FTC: ‘Cake’ a complex confection

By John Lyle Belden

Though every aspect of a thoroughly-planned wedding seems critical, the most important thing is still the people involved.

That is the approach playwright Bekah Brunstetter brought to “The Cake,” now presented by Fonseca Theatre Company, directed by founding staff member Jordan Flores Schwartz. In this “issue play” tackling recent conflicts of homophobia, religious freedom, and free commerce, while a bakery avoiding making a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage is at the center of the story, it is the people and their very human feelings that we explore.

Della (Jean Arnold) appears to have her life in order. Her shop, Della’s Sweets of Winston, N.C., is doing well and she has been selected for the “Big American Bake Off” television show. She is a stickler for following the directions, whether it be with a generations-old recipe or the centuries-old wisdom of the Bible. We meet her speaking on this to a young freelance writer, Macy (Chandra Lynch), who, while working on her next story, has an ulterior motive. This is revealed when Jen (Kyrsten Lyster) arrives. 

Jen grew up in this neighborhood and is friends with Della. She is also Macy’s fiance. After first insisting on making the wedding cake, before finding out it is for “two brides,” Della suddenly remembers how busy she will be around the wedding date and changes her mind. 

At this point you might expect characters to dig in their heels as they take sides, each individually convinced they’re right, and maybe even go to court. But the consequences are more nuanced. 

Della, who has known and loved Jen since babysitting her years ago, almost immediately feels regret over her decision. While her husband, hard-working plumber Tim (Adam O. Crowe), supports her on it, she finds herself haunted by the voice of the Big American Bake Off host George (Dwuan Watson) questioning her motives and methods. Also, she can’t help but notice the true love between Jen and Macy, a feeling she struggles to find between her and her dutiful but distant spouse.

Meanwhile, a rift forms between our engaged couple. Macy, a New Yorker, sees all she feared from the South coming true, and wants to strike back, or at least give up the fancy nuptials for a simple civil ceremony — elsewhere. Jen, on the other hand, is determined to have her dream wedding. It turns out you can take the lesbian out of North Carolina, but you can’t take North Carolina out of the lesbian.

As with all genuine stories, no matter how serious things get, some of it you just have to laugh at. There are plenty of comic moments in this play, especially when Della tries to rekindle her own jaded romance.

Arnold makes Della surprisingly sympathetic, given the spot events have put her in. Though playing a staunch conservative, Crowe gives Tim enough heart that we can see what she saw in him.

Lynch and Lyster make a good couple, as in their roles their yin and yang of protector and nurturer balance each other out. Still, neither woman is all hard or all soft. Is it enough to save the wedding? (And will there be cake?) You’ll just have to see to find out. 

Performances run through March 22 at FTC’s home, the Basile building at 2508 W. Michigan St., west of downtown Indy. Call 317-653-1519 or visit FonsecaTheatre.org.

IRT’s Christie mystery an exciting ride

By Wendy Carson

In whodunits, the locked-door mystery is one of the cornerstones and most compelling of all scenarios in the genre. Someone had to have done it, but who, and how? Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” is one of the most original versions of the mystery in existence – not only because of the lavish setting, but also the revolutionary solution to the puzzle. Famed playwright Ken Ludwig has adapted this intriguing story for the stage, now playing at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

Legendary detective Hercule Poirot (Andrew May) has to cut his vacation in Istanbul short to take a case in England. In need of quick travel arrangements, he accepts an offer from his dear friend, Monsieur Bouc (Gavin Lawrence), of transport on his company’s train, the luxurious and now-legendary Orient Express. These two are joined by a quirky array of travelers.

British Colonel Arbuthnot (Ryan Artzberger) and Mary Debenham (Nastacia Guimont) are scheming about something in secret, yet not too covertly.

Samuel Ratchett (Ryan Artzberger in a second role) is a loud, rude American “businessman” who feels money can buy anyone or anything. Hector MacQueen (Aaron Kirby) is his overworked and oft-abused secretary.

Princess Dragomiroff (Dale Hodges), one of a number of exiled Russian royalty roaming about Europe, is traveling with a new companion, Greta Ohlsson (Callie Johnson) who has been serving as a missionary in Africa and is very unsure of anything.

The beautiful Countess Andrenyi (Katie Bradley) is traveling on her own. With her storied past, including a stint as a medical doctor, she intrigues everyone, including the elusive Poirot.

