Memory of a ‘Wild’ time at Phoenix Theatre

By John Lyle Belden

I find it interesting that in “Wild Horses,” by Allison Gregory, on stage at the Phoenix Theatre, the main character of the one-woman play is 13 in the 1970s, around when I turned that age.

The story would feel familiar to anyone – recollections of a teenage year when it felt big things were happening and everything was changing – but there is a distinct feel in those days of kids among the first to identify as Generation X, more recent than the halcyon era of the 1950s or ‘60s, but before the decades when technology overtook our daily lives.

The girl we meet is unnamed (though one friend calls her “Frenchie,” likely a reference to the recently-released “Grease” movie) so we see things happen through her eyes. She lives in a countryside southern California suburb with a troubled mother, very strict father, and a 14-year-old sister she calls “the Favorite” whom she resents as much as she loves. Her best friends are accident-prone Skinny Linnie and budding delinquent Zabby, a tomboy with older brothers, Donno (whom our narrator is crushing on) and the eldest, who is aptly called “Mean Dean.”

When you hit your teens, a popular song on the radio is your anthem; for a typically horse-crazy girl, that’s doubly so with America’s “Horse With No Name.” The story opens with her trying to win an unusual radio contest in which entrants are asked to give the poor animal a name. We find out about the Favorite’s dangerous liaison, Mom’s condition – and her little secret – and the adventures our girl gets into with her besties. A badly-planned trip to rob a liquor store turns into an ill-advised venture through the fields of Morningstar Farms, a local horse ranch. A discovery made there in the dark is part of a summer she will never forget.

Directed by Lori Wolter Hudson, “Wild Horses” is performed by two different women: artistic director Constance Macy on some dates, and Jen Johansen on others. Macy, who we saw, notes in the program that the two have quite similar styles, which we agree makes for what we can assure will be an excellent theatre experience. However, the fact that this is a passion project for her does show through in her performance. We see both the woman remembering, and the girl living these events, in the way she presents this unique yet relatable coming-of-age story.

To help set the mood, theatre patrons are encouraged to add to a wall of notes reflecting on what ‘70s music we love and how we were in our youth.

Performances run through March 5 at the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Centre, 705 N. Illinois St., Indianapolis. Get tickets and info at phoenixtheatre.org.

Twisty ‘Trap’ in Bloomington

By John Lyle Belden

A young playwright has possibly written the perfect thriller – could this lead to a perfect crime?

The less you know about the 1978 play “Deathtrap” by Ira Levin, presented by Constellation Stage and Screen in Bloomington, the more vague I should stay in describing it, as it twists and turns like country road switchbacks. This is a sharply written two-act five-person one-room thriller complete with scares and laughs, about a sharply written two-act five-person one-room thriller… Yes, it does get a bit meta, but in a masterful way, fascinating as it is dizzying.

Directed by Chad Rabinovitz, who couldn’t help adding a little appropriate entertainment of his own during the curtain speech, our talented five persons are:

  • Mark Andrew Coffin as aging playwright Sidney Bruhl, who would practically kill for another Broadway hit, and keeps an awful lot of old weapons around his study.
  • Greta Lind as Sidney’s wife, Myra, who doesn’t mind supporting him with her wealth, yet is afraid of what he might do.
  • John Drea as Clifford Anderson, the aspiring writer who has sent perhaps the only copy of his first play, “Deathtrap,” to Sidney for his perusal.
  • Mary Carol Reardon as Helga ten Dorp, likely the world’s most authentic psychic – though the visions do get fuzzy at times.
  • And, Steve Scott as attorney Porter Milgrim, who comes in during the second act for necessary business, and to advance the plot with clever insights.

Coffin and Drea each give us characters who are simultaneously charming and a little suspicious, and good at dark physical comedy. Reardon relishes her work as a wacky medium, while adding suspense as the audience realizes that all her predictions come true – eventually.

In the intimate confines of the Ted Jones Playhouse, the characters can almost sense that audience witnessing them (none were harmed at our performance, and Constellation staff were standing by), adding to the spooky atmosphere provided by designer Seth Howard’s rustic/Medieval set.

