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.

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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.

Phoenix’s ‘Human Rites’ challenges

By John Lyle Belden

Indy’s Phoenix Theatre has embraced the edgy and controversial since its founding. Still, the new drama, “Human Rites,” by Seth Rozin, under renowned Chicago director Lavina Jadwhani, hits particularly sensitive subjects in today’s global culture – including how truly “global” a perspective can be.

The three-person cast of Rob Johansen, Milicent Wright and Paeton Chavis are total professionals putting in some of their best work. They help to humanize what turns out to be a contentious, eye-opening and challenging argument.

On an American university campus, Michaela (Wright), the college Dean, calls Alan (Johansen), one of her professors, into her office for a meeting. Through their conversation, we find that they once had a sexual affair, but the topic at hand regards complaints about an academic paper that Alan had one of his classes read – a paper, based on his years of research in Africa, that calls into question assumptions regarding female “circumcision” (also referred to as Female Genital Mutilation).

Being an African-American woman, Michaela is appalled at what she reads and challenges the paper’s findings. She also invites a native African graduate student, Lydia (Chavis), with the intent of having her conduct her own study on the topic. The young woman from Sierra Leone is surprised at this and reluctant for reasons of her own. She has much to say, challenging both American academics in the room, as well as all of us watching.

Rozin, who was present for the opening night reception, said the play’s assertions are based on actual research findings. But just as important in this drama is how we as Westerners react to, accept or challenge the data and opinions presented. Lydia’s own perspective calls into question how “civilized” we assume American cultural norms to be.

Since humans are complex creatures, the strong emotions sparked by the characters’ exchange include humor, with quite a few nervous and raucous laughs extracted from their situation. Though you might find yourself with a lot to think about and maybe a bit uncomfortable with those thoughts, this play is worth the challenge – and entertaining in its unconventional way.

Performances continue through Aug. 14 at the 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair near Mass. Ave.); call 317-635-7529 or see phoenixtheatre.org.

Girl seeks protection from the forces of history in ‘Golem of Havana’ at Phoenix Theatre

By John Lyle Belden

Just the title of the new musical playing at the Phoenix Theatre, “The Golem of Havana,” suggests the complex nature of its story, but the various threads weave together into a fascinating historical tapestry, set in Cuba during its 1950s Revolution.

The title entity is dreamed up by a Jewish girl in Havana, inspired by the legends her family brought with them from eastern Europe (having survived the Nazis and gotten away from Soviet occupiers). Rebecca (Lydia Burke) creates a homemade comic book about the Golem – a giant clay guardian crafted and enchanted by a Rabbi to protect the people – that followed the Jews across the ocean to continue its service.

Her father, Pinchas (Eric J. Olson), is a struggling tailor living on dreams, while her mother, Yutka (Lori Ecker), tries to keep his ambitions grounded. Meanwhile, family friend and government policeman Arturo (Carlos Medina Maldonado) promises to help them through his connections.

Rebecca befriends the family’s black Cuban maid, Maria (Teneh B.C. Karimu), who worries about the fate of her son, Teo (Ray Hutchins), who has joined the Revolutionaries. While praying for her son’s safe return, Maria introduces Rebecca to her faith in the goddess Yemaya, and at a time when the Hebrew god seems so distant, this local deity feels more responsive when it seems, at first, that things are changing for the better.

But the faith and humanity of all are tested when Teo arrives at the family home, injured, and hunted by authorities seeking to execute him. Yutka confronts conflicting urges to protect the man or to turn him away and protect her family, while remembering what happened to her and her sister (Betsy Norton) when they were betrayed to the Nazis in Hungary.

The cast also features Wheeler Castaneda, Rob Johansen, and Paul Nicely as Cuban President Fulgencio Batista.

The songs and music (under the musical direction of Karimu) flow nicely with the story. Under the steady hand of director Bryan Fonseca, the gripping drama of people caught in the changing tides of history keeps the focus on the heroic and tragic stories of individuals rather than the background events – a good thing, since neither the doomed Batista regime nor the imminent Castro victory are celebrated by history.

Burke gives us an appealing and endearing character. Hutchins reveals the pain that informs Teo’s choices. Olson’s happy optimist and Ecker’s pragmatic pessimist show how opposites do attract and make a family we can root for. Maldonado also does well in his layered portrayal of a man of mixed loyalties. Nicely shows his skill in revealing just enough humanity in a cold-hearted character to make him truly frightening.

As Rebecca says, stories matter, and “The Golem of Havana” matters not just as a Jewish story or a Cuban story, but also as a human story. It runs through July 16 on the Phoenix mainstage at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

There’s a lot going on with ‘Hir’ at Phoenix Theatre

By John Lyle Belden

Talk about having issues with the “binary” – if one feels overwhelmed while viewing “Hir,” on stage through June 18 at the Phoenix Theatre, it’s because we are slammed with two dramatic themes simultaneously.

