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.

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Comfortably crazy clan at CrazyLake

By John Lyle Belden and Wendy Carson

Given the chaotic nature of world events and the pressures we face in our individual lives, it is a perfect time for the old-fashioned eccentric wisdom of the classic stage comedy “You Can’t Take It With You,” presented by CrazyLake Acting Company in Greenfield.

Every family has its peculiar quirks but the Sycamores seem to be overachievers. Mom Penny used to paint, but now writes never-finished plays, primarily because a typewriter was delivered to their house by mistake. Daughter Essie dances around the house and makes candy even though she has talent for only one of these; she’s married to Ed, an avid printmaker and xylophonist who came for dinner eight years ago and just stayed. Dad Paul makes fireworks in the basement with the help of Mr. DePinna (the iceman who also just stayed). Grandpa, Martin Vanderhof, oversees this crazy bunch (as well as a few other colorful characters) making sure that everyone is happy.

Penny and Paul’s other daughter, Alice, an executive secretary at a high-powered Wall Street firm, is in love with the boss’s son, Tony Kirby Jr., who finds everyone charming. But his overly straight-laced parents are a different story.

Add to this some harassment from the IRS over unpaid income taxes, as well as corn flakes, snakes, explosions, a revealing party game, Russian aristocracy and live kittens on stage (yes, really!) and you get the spectacle that earned a Pulitzer Prize and inspired a Best Picture film in the 1930s, and has had audiences laughing since.

To get everyone in the mood, CrazyLake has a trio of “Andrews Sisters” serenade you at the Ricks Centre doors. On stage we get excellent performances all around, including Chris VeHorn as charming Penny, looking like the template for all sitcom moms that followed; Trever Brown as unflappable Mr. Vanderhof, whose only standard for life is to do what makes one happy; Amy Studebaker showing comic grace in a physically challenging role; Caitlyn Mabbitt and Evan Myers as our lovebirds Alice and Tony; Frances Hull as unfazed cook and maid Rheba; and Brent Oliver as appropriately uptight Mr. Kirby.

If the plot looks familiar, a form of it resurfaced in the recent “Addams Family” stage show (and perhaps echoes in the drama “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner”), but this is the original. And director Chris Shaefer, who is used to working with silly shows (as boss of KidsPlay Inc.) gets the most out of this high-energy local volunteer cast.

It’s not that far a drive, and Greenfield has a nice downtown for those who show up early. Remaining performances of “You Can’t Take It With You” are this Friday through Sunday, June 29-July 1, at the H. J. Ricks Centre for the Arts, 122 W. Main St. (U.S. 40). Tickets are $10 each online at www.crazylake.org, on site before the show, or in advance at Hometown Comics and Games, 1506 N. State St. (SR 9), also in Greenfield.

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.

CCP: Artist ‘dying’ to get popular in Twain farce

By John Lyle Belden

Mark Twain’s almost-forgotten farce, “Is He Dead?” has come alive in Fishers, thanks to Carmel Community Players.

Twain, the celebrated American author and humorist, wrote the play while traveling Europe and had planned on staging it in 1898, but those performances never happened. The script was rediscovered in 2002 and, adapted by noted playwright David Ives, finally reached Broadway in 2007.

Now it’s here.

A fictional version of actual master painter Jean-Francois Millet (played by Jaime Johnson) struggles to get noticed or even sell a single painting from his shabby home in Barbizon, France. His international circle of disciples, Chicago (Matt Hartzburg), Dutchy (Adam Powell) and O’Shaughnessy (Kelly Keller) recognize his genius, as do landladies Bathide (Lucinda Ryan) and Caron (Susan Hill), who don’t mind getting art for rent payments. But moneylender Bastien Andre (Larry Adams) wants real Francs in payment for debts owed, and threatens to foreclose not only on Millet’s studio, but also Monsieur Leroux (Keven Shadle), whose daughter he desires. However, Marie (Morgan Morton) is repulsed by Andre and is in love with Millet. Meanwhile, her sister Cecile (Monya Wolf) has her eye on Chicago.

Desperate for a way to quickly raise thousands of Francs, our artists get an idea after a clueless English art buyer (Dave Bolander in one of a number of hilarious roles) states that genius is only rewarded after the artist has died. Chicago then talks Millet into “contracting an illness” so horrible as to guarantee publicity of his impending “death.” Meanwhile, Millet appears in a dress as his twin sister, the Widow Tillou, to inherit the inevitable riches.

This being a comedy, of course, things don’t go entirely as planned.

Twain’s wry humor is woven throughout this satirical farce, and little moments of 19th-century style silliness work in the overall context. Johnson plays Millet as a down-on-his-luck everyman who just wants what’s due him, playing it straight against the comic antics of his students – and his scenes in drag are “Some Like it Hot” hilarious. Chicago, our lone American character, appears to be Twain’s surrogate in the story, a fast-talking charming schemer in the mold of Tom Sawyer, and Hartzburg turns on the charm in the role. Powell is like a caricature of a caricature, but is so likable it works. Wolf gets in some great moments with the old girl-disguised-as-man gag. And Johnson is delectably “boo-hiss!” worthy as our top-hatted melodrama villain, complete with twirled mustache.

Direction is by Mark Tumey, who said he came to love the play while portraying Andre in a production in Arizona.

The show’s social commentary on art and fame resonates a bit today, but mostly this is just a fun evening with the work of one of America’s greatest writers. As CCP is still seeking a full-time home, performances for this play are at Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy, 10029 E. 126th St., Suite D, in Fishers, through June 24. Call 317-815-9387 or visit carmelplayers.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.