For a February chill, step into “Deathtrap,” playing through Feb. 19 at 107 W. 9th St. in downtown Bloomington (formerly home of Bloomington Playwrights Project, now part of Constellation). Get info and tickets at SeeConstellation.org.

ALT: Voices on the right take their ‘Turn’

By John Lyle Belden

What if you were in an echo chamber, and the voice coming back questioned you? Or said something else entirely?

Welcome to the edge of a small town in the west-central part of Wyoming, home of cowboys and a Catholic college. It’s Trump country – especially in August 2017, with conservatives still grateful they narrowly avoided a Hillary Clinton presidency and perhaps realizing that buffoonery was about all they would get from the President they elected.

In the Pulitzer-nominated drama “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” by Will Arbery, presented by American Lives Theatre, you will find no “liberals,” yet these four young men and women gathering seven years after graduation from the college, celebrating their mentor becoming its president, aren’t entirely of the same mind.

The atmosphere is ominous: Could it be that the infamous Charlottesville riot was just days ago? Or that this land where the Plains meets the Rockies will soon be in the totality of a solar eclipse? Or is it something about the deer that Justin (Tyler Lyons) shot, or that unnatural noise in his shed? His guests – Teresa (Morgan Morton), who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and admires then-White House advisor Steve Bannon; Kevin (Taylor Cox), an apparent alcoholic working for a Catholic publisher in Oklahoma; and Emily (Devan Mathias), who lives with chronic pain and in the shadow of her mother, Dr. Gina Presson (Gigi Jennewein), whom they have gathered to honor – start to have what Kevin likes to call “big conversations.”

Teresa is fascinated by the controversial 1997 book, “The Fourth Turning,” by social scientists William Strauss and Neil Howe, and treats it like prophesy, asserting the “Turning,” a time of upheaval, is upon them. She calls it an imminent “war,” and Justin, a Marine veteran, agrees, seeing the conflict not as spiritual, cultural or rhetorical, but armed revolution. Emily, who battles mental and physical torment with an exceptionally upbeat outlook – “pain and grace,” she calls it – doesn’t want to hear any of it. Kevin, feeling uncertain about everything, wants to delve further. To change the topic, Justin tells of a children’s-book story he is working on, “The Grateful Acre,” about the stoic optimism of a plot of land.

Eventually Gina arrives, and when prodded for her thoughts, adds her perspective to the party.

In the words of Arbery, with the guidance of director Andrew Kramer, we get excellent insight on what people on the political right are thinking and why. Any notes from the other side of the spectrum come from experiences with others, as bits of devil’s advocacy, or in warnings from Teresa that “this is what they say about us.” The militant and reactionary perspectives dash against the rocks of Gina’s intellectual conservatism (think Bannon vs. George Will), but even her logic frays at the edges.

Morton and Lyons are solid as characters who stick to their guns (one figuratively, the other literally). Jennewein’s stalwart academic reminds me now much I miss the relatively measured stance of the late Bill Buckley Jr.

Mathias nimbly gives us a necessarily complex character, too often finding herself in the middle of things with no real control. Emily also has a life experience that impacts her conservative Catholic beliefs, a thing that won’t reconcile easily.

“It’s hard to be the ‘Holy Fool,’” Kevin says, but Cox gives us a master class in embodying the archetype. Like the Fool who stood by King Lear in a storm, his Kevin is all over the place both in dialogue and movement, ever probing for the veritas his vino won’t provide. Ridicule, insult or pity him – as others do – but his jagged queries are worthy of answers.

This play was written and first staged in 2019, yet instead of feeling dated its contents become more profound in the light of what would happen in America over the next three years. One can argue if the Pandemic is the Fourth Turning, or if events have damaged the presumptions of Strauss and Howe’s work, but what’s portrayed are what people did (and do) think and feel.

Regardless of your place on the political spectrum, this is a worthy challenge to experience, leavened with a few situational laughs and a curious bit of supernatural edge. Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 27-28, at the Basile IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at AmericanLivesTheatre.org or IndyFringe.org.

