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.

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Stellar Summit debut with ‘Silent Sky’

By John Lyle Belden

A century ago, a woman helped revolutionize astronomy, a perfect subject to inaugurate Indy’s new woman-centered theater company, Summit Performance Indianapolis.

“Silent Sky,” by Lauren Gunderson, playing through July 22 on the Basile Stage of the Phoenix Theatre, is the story of Henrietta Leavitt, who, shortly before 1900, joined a team of women working for the astronomy professor at Harvard College (now University) near Boston. Acting as the “Hidden Figures” of their day, Dr. Pickering (who we never meet in this play) calls these women “Computers,” a word not yet attached to the modern device, but still apt. More crudely, they were also referred to as “Pickering’s Harem.”

Though women weren’t allowed to actually use the state-of-the-art telescope, Leavitt (Carrie Ann Schlatter) finds excitement in identifying stars and celestial phenomena on its glass photographic plates. She joins no-nonsense team leader Annie Cannon (Molly Garner) and feisty Scottish immigrant Williamina Fleming (Gigi Jennewien), Pickering’s former housekeeper and his first Computer. They are supervised by the professor’s assistant, Peter Shaw (Adam Tran), a man whose heart really isn’t in his work – until he meets Henrietta.

But the ties of family beckon, as Henrietta’s dear sister Margaret (Devan Mathias) calls her to their father’s Wisconsin home when he falls ill. Even there, she continues her work, seeking to make sense and pattern of the varying brightness in the stars she studies. Margaret tires of her sister’s obsession, and finds solace at her piano – what happens next, as the saying goes, is history.

Produced by Summit founder and Artistic Director Lauren Briggeman and directed by Lori Wolter Hudson, the play makes excellent use of the Basile black-box stage, with audience on three sides, as well as projected starscapes. The props are few but beautiful, including a very functional large desk and Henrietta’s period-appropriate hearing aid. Performances are superb, especially Schlatter expressing Henrietta’s passions and regrets, and Mathias showing Margaret’s tested but true sisterly love. Garner entertainingly transforms from dour to power as a budding feminist. Jennewien is ever the kind mother figure. Tran doesn’t allow his performance to slide into buffoonery, but he is definitely not the smartest “man” in the room.

This sweet drama explores the personal cost of ambition, as well as the struggle to overcome systems set against you. As Henrietta herself says in the play, “Life is about getting appropriately upset.”

Learn about and celebrate the woman who “measured the universe.” Note that the Phoenix is now at 705 N. Illinois St., and curtain times on this stage are 7:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m. Sundays, a half-hour off the mainstage times. For info and tickets visit www.summitperformanceindy.com or www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Asch’s work rises anew in Phoenix production of Vogel’s ‘Indecent’

 

Indecent kiss
The infamous kiss — Abby Lee (left) and Courtney Spivak in ‘Indecent’ at Indy’s Phoenix Theatre.  (Provided photo by Zach Rosing)

By John Lyle Belden

 

The Phoenix Theatre has never shied from – in fact it embraces – controversial stage works. With its present production of the Tony-winning drama, “Indecent,” by Paula Vogel, it goes another layer by showing how a popular play shocked Broadway nearly a century ago.

Polish-Jewish writer Sholem Asch wrote just one play, but it became a sensation throughout the Yiddish-speaking world, and even found fame in translation throughout Europe. But when an Americanized “God of Vengeance” went on Broadway (even after playing in New York’s Yiddish theatres with no controversy), the cast and producer were quickly arrested and charged with indecency. Not only was this a Jewish play by a Jew (a troublesome thing in 1923), but it is set in a brothel and features two women falling in love, kissing passionately on stage.

According to program notes, when Vogel was approached about writing this play, she said she immediately pictured a ragged troupe of actors in an attic. That’s who we meet as the lights come up: Lemml the stage manager (played by Nick Jenkins) and his troupe portrayed by Mark Goetzinger, John Goodson, Abby Lee, Jolene Moffatt, Bill Simmons and Courtney Spivak.

Goodson spends most of the narrative as Asch, bringing his surprising new work to a Warsaw writer’s salon, taking it – with Lemml’s help – to the stage, and dealing with the fallout of the indecency trial. He embodies the role well, in all stages from an eager genius to a bitter man focused on the next phase of his writing.