Also traveling on her own is the obnoxiously abrasive Helen Hubbard (Jennifer Joplin), an American who quickly gets herself on everyone’s “hit list.” Attempting to oversee all of this is Michel (Rob Johansen), the train’s French conductor.

Add to this a snowstorm that stops the train – right before a murder occurs – and you have a wonderful setting for a grand mystery. All passengers are accounted for at the time of the killing, or are they?

Anyone familiar with the character of Poirot knows that he is a quirky and particular personality. May adeptly explores as many facets as he can without frolicking into the territory of camp. His performance alone is worth the price of admission.

Artzberger does an exceptional job of playing vastly different characters with great aplomb. Guimont keeps her character a frigid distance from all but Arbuthnot, seemingly as a protective guise.

Joplin submerges herself into the typical “ugly American” so well, it is surprising that she is not the one who meets with the knife.

Hodges keeps the Princess as mysterious as her peculiar wardrobe. Johnson’s take on Ohlsson, the missionary, is wacky and almost overdone, but it does lend some lightness to the dark tale.

Kirby does an exceptional job of keeping his character sympathetic rather than just shady. Lawrence deftly keeps his frantic businessman persona from being entirely heartless, worrying equally about the safety of his passengers and the bad press a murder would bring to his luxury rail service.

Johansen shines both as the Conductor – not quite as minor a role as you’d first think – and his hilarious turn as the Head Waiter of Bouc’s restaurant in the show’s opening scene.

Bradley as the Countess enthralls us all, characters and audience alike, daintily dancing her way through the story never demanding but certainly drawing all attention available to her.

Christie’s story is a tale for the ages, especially with a twist ending that anyone unfamiliar with the book or movies will never see coming. Director Risa Brainin does a remarkable job keeping the soberness of the entire drama while allowing for its sharp wit, no doubt aided by Ludwig (known for farces like “Lend Me a Tenor”), to shine through.

The stage is a visual spectacle worthy of the legendary train, with designer Robert M. Koharchik placing elements of the sleeping and dining cars on an inventive rotating stage. This and projected elements by L.B. Morse give the proper sense of motion and help the scenes flow when the Express is stopped, maintaining the necessary tension. Even if you already know how it will eventually play out, it’s one exciting ride.

“Murder on the Orient Express” runs through March 29 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis (near Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

Historical heroes share power of friendship in ‘Agitators’

By John Lyle Belden

One interesting bit of American history is that two of the most influential civil rights figures of the 19th century, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, were also close friends. That relationship is explored in “The Agitators,” by Mat Smart, now at the Phoenix Theatre.

Douglass (played by Jerome Beck) was a former slave who spoke out on the evils of that institution. He meets Anthony (Lauren Briggeman) through her activist Quaker father. The initial meeting is a little rough, but Douglass tells her, “I am your friend.” “Though I put you off?” Anthony replies. “It is a trait I most admire in a friend,” he responds.

Indeed, the play’s title is not only apt, but embraced. “Agitate, agitate, agitate!” Douglass advises. And they do, both to end slavery and to secure equal rights for women. At first it is abolition that is the cause. They host a stop on the Underground Railroad, making beds with books — the seeds of knowledge denied to slaves — as pillows. They approach the oncoming war with hope and worry for the nation’s future. Then, in Reconstruction, the spectre of compromise raises up as it appears that black men will receive the vote ahead of women.

These two share a deep friendship, and fiery yet eloquent arguments — “Don’t quote me to me!” — but never stay apart long, standing steadfast for each other. Beck and Briggeman portray these very human heroes with excellence, helping us to feel their ongoing struggles against society, injustice, politics, and occasionally each other. Though it is just these two we see, the Phoenix mainstage is barely big enough to contain them, on a creative stage design by Inseung Park, with lighting by Zac Hunter. Mikael Burke, who also captained the IRT’s “Watson’s Go To Birmingham,” directs.

As Black History Month has given way to Women’s History Month, we still have so much to learn of both. As Douglass implores at a critical moment in the play, “Look at what is before you, and see what I see.” 

Performances of “The Agitators” run through March 22 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois in downtown Indianapolis. Free tickets for students are available. Call 317-635-7529 or visit PhoenixTheatre.org.