IRT: A ‘West’ we don’t often see

By John Lyle Belden

Just northwest of the center of the state of Kansas is a little town called Nicodemus.

Today it is a National Historic Site, and for good reason. This is living proof that it wasn’t just White families who settled the American West. Many Blacks sought true freedom under the Homestead Act, with, in this case, the help of the Nicodemus Town Company. In “Flyin’ West,” by Pearl Cleage, at Indiana Repertory Theatre, we see an imagined family who held their own land there.

Circumstances including escaping racially-motivated riots in Memphis brought three sisters – Sophie (Lakesha Lorene), Fannie (L’Oreal Lampley), and Minnie (Kayla Mary Jane) – to claim their own stake. On neighboring acres, elderly Miss Leah (Dwandra Nickole Lampkin) kept the farm after her husband passed.

Sophie, gun on her hip to fend off pests in both animal and human form, prepares for winter and to pass a resolution in town to fend off (White) land speculators.  She is persuading Miss Leah to stay on at their homestead, while Fannie is about to be swept off her feet by neighbor Will Parish (Enoch King) if he can sum up the gumption to court her properly. Minnie has recently arrived with her husband Frank Charles (Allen Tedder), whose pale skin masks his slave upbringing. The couple had been living in London, England, where social acceptance came easier, but they hardly saw another with African skin. Frank, eager to get back there, awaits word on a possible inheritance from his father’s estate in New Orleans. Somehow, Minnie also arrived with a bruise around her eye.

Cleage’s compelling drama combines timeless themes of family, dealing with the effects of violence and slavery, and the power of sisterhood in even the most challenging environment. The women’s  performances embody many forms of tested strength, which work together to do what must be done. King plays Will as a rock-solid support without being controlling – in contrast to Tedder’s turn as despicable Frank.

Stories and situations of family drama played out often in these times and places; there’s more to the West than the OK Corral, with a lot more diversity among those involved than our histories and media suggest.

Directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, this production includes a deceptively simple-looking turntable set by Junghyun Georgia Lee that suggests a cozy cabin without the obstruction of outer walls, as well as an excellent hand-painted background by Claire Dana, also masterful in its simplicity.

Performances run through Feb. 4 on the IRT Mainstage at 140 W. Washington in downtown Indianapolis. Tickets and information at irtlive.com.

Storefront: A comedy of the corrupt

By John Lyle Belden

The title, “Post-Democracy,” is a little misleading. This short darkly comic drama by Hannah Moscovitch, presented in its U.S. premiere by Storefront Theatre of Indianapolis, is less about the halls of government power than it is the ivory towers of corporate privilege where the truism, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” rings as true as your recently-signed non-disclosure agreement will allow.

Bill (Ronan Marra Sr.) has serious business on his mind. His health is forcing his hand in picking his successor as CEO. That would be distant cousin Lee (Alex Oberheide), the COO who just swung an acquisition deal for a manufacturing plant in Latin America, however the young man can’t stop acting like a misogynist jerk (complete with tics like a slimy Jim Carrey), enraging Bill’s daughter, Justine (Tracy Herring), the CFO.

Meanwhile, Shannon (Carly Wagers), the executive working on preserving the company’s public image, is scrambling to contain the damage of Gary the Brand Manager’s flagrant sexual harassment. She seeks escape in the arms of Lee, who blurts a drunken confession that adds another layer of issues to an already deep mess.

How would you handle this? Or, to be more realistic, how would people with massive wealth and a lot more money and power at stake handle this? Does being in a third-world country make things more permissible? Does buying and nurturing an entire village of “those people” give you the moral high ground? Is the NDA binding?

While it would be easy to write off these characters as just four sleazy people, Moscovitch’s script, and these performances, directed by Ronan Marra (Jr.), won’t let it be that simple. Marra Sr. keeps Bill’s focus on his suddenly-fragile legacy. Herring’s Justine is holier-than-thou and privilege-blind, but means well, and perhaps sees herself (an adopted orphan) in a likely victim. Wagers shows how the demands of Shannon’s job eat at a soul she thought healed long ago. And Oberheide’s Lee, especially in a vino veritas moment, lets slip there might be some conscience beneath that frat-bro persona.

