TOTS hosts a play for the masses (literally)

By John Lyle Belden

“Well, of all things!” A 1959 French play by a celebrated Romanian absurdist about the destructive but seductive effects of mass conformity finds resonance in Indianapolis, U.S.A., in 2017.

No Holds Bard and Catalyst Repertory present Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” on the Second Stage of Theatre on the Square through Aug. 13. The play is set in a near future in which most animals are extinct and most color is gone – frowned upon, even – but the people deal with it in a very orderly black-and-white world in which logic can be argued to the point that facts can mean anything.

Slovenly, drunken Berenger (Zachariah Stonerock) doesn’t fit in. And worse, he has gotten into an argument with his only friend, proud, self-sure Jean (Tristan Ross). But suddenly, a rhinoceros comes charging up the street. Did everyone see what they just saw? Of course not. There are no zoos, there are no circuses, there are no rhinoceroses. Then, a rhinoceros comes charging down the street in the other direction. Thus the question becomes: Is it the same rhinoceros? And are one or both African or Asian? This latter point, and the counting of horns, naturally becomes the most vital issue.

The next day, Berenger comes in late to work, but Daisy (Abbie Wright), who he is sweet on, covers for him with the boss, Mr. Papillon (Josh Ramsey), who, in turn, is upset with Duduard (Tim Fox) and Botard (John Mortell) not getting to work as they argue whether the rhinoceros sighting was real. Duduard has seen the beasts and is more accepting of events; while Botard did not, assumes its a hoax, and if anything did happen, it was part of a grand conspiracy by dark forces. Then Mrs. Beof (Denise Jaeckel) arrives, saying she can’t find her husband, and she’s being pursued by a rhino – when the animal destroys part of the building, she discovers the beast is her husband, somehow transformed.

After this, nearly everyone starts changing into rhinoceroses. As you do.

Stonerock garners our sympathies as the individualist everyman – misunderstood, put down and unsure of what he wants and how to get it. He, and we through him, are never on solid ground as the more sober he gets, the more mad the world becomes.

His castmates deal well with the play’s broadly-drawn characters. Wright embodies the contradicting impulses of dependence and independence women have dealt with in the nearly 50 years of this play’s existence, showing her own strength regardless. Fox is appropriately glib, Mortell brightly brusque. Jaeckel throws herself into her role. Ross, who also directs, takes charge on stage as well; and Ramsey is sharp as ever, including his turn as a “professional logician” who tortures language into submission. The cast is ably rounded out by David Mosedale and Sarah Holland Froehlke – who extracts a lot of laughs from a dead cat.

The script’s length, adapted from three acts to two, and pacing can drag at times, but it’s all worth seeing the eventual “rhinoceros parade.” While this a comedy, with plenty of hilarious situations and comic turns of phrase, beneath the mirth is the hint of something strong and violent that can trample to ruin anything in its path.

Good thing it’s only a play, eh?

Join the herd at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave., call 317-685-8687 or get info and tickets at tots.org/rhinoceros/.

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.

Make note of nutty ‘Nothing’

By John Lyle Belden

The title “Much Ado About Nothing,” William Shakespeare’s comedy now produced by Indy’s Khaos Company Theatre, makes it sound like an Olde English version of “Seinfeld.” While its plot is as easy to follow as a sitcom, the title is more of a pun – “noting” in Shakespeare’s time was to overhear gossip, which happens here with “much ado” indeed. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

In a modernish Italy that can only exist on stage, Leonato (James Mannan), owner of the estate where the play is set, will give his daughter Hero (Kyrsten Lyster) to Claudio (Ben Rockey), a soldier in the company of Don Pedro (Donovan Whitney), who has arranged the match.

Meanwhile, Hero’s cousin, Beatrice (Kayla Lee), has nothing nice to say about men and marriage – I checked, this was written after “Taming of the Shrew,” so consider her a more-refined “Kate” – and the main target of her venom is boisterous braggart Benedick (Daniel Dale Clymer). Sensing that these two would be suited for a different kind of sparks between them, Leonato, Pedro and Claudio, along with Hero and her companions Margaret (Kathleen Cox) and Ursula (Kaylee Spivey-Good), conspire to get them thinking each is loved by the other.

Also meanwhile, Don Pedro’s brother, Don John (James Crawley), our villain, sets out to ruin everything with the help of drunken Borachio (Jake Peacock). The main thing standing in their way is Dogberry (Linda Grant) – the Barney Fife of Shakespearean Italy – her lieutenant Verges (Nikki Sayer) and faithful Watchmen (Aidan and Addison Lucas).