CCP serves up wacky ‘Tenor’

By John Lyle Belden

A Broadway hit that has become a community theatre favorite, Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me A Tenor” is back on stage courtesy of Carmel Community Players.

For the unfamiliar, this hilarious farce takes place in the mid-20th century, set entirely in a Cleveland hotel room. The local opera company has secured a performance by world-renowned tenor “Il Stupendo” Tito Morelli (JD Walls). Mr. Saunders (Thomas Smith), the show’s producer, knows of the singer’s appetites for booze and women, and warns his young assistant, Max (Tyler Marx) to keep a close eye on him. Tito arrives with wife Maria (Sonja Distefano), who is furious about everything, especially Tito. Add to this the visits by Saunders’ daughter Maggie (Caity Withers), who loves Max but adores Tito; ambitious soprano Diana (Rachelle Woolston), who will do anything to get a career boost from the tenor; local socialite Julia (Sally Carter) who wants nothing more than to be seen with Morelli in public; and a singing bellhop (Joe Wagner), insisting on giving an impromptu audition. It’s important to note that Max is a talented aspiring singer, as well. Also, we lose track of the number of sleeping pills Tito takes for his afternoon nap.

The result is two full acts of slamming doors, sharply-executed physical comedy, and all the misunderstandings you can stand — along with some nice moments of operatic singing. Under the direction of Susan Rardin, this bunch take to their roles with gusto, each pitch perfect from Smith’s paternal surliness, to Withers’ charm, Woolston’s seductiveness, Distefano’s fire, Wagner’s cheekiness, Carter’s posh attitude and Walls’ resignation as he finds himself on the wildest ride in Ohio outside King’s Island. Marx as our everyman at the heart of an ever-deepening situation wins us over with his nervous aplomb as Max somehow makes it through it all. Also, as the featured opera is “Pagliacci” (the tragic clown), the tendency of white face makeup to come off on others adds its own comic element.

This “stupendo” production has one more weekend, playing through March 8 at The Cat performance venue, 254 Veterans Way (near the downtown arts district), in Carmel. Call 317-815-9387 or visit www.CarmelPlayers.org.

 

Bizarre courtship for ‘Sara’ at Epilogue

By John Lyle Belden

“Getting Sara Married” plays out like a rom-com by way of the Twilight Zone, but if you roll with the absurdity, it’s a lot of fun.

In this comedy by Sam Bobrick, directed by Veronique Duprey at Epilogue Players, Sara (Monya Wolf) is a busy New York defense attorney and, as the title hints, single. She enjoys her solitary lifestyle and has no interest in marriage whatsoever.

Thus her Aunt Martha (Molly Kraus) takes it upon herself to engage in some unusual matchmaking. She has Brandon (Vince Pratt), the handsome professional she has selected for Sara, bonked on the head by “jack of all trades” Noogie (Brian Nichols) and delivered, unconscious, to Sara’s apartment. Need we mention Martha might not be entirely sane?

Shocked, Sara scrambles to prevent needing a defense lawyer herself. Brandon awakes, and after an amusing bout of amnesia, sorts out who he is, but not why he’s in a strange woman’s home — which he is impressed with, by the way. He grabs a quick bite before leaving, but is taken down by a just-remembered food allergy.

How is Brandon going to explain all this to his fiance, Heather (Rachel Kelso)?

Set just before smartphones took over the world, we only see Martha at the stage edge, on the other end of her landline — sometimes getting work from her favorite chiropractor (Alex Dantin) — presented charmingly by Kraus with unflagging confidence. 

Wolf ably takes us along on Sara’s emotional roller-coaster. Pratt plays a bit of a confused goof, but not dumb, so we can see the qualities that got Brandon chosen for this odd adventure. Nichols as eager-to-please Noogie is a likable mook, and I’m not just saying that so I don’t have to keep looking over my shoulder. Kelso has an interesting arc with Heather, a woman who — though initially infuriated — comes to understand the situation. Dantin seems to enjoy being the strong, silent type.

Hilarious with an odd charm, the show has four more performances, Thursday through Sunday, Feb. 20-23, at Hedback Corner, 1849 N. Alabama St. near downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-926-3139 or visit www.epilogueplayers.com.

Monument presents classic commentary on racial tension

By John Lyle Belden

“Dutchman,” presented by Monument Theatre Company, is a play, but it feels like a poem. It is a verse that surrounds you, confronts you in the intimate staging at Indy Convergence. 

