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.

Discover the beauty of ‘Violet’

By John Lyle Belden

The musical “Violet” touches on many themes: blind faith, being blinded by faith, the importance of our appearance to ourselves and others, and the necessity to forgive — both others and ourselves. Eclipse productions, a program of Summer Stock Stage, brings all these aspects beautifully into focus in its production of “Violet” at the Phoenix Theatre, through June 15.

In 1964, Violet, a young woman from rural Spruce Pine, North Carolina., travels by bus to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to find a television preacher who conducts televised faith healings. She hopes to finally be rid of a disfiguring facial scar she got from an accident with a wayward ax blade. On the way, she rides with two soldiers on their way to Ft. Smith, Arkansas (nearby Fort Chaffee, to be accurate, but this isn’t mentioned), the last stop before Tulsa.

Along the way, Violet (Elizabeth Hutson) gets to know Flick (Mark Maxwell), a black Sargeant, and Monty (John Collins), a white Corporal, as they get a measure of her and appreciate the woman behind the face. She also meets characters such as a well-meaning old lady (Amanda Boldt) and the driver (Carlos Medina Maldonado), as well Almeta (Chase Infiniti), who runs a boarding house in Memphis, and isn’t comfortable with white folks in her rooms. During this journey, we can see in her memory a younger Violet (Leah Broderick) and her father (Eric J. Olson), who as a widower tries to do as well as he can for his daughter, while enduring a river of deep regrets.

The cast also includes Terrence Lambert, Lily Wessel, and Gabriel Herzog in various roles. At the Tulsa church studio, we meet Maldonado as the preacher with a choir led by Infiniti as featured singer, Lula.

Most of the ensemble are Summer Stock Stage alumni, young adults given an opportunity to show the skills they attained through years in the youth program as well as high school and university; thus we have fresh faces performing like old pros alongside veteran actors Olson and Maldonado.

Hutson is exceptional, her star shining through the plain hair and clothes, helping us to see the scar burned into her psyche even though (as is commonly done in this production) it is not visible on her face. Maxwell and Collins flesh out their characters solidly, and Infiniti gets to show off her powerful voice.

The simple set suggesting an old country church, by designer Geoffrey Ehrendreich, is adorned with mirrors hanging high above it, the shadow of the center one looming in the background as a metaphorical tombstone. Music direction and costumes are by Jeanne Bowling, with a backstage band conducted by pianist Nathan Perry. Eclipse Artistic Director and show producer Emily Ristine Holloway directs.

This beautiful work is playing on the Russell main stage at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St., downtown Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at www.SummerStockStage.com or PhoenixTheatre.org.

Phoenix: Thinking of ‘The Children’

By John Lyle Belden

“The Children,” the title of a recent Broadway drama by Lucy Kirkwood, now at the Phoenix Theatre, doesn’t seem to tell us much. There are no youngsters on the stage — in fact, the trio we meet are all in their 60s. But this play understands that when we are grown, if we’re not thinking of our children and what we would do for them, we often indulge in that child still within each of us.

On the English coast, at a time that could be now, we are in the aftermath of a disaster much like the one that occurred several years ago in Japan: the triple-shock of earthquake, tidal wave and a crippled nuclear power plant.

Hazel and Robin (Donna Steele and Charles Goad) were among the scientists who engineered the reactor, now they live on the very edge of the irradiated zone. They are visited by past friend and colleague (as well Robin’s lover) Rose (Diane Kondrat). Old memories and issues are brought up, leading to moments of friction. But even more devastating is the issue of what happens next.

Directed by Phoenix artistic director Bill Simmons, this veteran cast give excellent, layered performances. In Hazel, Steele presents a fastidious character who prides herself on her maturity, while staying young as possible through healthy eating and yoga. Goad’s Robin seems fondly attached to the farm he is having to give up, but his daily trips to the barn have a darker purpose. Kondrat, once again a woman of many facets, gives us a Rose who has come a long way from her impulsive youth to a woman who has faced her mortality and must finally think outside herself. Their interactions throughout the play crackle with energy that rivals the broken facility on their horizon.

The larger questions surrounding nuclear energy and the environment stay in the background, as the issues at play here are more personal — dealing with reconciling out pasts, facing our ends, considering the next generation, and what we all must do to make our actions and lives meaningful. Sometimes it takes a disaster to make us truly think of The Children, and to force us to finally grow up.

Performances run through May 19 on the smaller Basile stage of the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

– – –

One last note (this did come up with an audience member at the preview performance): Though she is in the promotional photo, actor Jolene Mentink Moffatt does not appear in the play. The publicity picture was taken long before casting decisions were made, and aside from being not quite old enough for the roles, she was busy with her recent run on the Phoenix’s “Hotel Nepenthe.”

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.