Plenty of food for thought here, entertainingly prepared. Bring your corporate boss (or their overworked assistant) to see “Post-Democracy,” through Jan. 29 at Storefront’s new home, 2416 E. 55th Place (near the Subway on N. Keystone, across from the Meier), Indianapolis. Tickets and info at storefrontindy.com.

Time tick, tick, ticking forward

By John Lyle Belden

As I post this, 2022 has recently come to a close. And you might wonder, what were our favorite shows of this last year? Well, I just did a rough count of more than 150 reviews we posted, so – yeah, hard question.

Like an actor who never forgets that line he stumbled on at opening night, I can’t help but think about the reviews we didn’t do. Aside from scheduling and illness having us miss shows outright, there were a couple of performances that we caught at the ends of their run and didn’t get around to the writeup.

And like Jon in “Tick, Tick… Boom!” I feel the march of time.

There were actually two productions of that Jonathan Larson musical in central Indiana this last year – running practically simultaneously. We managed to get a review in of the well-done Phoenix Theatre production, but circumstances had us nearly miss the Carmel Community Players edition, which had its differences and was excellent in its own way.

Wendy and I would like to go on the record as saying we also enjoyed the CCP “TTB,” directed by Kathleen Horrigan, performed at the Switch Theatre in Fishers.

As is easier to do in volunteer community theatre, there was, in addition to Dominic Piedmonte as Jon, Ervin Gainer as his roommate Michael, and Margaret Smith as his girlfriend Susan, an ensemble of B.K. Bady-Kaye, Onis Dean, Abby Morris, and Ryley Trottier to portray other roles. This also helped distinguish the production from the stripped-down Phoenix show.

Piedmonte was great as Larson’s stand-in character, and Gainer is frankly one of those actors I can’t get enough of. Smith also did well as a character that is tricky as you don’t want to find yourself disliking Susan or Jon too much as their relationship falters. Having the full cast helped in letting Trottier play “Superbia” star (and potential “other woman”) Karessa, leading to a brilliant moment with both women singing “Come to Your Senses.”

Wendy found this version of the show really gave the feel of Larson’s dilemma of the world changing around him – not all for the better – as he turned 30 years old. And as he somehow feared and we have come to know, his life would end a few short years later.

A big thanks again to Carmel Community Players (hat tip to Lori Raffel), and all the local stages who let us come in and see what they have to show us. We look forward to another big year of theatre in 2023.

Ludwig ‘Holmes’ comedy a holiday treat at BCP

By John Lyle Belden

One of the interesting things about Ken Ludwig’s comedy mystery, “The Game’s Afoot, or, Holmes for the Holidays,” on stage at Buck Creek Players, is that the lead role is a fictionalized version of actual early-20th century actor William Gillette, who not only helped set the traditional look for Sherlock Holmes on stage and screen, but also starred in a Holmes play that he wrote with the blessing of Sherlock creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. While, as portrayed here, Gillette did make fame and fortune as the legendary detective, tinkered with inventions to aid his stagecraft, and had a castle built for him on his Connecticut estate, Ludwig also plays up the man’s Holmes obsession to the point that he seeks to solve the mystery of an attempt on his life.

Hilarity, and apparently a murdered body or two, ensues.

Joshua C. Ramsey excels at rock-chinned steadfast leading man, even when played for laughs, and delivers Gillette’s stoic sense of purpose so well that flummoxed moments come off all the funnier. His family and friends (a/k/a, the suspects) are played by Cathie Morgan as Gillette’s mother, Martha; Tony Brazelton as Felix, his past best friend and present on-stage Moriarty; Tiffany Wilson as Marian, Felix’s wife; Hannah Partridge as recently widowed ingenue Aggie; and Josh Rooks as ambitious young actor Simon. They are joined at what they thought was an end-of-the run holiday party by ruthless newspaper columnist Daria Chase (Sarah Powell), and the evening’s activities will bring around an actual detective, Inspector Goring (Renee Lopez Whiten). In addition, Cyrena Knight, Breanna Helms, and Julie Gilpin play the house staff, and can step in as understudies.

