggeman and Anderson are outstanding as well, with stormy Stephanie and sunny Sarah’s growing relationship a vital subplot.

We’ve come to expect brilliance from Simmons, and he does not disappoint. When Don is in pain, we feel it; when he innocently looks at a friend like they have never met, you fight the urge to speak up and remind him. Even when the focus is not on him, his presence is felt. Were this a Broadway stage, a Tony would be in order.

Written by Ken Weitzman, “Halftime With Don” is a National New Play Network “Rolling World Premiere,” meaning more than one NNPN theatre will produce it, each lending the drama different stylistic touches. Phoenix producer/director Bryan Fonseca, with set designer Daniel Uhde, made use of the open space of the theatre’s downstairs area, placing two small stages – one, Don’s living room; the other, Stephanie’s home – on opposite corners with an open path between. This helps focus the action with smooth transition between scenes, as well as close audience seating for an immersive experience.

A story that’s about far more than football and the man who played it, “Halftime With Don” runs through Feb. 4 at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair, near Mass. Ave.) in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.PhoenixTheatre.org.

Phoenix craftily regifts classic bits in annual Xmas show

By Wendy Carson

Welcome to North Pole University! The students and staff are all here to make sure you are up to speed and ready for the next semester. That is the framing conceit of this year’s installment of Phoenix Theatre’s A Very Phoenix Xmas, “Up to Snow Good.”

The cast members pose as different NPU characters in order to introduce the various scenes making up the show. Since this will be the final presentation in the current location, all of this year’s skits are glowing highlights from past shows.

While you may have seen all of the vignettes before, each one has been carefully reworked in a totally new way. In fact, my all-time favorite number, “The Baby,” has been transformed into an awesome puppet show and I feel that it is a far superior rendition to the original.

Also, since these shows have been going for over a decade, it is easy to forget some of them. “Les Miserabelves” is one such example. I had honestly forgotten the hilarity resulting from blending a certain Christmas classic with a French Revolutionary musical. Needless to say, it stands the test of time.

Devan Mathias’s tender take on “Hard Candy Christmas” is hauntingly beautiful especially as she slowly transforms into a her next skit’s character as she sings.

Paul Collier Hansen’s stirring portion of “Hallelujah Hallelujah” is pure sweet sadness with a tiny touch of hope.

Rob Johansen amazingly transforms from a hard-edged Private Eye in “Christmas Heat” to a sleek acrobat in “You Can Fly”.

Nathan Robbins gives a solemn turn in the sweetly insightful “A Requiem for Shermy,” with Gail Payne as another nearly-forgotten character, a scene which will leave you reassessing how you watch a certain popular Christmas classic.

These, along with Jean Arnold, Andrea Heiden and Carlos Medina Maldonado, are all such standout talents. And with such great material, under the direction of Phoenix boss Bryan Fonseca, they all work together so well without chewing the scenery or stealing scenes.

Given the Phoenix’s well-earned reputation for edgy and controversial fare, we’re happy to note that even with their tongue in cheek, there is nothing too over-the-top (though the creche catapult in the War on Christmas scene comes close).

So pull on your ugliest Christmas sweater, gather your loved ones and snuggle up at the Phoenix Theater, 749 N. Park Ave. in downtown Indy, with a spirited take on the holidays as we know them, on the main stage through Dec. 23. Get info and tickets at www.phoenixtheatre.org.

OMGWTFBBQ — Phoenix cooks up another masterpiece

By John Lyle Belden

If you’ve ever joked about being the “white sheep” of the family, then “Barbecue,” the comedy presented through Nov. 19 at the Phoenix Theatre, will stir up some memories.

Family members gather at a park for what looks like a cookout, but is actually an intervention for the sister affectionately known as “Zippity Boom.” But, you know the Bible saying that one shouldn’t try to take the speck out of another’s eye before removing the stick out of their own? With this bunch, there’s lumber everywhere.

This play is about more than addiction and the comedy inherent in family dysfunction. It also delves into the fickle issue of honesty vs. “truth,” as well as a critique of today’s pop culture. Most importantly, as director Bryan Fonseca says in a note tucked into the program: “We present a play about race in America where none of the characters are racist.”

Chelsey Stauffer is fabulous as Zippity Boom, a force to be reckoned with. Likewise, LaKesha Lorene shines as the kind of driven diva you might be familiar with if you watch “Extra!” or “Entertainment Tonight.” As for the rest, Dena Toler is in top form, and we also get excellent work from Joanna Bennett, Jeffery Martin, Brianna Milan, Abdul-Khaliq Murtadha, Angela Plank, Beverly Roche and Jenni White.

The play’s structure hooks you in with hilarity, then takes a curious twist that becomes clear in Act 2 (so no leaving at intermission!). By the end, the full depth of the satire is revealed in entertaining fashion. Theatre-in-the-round staging helps draw the audience in, and ensures there is no bad seat (though sitting on the side by the entrance ensures the best view of the Epilogue scene). Bernie Killian’s set design is a perfect recreation of a park shelter, providing a realistic environment for the absurdity that ensues.

Like all Phoenix shows, this play – by celebrated writer Robert O’Hara – is thought-provoking, but it’s also side-splittingly funny. Even if, to some degree, we’re laughing at ourselves.