And “mark that I am an ass” if I don’t mention other cast members Bradley Good, Case Jacobus and Steven C. Rose, as well as that felt Comrade on Peacock’s left arm.

The jokes and barbs hold up, even with the original text. Hero, being a teenager, does blurt out “hashtag” at moments of stress, and you get latter-day clothes with sword scabbards, but it all works. Crawley should be commended for the best evil grin this side of the Grinch, and Rockey is great at playing goofy and clumsy, yet lovable. Clymer is as sharp as the blade at his side, and Lee is simultaneously beautiful and a force to contend with.

Also, Grant and Sayer totally make the corset-and-riding-crop look work.

Under the direction of KCT’s Anthony Nathan, this classic romp is truly something to make “much ado” about. Remaining performances are Friday (pay-what-you-want night) and Saturday, July 21-22, at 1775 N. Sherman Drive. Get info and tickets at kctindy.com.

KCT ‘Slingbacks’ about more than perils of being gay in high school

By John Lyle Belden

I had the good fortune to not only see the new comedy, “Another Man’s Slingbacks,” presented by Khaos Company Theatre through June 24, but also to see it with playwright Andrew Black.

In this play – set in fictional Lincoln High School, Anderson County, U.S.A. – the very masculine star quarterback Killer Kerrigan (Donovan Whitney) leads fellow jocks Romeo (David Alfonzo) and Meatwad (Josh Weaver) as they hit on the girls, Barbra (Sabrina Lang) and Lana (Gorgi Parks Fulper); pick on the New Kid, Devon (Kyle Dorsch); and torture gay classmate Ricky Malone (Andre Guimaraes).

Fed up with the abuse, Ricky wishes that Killer could be made to feel what it’s like to be homosexual. This brings the attention of a Fairy Godmother (David Malloy), complete with fabulous wings, glitter and a smoker’s voice, who presents Ricky a lengthy contract for a Standard Transformation Spell. Disregarding all the small print, the desperate boy signs.

Suddenly, Killer understands fashion and Broadway, and feels aroused by his teammates. Will he still be Big Man on Campus?

Gay playwright Black, who had been working on this play since 2010 (some references were updated to set it in this year), didn’t settle for just indulging in queer stereotypes. The resulting story explores the fact that to come of age, all teens need to “come out” of the expectations and roles set for them by the social constraints of high school.

“What could a straight person learn?” from being gay, Black said he asked himself. “When you discover you are attracted to your own gender, you have to rewrite the rules for yourself. You have to make strong choices.”

Killer is forced to adapt to a new mindset, but he’s not the only person who needs to change and grow, as Ricky finds when simply wishing revenge on his tormentor doesn’t make his own life better.

Whitney bravely takes on all aspects of Killer’s character. Lang is also excellent, as Barbra tries to adjust to Killer’s changes making him more attractive, yet more distant. Weaver as “the Meat Man” turns his simpleton into a scene-stealer. Molloy solidly commits to his no-nonsense magical persona, yet it is Dorsch who looks natural in high heels. Guimaraes, having just graduated high school in real life, is familiar with its uncertainties. Alfonzo ably embodies a go-along-to-get-along character. Fulper surprises with her devious role. And kudos to James Mannan for playing various grown-ups.

Direction was provided by KCT artistic director Kaylee Spivey Good, in one of her last jobs before going overseas later this summer to earn her Masters in theatre.

There are two more performances scheduled, 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, at KCT’s new stage 1775 N. Sherman Drive on Indy’s east side. Get info and tickets at www.kctindy.com.

Zach & Zack’s ‘Great Bike Race’ returns to TOTS

By John Lyle Belden

I’ve heard friends in Fringe shows say it’s hard to constrain a whole play to 40 minutes, so it must have been a relief for writer-director Zack Neiditch to let “The Great Bike Race.” his 2014 IndyFringe comedy hit, play out a full 70 minutes on the stage of Theatre on the Square, weekends through June 24.

The Race of the title is the 1904 Tour de France. After the success of the inaugural Tour the previous year, the ’04 bicycle race attracted a lot of attention and opportunistic riders. It became infamous for its widespread sabotage and cheating – including a competitor using a train as a “shortcut.”

Bringing that action to today’s audiences, Neiditch and Zach Rosing present a “cleverly anachronistic” (their characters told me to write that) play with the aid of antic actors, pantomime bicycles and a big projection screen.