Under the direction of Brian Noffke, no stranger to wild comedy, the cast all hit the farcical beats with professional precision. The exquisite stage set, designed by Ed Trout, includes an infamous rotating bookshelf used to full comic effect.

Even though I saw a production of this years back, I had forgotten “who done it” (yes, there is a mystery to solve amidst this madness) but even if you aren’t surprised at the end, you’ll assuredly be delighted by this unconventional “holiday” play.

“The Game’s Afoot” for two more weekends, through Dec. 18 at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74), Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at buckcreekplayers.com.

Unique ‘Holiday’ story seeks to heal family

By Wendy Carson

As bright and sparkly as they appear to be, for a large number of us the Holidays ramp up our depression and sorrow. Such is the situation with the Abrams clan in “A (Happy) Holiday,” presented by Theatre Unchained.

Grandmother Bunny (Wendy Brown), mother Busy (Jenni White) and daughter Leigh (Wilhelmena Dreyer) are not only dealing with the death of son-in-law/husband/father Owen (Bradley Lowe), but also their lack of connection with each other. Into this mess enters the gloriously anthropomorphized chemical compound, Sarah Tonin (Ariel Laukins) along with the ever-perky duo of Elf 1 (Anja Willis) and Elf 2 (Thomas Sebald) to deliver a present to make their Christmakkah (being a blended family, they have a blended holiday) complete.

Reluctantly the ladies work their way through a giant magical book with 12 chapters of Holiday memories, forcing them to face their past – no matter how good, bad, or ugly. Leigh just wants to move forward and find her true self regardless of what her mom or society demand of her. Busy wants Owen back and will settle for nothing else. Bunny, who just wants everyone to be happy and get along, seems to down a lot of “holiday cheer” to keep her distracted.

This show has numerous parodies of holiday movies and TV shows as well as other pop culture touchstones to keep the laughs coming. However, the story pulls no punches in showing the sadness and sorrow of these women. Each comes to terms with pivotal moments of their past that damaged them, yet taught them to grow and carry on, to be their true selves.

This show is a true ensemble piece, executed with sheer perfection. Each performer being great on their own, together they will move you to tears of sorrow and joy. Speaking of ensemble, this play is a special project of Theatre Unchained, co-written by Karina Cochran, Kaya Dorsch, J.E. Hibbard, and director Max McCreary. They initially set out create a series of distinct holiday scenes, but found they fit together in a single theme, focused on this relatable yet unique family.

As you can tell, this show is not a typical Holiday story. Still, it is moving, touching, endearing, and entirely affirming for all. This should be at the top of your list of shows to see this month, especially since there are only three performances left, this Thursday through Saturday, Dec. 8-10, hosted by Arts for Lawrence at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave.

Good for teens and older, grab up those members of your family and come together for an uplifting story – maybe start an important dialogue to help make your own holiday complete. Get tickets at ArtsForLawrence.org.

Executive dysfunction in holiday parody

By John Lyle Belden

As we settled in for a long winter’s viewing of “The North Wing,” an original Christmas musical presented by Defiance Comedy at the IndyFringe theatre, Molly North, assistant to the show’s writer and director, Matt Kramer, said this is like if “The West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin had (presumably under the influence of something) decided to write about the Santa Claus Workshop at the North Pole, and add music.

Well… there is a “walk-and-talk” scene, so we’ll go with that.

Since Burl Ives is dead and Josh Gad costs too much, we have the lovely Paige Scott as our narrator, Jeff the Snowman, ironically with a warmer heart than her other role, Mrs. Claus. The former is charming, literally disarming, and proud to be “a waste of resources.” The latter seems to take pleasure in being naughty – which could be a problem in this setting.

Clay Mabbitt is Thomas the Human (not the one shipped off to New York, that’s another musical), the leading assistant to retiring Head Elf, Mr. Hinkle-Twinkle (Ben Rockey, one of a number of Elfin roles) who apparently learned to speak English by watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.” After another Christmas Eve in which holiday spirit is down, the old man steps down and, before Thomas can be promoted, Mrs. Claus announces an outside hire: Janet (Meg McLane) the human former executive of a Toy Corporation, who has lots of ideas for improving things at The North Wing.