Old theater tradition done afresh under Indy’s sky

By John Lyle Belden

Something interesting is happening on Indy’s westside. A commedia dell’arte troupe, wandering from the Renaissance to modern day, has found its truck broken down on the campus of Marian University. So, in order to raise the funds to continue their journey home, A Company of Wayward Saints will perform for us – after all, a rich Duke may be in the audience!

In this instance, life is imitating art, as local actor Adam Tran and friends have been conducting a GoFundMe online campaign (still ongoing) to finance this production of “A Company of Wayward Saints,” the 1963 play by George Herman.

Tran leads the troupe as Harlequin. The others also play character archetypes: the boastful Capitano (Davey Pelsue), wisecracking know-it-all Dottore (Ronn Johnstone), the unfortunate Pantalone (Zach Stonerock), misunderstood youth Scapino (Josh Maldonado), the beautiful Columbine (Kelsey Leigh Miller), grasping Ruffiana (Miranda Nehrig), and the Lovers, Isabella (Nina DeWitt) and Aurelia (Andrea Heiden).

To perform what they call commedia la improvviso, they need a prompt from the audience. Harlequin reveals the mysterious Duke has asked for “The History of Man.” A tall order. “I will play God,” the Captain bellows, and the play is on. But as members of the company lament, “As actors, temperament is our original sin,” and dissension builds in the ranks.

This performance is a wonderfully unique experience, though you should bring lawn chairs to sit by the busted flatbed truck that is the stage. The actors give their all for the art, as though they don’t worry about getting paid (or is this like hustling for tips?). Johnstone can land a cheesy punchline in the first act, and bring surprising tenderness to an unexpectedly dramatic scene with the Lovers in the second. Maldonado displays tumbling skill along with his acting chops, and shares a charming and touching scene with Nehrig. Miller nicely turns the Odysseus legend on its ear, and has a fun look at love and marriage with Stonerock. Tran shows his depth with the final scene – a scene of finality – opposite Pelsue.

Performances are this Friday through Sunday, May 18-20, by the Amphitheater at Marian University, 3200 Cold Spring Road. Get info at Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/acompanyofwaywardsaintsindy/.

NoExit literally surrounds you with scenes of people barely getting by

By John Lyle Belden

I was left with mixed feelings after seeing “Nickel and Dimed” – which is appropriate for a NoExit Performance show.

The play, by Joan Holden, is based on the book, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich, an investigative journalist who spent months at a time taking low-paying jobs to find out first-hand how the working poor in America get by. She hustles for tips as a waitress, risks injury cleaning houses, puts in long hours at a nursing home, and deals with the workplace culture of a big-box store.

But what is shocking and eye-opening for her is old news to many of us in the audience. Friends of the theatre tend to take in shows (or perform in them) between shifts as a barista; or perhaps we have a good career going, but only after some lean years. Still, there are two aspects to this that should give us some pause: First, Barbara’s adventures took place in the late 1990s (the book published in 2001), yet, except for the fact that the minimum wage is marginally higher, the play’s events could be happening today – and for a lot of people, they are.

Secondly, we who have had some college and a few breaks must remember that for many – such as Barbara’s coworkers portrayed – this is as good as it gets. This made me feel a little uncomfortable with the writer just pretending to be a broke divorcee with no prospects – acting like an anthropologist hanging out with the natives until she’s gathered enough data to leave them and return to her comfortable life (to the play’s credit, Barbara’s boyfriend does point this out to her). This seems cruel to those she leaves behind, especially after she tries to run interference in their lives – it is these with no fall-back position who deal with the consequences. One still lives in her vehicle; another still struggles with single motherhood while keeping the terms of her probation; still another trades one unhealthy workplace for another, but the new job pays a little more.

So, while Barbara, played earnestly by Bridget Haight, is the focus of the play, more important are the various people she works with – portrayed excellently by Lynn Burger, Carrie Bennett, Kallen Ruston, Tracy Herring, Latoya Moore, Elysia Rohn and Ryan Ruckman (who also plays the boyfriend). Their stories and struggles should resonate with us, and help us to take notice of all the “invisible” people in our day to day lives – busboys, shelf stockers, cleaning staff, etc.

Director Callie Burk Hartz and set designer Lizz Krull took an inventive approach to “theatre in the round,” placing all the sets around the edge of the large room while the audience sits in the middle in swivel rolling desk chairs. Thus, as the actors and light cues (credit to Christian McKinney) send us around the room, we constantly turn to face them. Little need for crew to move set pieces, and the chairs are kinda fun.

Aside from inventive staging and thought-provoking subject matter, this is also a NoExit show in the fact that the site isn’t one of the city’s theatre spaces, but a vacant office building at 3633 E. Raymond St., Indianapolis, near the intersection of Raymond and Sherman (south of Edwards’ Drive-In, turn in behind the McDonald’s). It works as a roomy space for the play’s set-up, and symbolically as a location where an office temp might toil for whatever she can get before the assignment ends and the job search resumes. However, being on Indy’s Eastside could make it difficult to bring in the folks from the more affluent areas of town who really need to see this show.

So, grab an upper-middle-class friend and see this production that helps put faces and names to the people we only hear vaguely about in government policy debates. After all, we’re all closer to that economic bottom than we think.

Performances are through May 19. Get tickets and info at noexitperformance.org.