First, we are hit with the affects of trauma and abuse: After years of dominating his family and using them as punching bags, Arnold (Brad Griffith) suffered a stroke, making him barely able to talk or even think. We meet him a year later, during which his long-suffering wife, Paige (Jen Johansen), has gone the opposite way in every aspect of life. What was clean is left dirty; what was ordered is in disarray; what was put away is tossed to the floor or stuffed in an odd place. And, once forbidden to work outside the home, she has taken a job with a non-profit. What she makes there doesn’t matter, as paying bills on time was the old life. As for Arnold, he is kept in a medicated stupor and deprived of all dignity.

Into this situation comes their son, Isaac (Ben Schuetz), a discharged Marine who had the duty of picking up combatants’ body parts from the battlefield. Returning from his recent traumatic environment to his old one, all he wants is a world that makes sense.

The second theme – from which comes the play’s title – is that among the family’s changes is that the younger sibling has changed from daughter to son. Max (Ariel Laukins) has taken hormones and insists on being referred to by the pronouns “ze” and “hir” (rather than he/she or her/him). Paige is overjoyed to have something so different and new – “the future!” she declares – that she homeschools Max so that they can learn together.

The aspect of gender roles and identity takes on irony in that while Max is free to be hir-self, part of Arnold’s humiliation is being made to always wear a dress. What’s more, in the mixed-up world of this drama, Max is the most stable and certain person on the stage.

Johansen once again comes through in chewing through a meaty role. Griffith ably compensates for his role’s limited speech with his physicality. Schuetz has Isaac deal with the swirling insanity in a convincing manner, without going over the top. And Laukins makes an excellent debut.

The world of “Hir” is exaggerated and mildly bizarre, providing a lot of laughs, but this is no comedy. Trans playwright Taylor Mac’s script uses the funhouse mirror to magnify these issues, allowing us to confront what is wrong about these people’s lives without distraction by the underlying tragedy – but one way or another, it has to be dealt with.

Find the Phoenix at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair downtown, near Mass. Ave.); call 317-635-7529 or visit http://www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Dig it! Phoenix breaks ground on its new site

By John Lyle Belden

The Phoenix Theatre, a downtown Indy arts institution for more than 30 years, took its next step in relocating to a bigger, better building with its Groundbreaking Ceremony on May 2 at the now-vacant site on north Illinois Street by the Cultural Trail.

Construction will begin soon, with grand opening of the new facility in spring of 2018. In the meantime, the Phoenix continues its full season of performances in its longtime Chatham Arch home, 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair, near Mass Ave.).

“This will be the first free-standing theater (not part of a school or other institution) built (downtown) in the last 100 years,” said producing director (and one of Phoenix’s founders) Bryan Fonseca. He added that the multi-million dollar capital campaign, largest in its history, had nearly reached its goal, with plans to continue fundraising for contingency funds and other future needs.

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While breaking new ground, the Phoenix Theatre “broke” its old logo, in the form of a pinata.

With two state-of-the-art stages, meeting areas and full costume and prop shops, the planned building will not only host full year-round Phoenix seasons, but be available to other community theatre and arts groups.

“We want to eradicate the distinction of ‘underserved groups,'” Fonseca said, “and become one community.”

The Groundbreaking drew numerous dignitaries, including Jeff Bennett, Deputy Mayor of Community Development for Indianapolis, who said the new Phoenix building “will transform this neighborhood, and it will transform lives.”

City-County Councilor Vop Osili was pleased with the location, just a block away from Meridian Street.

“This is located literally at the crossroads of commerce and culture,” he said.

Brian Sullivan, managing partner of Shiel Sexton contractors and member of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail Board of Directors, declared it a “happy day” and “a groundbreaking day for a groundbreaking theatre.”

“Today, it has never been more important for our community to hear from our artists,” he added.

Fervent supporter, donor and Phoenix board member Frank Basile, who proudly noted he had seen practically every one of the theatre’s productions over the years, declared, “We’ve really just begun.”

Local actors and Phoenix founding artists Deb Sargent-Shaver and Gayle Steigerwald praised Fonseca for his leadership and thanked all who contributed to the building campaign.

“We are so grateful that our legacy, and our tribe, will continue in this new building,” Steigerwald said.

Among the many past and present actors and crew members in attendance was Charles Goad, who was featured in the very first Phoenix show in 1983, as well as the present production of “The Open Hand.”

The traditional chrome-shovel ceremony featured Fonseca, Bennett, Sullivan and other dignitaries, but in true theatre community fashion, the shovels were handed over to any actors, crew, friends or supporters who wanted a photo opportunity. Several thespians eagerly turned spades of dirt, as if to speed the process of bringing in a new stage for their work.

To conclude the festivities, the Phoenix had its old bird-from-the-flames logo symbolically “destroyed” with an appropriately-decorated pinata, full of candies wrapped in the new logo, and prizes supplied by sponsors — including tickets to upcoming Phoenix shows. Several in attendance took got swings in before the party favor shattered to cheers all around.

For information on present and future shows, as well as the new location and Capital Campaign, go to www.phoenixtheatre.org.KIMG0575