The Phoenix is at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) in downtown Indy. For info and tickets call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Phoenix premiere: Search for understanding takes musical’s author ‘Home’

By John Lyle Belden

Nothing is what it appears in the Fun Home. Even the name disguises its purpose, being short for Funeral Home – but that doesn’t stop the kids who live there from writing it an upbeat commercial jingle. The house is immaculate, orderly and almost museum-like – an elaborate facade for the psychological chaos in its residents.

One of those kids, Alison Bechdel, grows up to be a popular queer cartoonist. As she reflects back on her unusual childhood and coming of age, she wants to write and draw it all as it really happened – not as she wants to remember it. That struggle plays out in the Tony-winning musical, “Fun Home” (based on her autobiographical graphic novel), making its Indiana premiere at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indy.

We meet today’s Alison (Cynthia Collins), young Alison (Amelia Wray) and, later, Alison in college (Ivy Moody).

The girl longs for attention from, and the teen connection to, her father, Bruce (Eric J. Olson), while helping mother, Helen (Emily Ristine), and brothers, John and Christian (Jacob McVay and Aiden Shurr), keep their home orderly. She finds herself having feelings she’s not sure others understand – she hates wearing dresses, she sees beauty in a muscular woman in short hair and a plaid shirt – unaware that in his own way, Dad understands.

How well he knew, and his true thoughts and feelings, Alison will never know.

In college, the young woman realizes what now seems obvious; she is a lesbian. She researches in books about sexuality, then learns hands-on from Joan (Teneh B.C. Karimu). After coming out to her parents, she gets their truth in return. And within weeks, her father is dead.

Our trio of Alisons excellently bring the story to life, especially charming Wray. Olson has a knack for making every role seem like it was written for him – this is no exception. Ristine perfectly portrays the longsuffering wife and mother, able to show so much in just an expression; her song, when Helen feels free to let her true feelings show, is the kind of moment that awards are given for.

Karimu presents the steadying influence of a good friend. And Brandon Alstott completes the cast as different characters, including Roy – a man who’s like an uncle to the kids, and much more to Bruce.

It’s easy to ride along on this emotional journey, because Alison isn’t the hero of her story (and neither can her father be, no matter how much she wishes it), she just wants to understand what makes her feel so different from the rest of the world. She’s still the girl who wants her Dad to lift her up, and through her search lifts him to examine the facets she can’t see clearly, no matter how hard she tries. She sees in her parents so many opportunities lost and abandoned, wondering what that bodes for her.

For all who feel different – maybe “queer” in either the traditional or LGBTQ sense – this show (presented in a single movie-length act) is highly recommended. Is it “fun”? Hard to say, but it can certainly feel like home.

This musical opens the final season at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) before the Phoenix moves to its new downtown location. It runs Thursdays through Sundays through Oct. 22. Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.PhoenixTheatre.org.

IndyFringe: Neil Tobin, Necromancer: Near Death Experience

By John Lyle Belden

Now that the 2017 IndyFringe festival is done, we all have plenty of time to contemplate our mortality. Fortunately, we got a start on that during the Fringe with Neil Tobin, self-proclaimed Necromancer, and his show, “Near Death Experience.”

Despite his magical title, Tobin doesn’t bring anyone back from the dead (except, maybe, himself – and he did invite us along). But he is a magician, who employs tricks to enhance his talk on facing your future end by living in the here and now.

Illusionists often project an air of mystery, and Tobin exploits this trait to add to the show’s atmosphere. The intimate confines of the downstairs stage at the Phoenix Theatre – a former church building with its own dark history and uncertain future – already give a sense that the veil between life and what comes next is thin. In this supernatural air, his mastery over a small piece of reality – Is this the word you saw and kept to yourself? It is! – makes him our guide to the unknown.

Tobin doesn’t give us The Answers, but perhaps better questions, presenting the irony that by recognizing that death eventually comes, we can accept that life has already arrived. Meanwhile, we get to marvel at some slight-of-hand and sleight-of-mind, delivered with appropriately dark humor.

I add that the more uncertain you feel about the topic of death and dying – the closer you’ve felt to mortality for yourself or a loved one – the more this exercise in morbid optimism is recommended.

Tobin plans to make the experience even more immersive with site-specific performances at funeral homes and cemetery chapels, but your bravery will be rewarded. Discover the beauty of our eternal gardens, and our duty to make the most of time remaining above the sod.

Find information on shows and performances at www.neardeathx.com.

IndyFringe: ‘A Fatal Step’

By John Lyle Belden

How can I add to all the praise heaped upon Jill Vice, the star of the one-woman noir, “A Fatal Step”? Let’s just say it’s well deserved.

Vice performs all the characters in a dark tale suited to old-time radio or dime novels, but set in modern times. A beautiful woman whose devotion edges into manipulation commits everything to a man who finds more gentle and genuine affection with a plain-looking woman he works with; this will not end well.

Vice’s delivery maintains suspense while slipping in the punch lines, making for a thoroughly entertaining experience — and it doesn’t hurt that she’s as lovely and charming as her main character. Still, as she slips from persona to persona, she masters her expression to make all her roles, male and female, distinct.

Yes, add us to her fan club! John & Wendy encourage you to take “A Fatal Step” at 7:30 p.m. Sunday (Aug. 27) at the Phoenix Theatre, 749 N. Park Ave.

Festival info: www.indyfringe.com.