Imminent changes with only 364 Days Until Christmas have elf executive assistant Beatrice (Shelby Myers), Phil the Elf (Austin Hookfin), and random Elves (Rockey and Robin Kildall) very worried. It doesn’t help that Judy Sparkles of North Pole News (Kelsey VanVoorst) reports that disaster is inevitable. It’s enough to drive one to drink – with libations served by Blumpkin the reindeer bartender (VanVoorst in antlers and red nose).

As befits a story inspired by real-world political intrigue, this all gets really silly, really fast. And there are songs. And dancing (choreography by Emily Bohannon). And romance. And, of course, the traditional plots to destroy/save Christmas.

To rescue the holiday, there is a quest for the next must-have toy, which brings – at 164 days to Christmas – the arrival of Binky the Toy Tester (Kildall). Will the thingamajig pass muster? Will it matter?

This cast works together smoothly, and I was particularly impressed with Myers’ performance. The more dramatically inclined Mabbitt makes a great straight man to set up fellow goofballs. Scott’s ability to switch between clown and villain is fun to watch.

As we’ve come to expect from Defiance, this show is full of gut-splitting hilarity and features a number of improv veterans, so expect anything. Also as usual, there’s a bit of ribald innuendo, but aside from the “Naughty” edition 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, there is a “Nice” more all-ages version at 3 p.m. Sunday (Dec. 9-11).

See their style of wacky comedy that sells out Fringe festival shows, now in two full acts, at IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis. Get tickets at indyfringe.org.

Phoenix ‘Fudge’ sweet and salty

By John Lyle Belden

2020 seemed to ruin everything, and in “The Rise and Fall of Holly Fudge” at the Phoenix Theatre, it’s messing with Christmas as well.

Carol (Milicent Wright) lives for the Yuletide, and her holiday Holly Fudge (named after her daughter, as well as its festive décor) has been the Number One Blue Ribbon winner in town for eight years. Friend and neighbor Chris (Emily Ristine), a fitness trainer who now Zumba’s over Zoom, has taken an interest during the year’s shutdown in making confections herself. They look forward to Holly (Terra Mcfarland) coming home from Seattle for the holiday, and learn she is bringing her new love interest, Jordan (Jaddy Ciucci).

This play by Trista Baldwin is not just a new twist on a holiday story, but on the “coming out” play as well, as, while Carol is accepting of Holly choosing to go from a past with boyfriends to living with a woman, it throws the Gen-X mom that rather than tagging herself a lesbian, Holly opts for “queer.” As events progress, the LGBTQ issue becomes trivial as more typical intergenerational strife comes to the fore.

Carol just wishes things could be as they were, for at least one more Christmas – the fact that the noise on the street outside isn’t carolers but Black Lives Matter protesters doesn’t help.

This sophisticated comedy, in a style much like cable shows or situations in “Modern Family,” brings a lot of laughs even as tensions build to the breaking point – which occurs in a fitting, hilariously dramatic (dramatically hilarious?) fashion. Director Daniella Wheelock said this play resonates with her, especially when going from her home in Chicago to relatives in Connecticut. Mcfarland and Ciucci both commented after opening night that it reflected their own memories of holiday homecomings and letting folks know their true selves.

Mcfarland makes an impressive debut in her first professional-level role. She admitted there was some pressure in having not only a lead but also the title character, but noted she learned a lot working with theatrical veterans, especially Wright. On stage, any nerves were channeled through her apprehensive character, a woman finding herself judged against the girl her mother wanted her to be, wanting to be seen for the person she is becoming and respected for her work as a journalist.

Ciucci and Ristine both nimbly play characters who mean well yet happen to say or do the right thing to make it feel wrong for Carol. As for Wright, typically playing the rock of an ensemble, this time she masterfully portrays a soul adrift, working to get her bearings on something familiar in a very unusual time.

Everyone join in: “Fa-la-la-la-la, No Justice, No Peace!” Performances run through Dec. 23 at the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center, 705 N. Illinois St., downtown Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.