On a subway train, in which the audience find ourselves to be passengers, traveling in New York City towards New Jersey, a handsome young black man, Clay (Jamaal McCray), sits reading. A beautiful young white woman, Lula (Dani Gibbs) enters, eating an apple. Is she Eve, the Serpent, or both? 

The monologues and conversation between them roll out like verse, dense with meaning. She teases, both in the sexual and bullying sense of the word. They move together and against one another — a dance rich with subtext. But, what is more shocking: the moments of violence, or the fact that she keeps saying n****r with impunity?

The play by Amiri Baraka is set in the year it was first presented, 1964, but could happen today, with passengers capturing it all on phones. Her short, slinky dress is a hot retro style; his buttoned suit still the best armor to reassure the whites around him that he is “civilized,” that his black life matters. And the tense banter would still apply — even with 56 years of “progress.”

Under the direction of Shawn Whitsell, Gibbs and McCray deliver Baraka’s words with cutting precision. We feel this play as we observe it, as the fascinating drama plays out in one intense hour. Dont’a Stark completes the cast in a quick but essential role.

Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday, Feb. 21-23, at 2611 W. Michigan. Get info and tickets at monumenttheatrecompany.com.

Brave men step out from anonymity to share AA’s story

By John Lyle Belden

“My name is Bill, and I’m an alcoholic.”

This opening would be rather routine — for certain well-known but private meetings, or in shows and films about them — except that this is Bill W., a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, relating his story not only for mutual support, but also so we can understand the struggle that brought about the whole program.

In “Bill W. and Dr. Bob,” by Janet Surrey and Samuel Shem, presented by Stage Door Productions at the District Theatre, Bill (played by Kevin Caraher) is joined by Bob (Dan Flahive) as they each relate the paths their lives took them down, leading to their fateful 1935 meeting in Akron, Ohio.

Bill didn’t suddenly decide not to drink anymore, then sit down and create a 12-step system all on his own. It was a messy evolution, during which he started out feeling he didn’t need help, or didn’t deserve it. But eventually he was persuaded by an on-the-wagon friend, Ebby (Robert Webster Jr., who plays all other male roles), to get involved in the Oxford Group, a sobriety program that introduced him to reliance on a “higher power” (which doesn’t have to be the Christian God). Bill becomes an evangelist for the Oxford Group, but can’t get the drunks he rounds up for it to stay. When it’s pointed out to him that the only person he seems to be keeping sober is himself, he comes up with a radical idea. 

This play is not just about the men who started a movement; it is about the women in their lives, and their struggles, too. Bill’s wife, Lois (Afton Shepard), deals not only with being married to a drunkard, but also with financial burdens intensified by the Great Depression (Bill was a stock-market wizard, directly affected by the crash) and made no better by his sobriety as he spends all his time in unpaid charity work. Bob’s wife, Anne (Adrienne Reiswerg), is too devoted to leave him, but still driven to the edge of her tolerance by his refusal to accept help. Once the two men find each other — with the help of Akron socialite Henrietta (Karen Webster, playing all other female roles) — Anne wisely asks for Lois to join them so that the women can find support in each other as well. 

Directed by Dan Scharbrough, in this story we see the trial-and-error process, as the establishment of the organization seems to mirror the individual highs and lows of the addict on the way to sustained sobriety. Bill is easily frustrated, but Bob points out that even in the setbacks there is progress. 

The play resonated well with the packed audience at our performance, many indicating by their responses that they are familiar with the program. But this is also enlightening  — as well as entertaining and heart-warming — for those who never had the need to attend a “meeting.”

(And if you feel that something about their stories hits too close to home, you don’t have to look far for help.)

This production of “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” is presented in conjunction with The International Women’s Conference, which will be held Feb. 20-23 in Indianapolis, a four-day AA fellowship for women only. For more information, visit internationalwomensconference.org.  

Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday (Feb. 14-16) at the District, 627 Massachusetts Ave. (former TOTS site, now managed by IndyFringe). For tickets, go to www.indyfringe.org, and for company info visit “stage-door-productions” on Facebook. Out of respect for the subject matter, concessions will not offer beer or wine, but there is plenty of excellent coffee, provided by Sober Joe (www.soberjoe.com) of Bloomington.