Much of the Fringe cast returns, including Frankie Bolda as noble teen Henri Cornet. Paige Scott and Ben Asaykwee are the race front-runners and bitter rivals, Hippolyte Acoutrier and Maurice Garin. Carrie Bennett Fedor and Evan Wallace are Jean-Baptiste DuFortunac and Llucien Portier, two men who like each other very, very much. Sonia Goldberg is the only woman playing a woman, Alois Catteau, but she’s pretending to be a man. John Kern and Craig Kemp play other riders, while Josh Ramsey plays three from three different countries, whom at one point all get in an argument while trying to beat each other to the front of the pack.

For those who’ve seen it before, this version doesn’t feel padded-out at all. It’s still manic fun throughout its course, complete with contested Victory Dance.

Who wins? You do, by getting to see this hilarious show (whether again, or for the first time). Call 317-685-8687 or visit tots.org for tickets.

BCP’s ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ here to steal your heart

By John Lyle Belden

Is it a “spoiler” if you already know the ending?

The musical “Bonnie & Clyde” – through June 25 at Buck Creek Players – opens with our titular characters dying from a rain of bullets on a Louisiana road in 1934. But this historical fact is not what is important in this show by Ivan Menchell and Don Black with music by Frank Wildhorn of “Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical.” We aren’t given the gore of their story; this play is an exploration of what made a young man and woman from Texas into the Romeo and Juliet of Depression-era crime.

Bonnie and Clyde musical publicity shot
Joseph Massingale and Annie Miller as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker in the musical “Bonnie & Clyde” presented by Buck Creek Players.

After the opening tableau, we turn back to see a boy – young Clyde Barrow (Jordan Anness), a child of the West Dallas slums, become a career criminal at 12 and aspire to outshine the Roaring Twenties’ outlaws. We also meet a girl – young Bonnie Parker (Lauren Sciaudone), whose family’s hard times landed her and her mother in West Dallas, but she still plans to make it big one day in Hollywood.

These kids grow to be adults (Joseph Massingale and Annie Miller) in a world of dust and hard times – at one point our couple robs a bankrupt bank. Clyde is the only one who takes Bonnie’s dreams seriously, so they fall in love so deeply that even his stays in jail can’t keep them apart. As she joins him on his “jobs,” Bonnie gives up on the movies and aspires to fame in the pages of true-crime magazines and having her poetry published.

Meanwhile, Clyde’s brother, Buck (Levi Hoffman), gets in on the action with even his upstanding wife Blanche (Miranda Nehrig) drawn into the Barrow Gang. On the other side of the law, Deputy Ted Hinton (Jonathan Krouse), who had long been in love with Bonnie, joins in pursuit of the outlaws with Sheriff Smoot Schmid (James Hildreth) under the lead of Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kurt F. Clemenz).

The story presented neither demonizes nor glorifies the people involved, or their actions, but puts them in the context of their times and the contradictions that surrounded them – including the murderous thieves staying true to their families, going to meet them at the risk of their own safety. Some license is taken with the story, but it does stay surprisingly true to recorded events. A small video screen above the stage shows photos from the era, including mugshots, to underscore the truth of these scenes.

While rakishly handsome Massingale and charming beauty Miller excellently hold the center of the show in both voice and acting (and some resemblance to their real-life counterparts), supporting roles also shine. Nehrig’s Blanche telling Buck “You’re Going Back to Jail” is a wonderful highlight and an excellent example of the musical’s use of humor to balance the drama. Krouse gives us a heartbreaking glimpse of what Bonnie could have had in steadfast Ted. Molly Kraus is also noteworthy as Bonnie’s mother, Emma.

Director D. Scott Robinson’s passion for the show (which had a brief run on Broadway) is evident in the finished product.

Being a volunteer non-profit, BCP could “afford” to have the large enthusiastic cast and crew necessary to this musical, all “pros” in their own way. The effective yet elegantly simple stage set includes an exceptional replica of the front end of Clyde’s V-8 Ford, hand-built by set designer Aaron B. Bailey.

But the car’s fenders are clean and free of bullet holes. This is the story before that moment; a story of love and hard decisions in difficult times, the slow and steady progress of justice, and of running from the inevitable when the best you can hope for is to reach the end of the road together.

Find Buck Creek Playhouse at 11150 Southeast Ave. (Acton Road Exit off I-74); call 317-862-2270 or see www.buckcreekplayers.com.

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.