Lee and Spivak are wonderful, portraying women who fall in love both within the play and offstage. Under the direction of Martha Jacobs, their sublime affections bloom beautifully. Phoenix regulars Goetzinger, Moffatt and Simmons are solid, as usual. As for Jenkins, his work is astounding, especially as we come to why we encounter the troupe as they were in the opening scene.

Indecent Lemml-Asch small
Nick Jenkins (left) as tailor-turned-stage manager Lemml and John Goodson as celebrated Yiddish writer Sholem Asch. (provided photo by Zach Rosing)

 

The multiple languages involved in telling the story are portrayed in part by easy-to-read projected captions. Often the dialogue is in English but the projected cue will say something like “In Yiddish” to maximize understanding and dramatic flow while keeping everything in context.

In the end, it’s like we’ve seen two great plays – we get a Cliff’s-notes understanding of “God of Vengeance (Got fun nekome)” as well as the full measure of Vogel’s work. But you only need to get one ticket. Performances are through July 8 at the Phoenix, now located at 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indianapolis; call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Phoenix: A dream for better women’s lives coming true

By John Lyle Belden

OK, a feminist, a Jew and a Catholic walk into a play…

This is no joke.

In “The Pill,” a drama by Tom Horan in its world premiere run at the new Phoenix Theatre, five women play all the roles – male and female – in the story of the development of the first oral contraceptive.

In the 1950s, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger (Constance Macy) and former suffragette Katherine McCormick (Jan Lucas) discuss the need to find an “off switch” to pregnancy, something biological that can be taken like an aspirin. Society (mostly men) tells them that such an interference with nature is not possible and not needed. Not accepting either notion, Sanger persuades Dr. Gregory Pincus (Adrianne Villareal) to work on developing a birth-control pill. Once the drug proves effective in animals, these three talk to Dr. John Rock (Jan Johansen) – over Sanger’s objections due to his Catholicism – for help in conducting human trials.

Meanwhile, Sanger receives letters from Sadie Sachs (Jenni White) a young woman who hoped for a career as a nurse, but instead goes through multiple births and miscarriages as her husband insists she continue her “wifely duties.” She is literally dying to get the “secret” that Sanger’s associates are working on.

Directed by Bill Simmons, the play is performed in the round, in the intimate space of the Phoenix’s new black-box Basile Stage (the first production performed there). There is a dreamlike aspect to the flow of the scenes and minimal furniture, with a bit of whimsy and situational humor tempered by Sanger’s hard-edged persistence and Sadie’s heartbreaking visits. It’s a factual fantasia, full of feminine energy. Each scene and vignette is accented by the ringing of a bell; it’s meaning unclear – perhaps reminiscent of an old drugstore pharmacist alerting us the prescription is ready. Still, in moment after moment, it never quite is – Ding! Ding! Ding! We need it, can we have it now?

It would be difficult to praise this cast too much – Johansen, Lucas and Macy are local legends, Villareal a savvy Phoenix veteran, and White (previously seen in Phoenix’s “Barbecue” and starring in Buck Creek Players’ “Nuts”) is incredibly talented as well. They take charge of the material, relieving Simmons of any charges of “mansplaining.” As for the male playwright, it is obvious Horan did his homework, and treats the subject and the people affected with utmost respect.

With The Pill being around and available since the 1960s, it’s too easy a half-century later to take it and its influence on society for granted. This play is important to remind us all – men and women – why this pill was needed and how difficult it was to get it even made. If progress stops, it can be rolled back, or as Sanger says, “We haven’t come this far, to only come this far.”

Performances run through June 10. The Phoenix Theatre is now located at 705 N. Illinois St., Indianapolis, just north of the Scottish Rite Cathedral downtown. Call 317-635-7529 or visit http://www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Phoenix blesses us with ‘Rosewater’

By John Lyle Belden

The Phoenix Theatre, at its new home at 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indy, is off to a great start with the musical of “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” – by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (one of their first collaborations) from the novel by Indiana’s own Kurt Vonnegut – playing through June 3.

The title refers to Eliot Rosewater, son of a millionaire U.S. Senator, who manages the family foundation which gives money to practically everyone who asks. But being generous is not enough to soothe his conscience, bothered by his actions in World War II that resulted in the death of German volunteer firemen. So he disappears from his New York office and pops up at volunteer firehouses across America, seeking his purpose until he finds it – at the family home in Rosewater County, Indiana.

Aside from the significance of telling an Indiana story by a Hoosier author, performing a satire about greed in today’s political climate, and having a show with science-fiction elements (the Phoenix’s very first show years ago, “Warp,” was sci-fi themed), it is notable that this musical is playing during May, Mental Health Awareness Month.

Psychological well-being is at the heart of the Rosewater story, from Eliot’s serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder, to the Senator insisting that no son of his would be “nuts,” to the plot hanging on our hero being insane because he actually considers those “beneath” him to be worthy of dignity – even equals. This latter disorder is too much for his wife to bear, driving her mad to the other extreme: only able to function among the very rich. Even Eliot’s well-meaning signs, saying, “DON’T KILL YOURSELF; CALL THE ROSEWATER FOUNDATION,” point to the need to encourage people to seek necessary help.

Patrick Goss wins our heart as Eliot, surrounded by a top-notch cast that includes Emily Ristine as his wife, Sylvia, and Phoenix founding member Charles Goad as Sen. Rosewater. Isaac Wellhauen is nicely conniving as financial advisor Norman Mushari, who finds a way to divert the Rosewater millions to long-ignored members of the family (for a hefty fee, of course). Suzanne Fleenor, another Phoenix founder and “Warp” veteran, plays Eliot’s psychiatrist. Other parts are also taken by familiar faces: Jean Childers Arnold, Scot Greenwell, Rob Johansen, Devan Mathias, Josiah McCruiston, Deb Sargent, Peter Scharbrough, Diane Boehm Tsao, and Mark Goetzinger as McCallister, the family banker.

Little bits of sci-fi poke in from time to time in true Vonnegut fashion, as the show is also a tribute to the greatest SF writer who never lived, Kilgore Trout. Like the best of the misunderstood genre, the otherworldy perspective allows us to get a fresh perspective on our very human behavior (and gives the props and costumes folks something to have fun with).

The songs and script show the spark of the genius that gave us “Little Shop of Horrors” and those Disney classics. The look and performances are well worthy of the beautiful new space, another triumph for director Bryan Fonseca.

The new theatre has plenty of room, and plenty of free parking, so go check it out. Info and tickets at www.phoenixtheatre.org or call 317-635-7529.

Hilarious lessons for us all at ‘Fairfield,’ the final Phoenix show at its old home

By John Lyle Belden

It’s not easy being an educator these days, having to dialogue with fellow teachers, staff, and parents; keeping students engaged; and fulfilling all sorts of jargon-fueled metrics. All while being inclusive and diversity aware!

At “Fairfield,” the comedy running through April 1 at the Phoenix Theatre – the last show at its old location – first-year Principal Wadley (Milicent Wright) and rookie first-grade teacher Miss Kaminski (Mara Lefler) each try to guide students through Black History Month. Wadley, an African-American, hopes for a simple diversity curriculum leading into the “Celebrethnic” Potluck at month’s end. Meanwhile, young, eager – and Caucasian – Kaminski has more ambitious ideas; and when her tone-deaf spelling list and an ill-advised history role-playing exercise become known to the children’s parents – well, just be glad February has only 28 days.

This hilarious farce by Emmy-nominated playwright Eric Coble, loaded with razor-sharp social commentary, appears to have elements of HBO’s “Vice Principals” and the drama “God of Carnage,” with the attitude of “South Park.” From a central stage cleverly designed by Zac Hunter, the educators speak over the audience to the pupils of Fairfield Elementary. A conspicuous absence of child actors keeps the focus squarely on the adults, as while everything is “for the children,” in essence it’s really all about them and what they want (for the kids, of course).

The cast includes Doug Powers and Jean Arnold as parents of a gifted white boy caught up in the role-playing incident with a black classmate, whose parents are played by Dwuan Watson and LaKesha Lorene. As they all “dialogue” with Wadley and Kaminski, we find that when you scratch beneath their liberal progressive veneer, old suspicions and stereotypical thinking still persists. Powers also portrays the district Superintendent (and Kaminski’s uncle), who hates having to deal with racial tension, especially when it could mean firing his only black principal. And Watson also plays a civil-rights struggle veteran called on to speak to students – giving a far more detailed lesson than anyone expects.

Directed by Ansley Valentine, this show is full of bust-a-gut funny moments and I-can’t-believe-they-just-said-that lines, while deftly skewering educator double-talk and our national hypocrisy on politically correct topics. Everyone around me, as we tried to catch our breath from laughing so hard, declared that the Phoenix is departing the old church at Park and St. Clair on a strong note.

Help say farewell to the underground Basile Theatre and its pesky load-bearing poles (cleverly blended into the set, as usual). Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

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.