A toast to Belfry’s convent comedy

By John Lyle Belden

It seems nuns are an easy target for entertaining and eccentric characters who also have the noblest of intentions. We get another fun take on this trope in “Drinking Habits” by Tom Smith, presented by The Belfry Theatre in Noblesville.

The Sisters of Perpetual Sewing are a small but important order in the Catholic Church. If the Pope pops a button, the garment gets sent to the little convent somewhere in the U.S.A. to get fixed right up. But the sacred stitches don’t raise quite enough funds to keep the lights on, so Sisters Augusta and Philamena (Jennifer Poynter and Cathie Morgan) have let the grape juice ferment and are selling the wine in town. This is kept secret from Mother Superior (Barb Weaver), who is so anti-alcohol, she won’t even allow the words for such beverages to be said aloud.

Thus we get some interesting euphemisms: Devil’s Delight, Satan’s Mouthwash, Lucifer’s Libations, etc.

Fortunately, the secretive Sisters have always-helpful second-generation groundskeeper George (Bryan Gallet) to help.

But local newshounds Sally (Sarah Powell) and Paul (Jeff Haber) have gotten a tip about the secret vineyard and are infiltrating the convent to investigate. It happens that the Order is expecting the arrival of a new member, so Sally becomes Sister Mary Mary, while Paul becomes Father Paul, her brother. Then the actual nun, Sister Mary Catherine (Sarah Eberhardt), arrives, and things start to get confusing. Add to the mix the neighboring priest and amateur magician Father Chenille (Chris Taylor) and word that the Vatican has sent spies to ensure all its facilities are worth keeping open, and confusion, mistaken identities, multi-layered lies, and other farcical elements rule the day.

Aside from quick entrances and exits from multiple doors, the cast also mines comedy gold from the Order’s ritual of keeping silent at random points during the day. (Apparently, wild gesturing and miming is not a sin.) The goofy goings-on crescendo to a wild ending of revelations (and matrimony!) that would make Shakespeare’s head spin.

Direction is by Belfry board president Nancy Lafferty.

Poynter and Morgan are wonderful in a study of opposites – quick-thinking, fast-talking Augusta, and nervous Philamena, who literally can’t tell a lie. Gallet is handed a challenge in keeping George easy-going and kind without coming across as too simple-minded – he’s the average-sharpness knife in the drawer. Powell and Haber ably portray two people in a situation way over their heads, while also working through unresolved feelings. Weaver has Mother Superior cool and in control, but isn’t too sharply stern, and manages to be out of the loop of what’s going on without looking foolish. Taylor makes Chenille charming in a way that gives the Father “dad” vibes. Eberhardt is so much fun to watch as situations, and Mary Catherine’s growing guilt, put her continually on-edge.

This show is very funny and well worth the drive up to Noblesville, playing through Sunday, July 3, at Ivy Tech Auditorium, 300 N. 17th, St. Get information and tickets at thebelfrytheatre.com.

And, just a thought for a future season: Smith also wrote a “Drinking Habits 2.”

That old Black ‘Magic’

By John Lyle Belden

The term “Magical Negroes” was popularized by celebrated film director Spike Lee as a critique of how non-white characters were still being used in movies just as they had been in stories throughout history. The trope has its roots in racism and the historic identification of the “other” as something different than regular humanity – when not a lesser-than, such as “lazy” stereotypes, they ironically become stronger, wiser, or actually magical compared to the Whites around them, with their sole purpose in the story to help the “normal” protagonist to win the day. Mammy in “Gone With the Wind” or Bagger in “The Legend of Bagger Vance” are cited as prime examples, as well as John Coffey in “The Green Mile” and even Whoopi Goldberg’s Oda Mae in “Ghost.” Note how Hollywood has rewarded such roles with Oscar nominations and statuettes.

Black queer playwright Terry Guest can’t help but mess with old tropes, revealing the much older, darker and more powerful magic that lies beneath. Southbank Theatre Company presents Guest’s “Marie Antoinette and The Magical Negroes,” directed by Kelly Mills. Just as arguably the White majority distorts history, a “Tribe” of embodied Black stereotypes twists it back the other way. “This is not history!” the troupe declares, but between their prism and the one we were exposed to in school, maybe we’ll see the light of truth.

Marie (Haley Glickman) and her husband King Louis XVI (Josh Cornell) of France were actual historical figures. Remembered unkindly, they weren’t necessarily evil, just very spoiled and inept. If anyone could use a dark-skinned savior, it’s these two – but magic doesn’t necessarily work that way.

The Tribe are: carefree Jim Crow (Ron Perkins), crafty Sambo (Bra’Jae’ Allen), nurturing Mammy (Kellli Thomas), ambitious Sapphire (Anila Akua), and aggressive Savage (Tommy Gray III). Being timeless, they hop around the time stream a bit, so we see the Crow in President Kennedy or the Mammy in Ida B. Wells. In the Court of Versailles, Mammy is Marie’s faithful lady-in-waiting and fellow noble Anna de Noailles; Sambo is Anna’s lady-in-waiting Charlotte, a put-upon servant aching to join the protests outside; Sapphire is Catherine, the idealist who believes she can rise thought the palace ranks and effect change from the inside; and Crow is Swedish nobleman Axel von Fersen, in love with the Queen and seeking to aid her escape.

The magic here is subtle, though the cast did get some tips and a couple of props from local magician Taylor Martin. More important than a couple of visual tricks, there is the spirit of Mother Africa, and when the Tribe dances and turns – well, don’t be surprised if someone loses their head.

Glickman is exceptional in giving the many sides of a figure misunderstood even in her own day, from the child bride to the woman in a gilded cage. Marie didn’t actually say, “let them eat cake,” but she very well could have – a sentiment more borne of cluelessness than disdain. In an ironic reversal of the Black characters lacking depth or backstory, poor Louis is the most two-dimensional character in the piece, but Cornell does a good job of expressing the monarch’s constant frustration with his job and the lack of respect his hard work (in his view) gets.

The Tribe members each work outward from their archetypes to give us persons rather than caricatures – an antidote to the overdone stereotypes where they’re usually found. Thomas as Mammy/Anne isn’t just being motherly and wise for its own sake, or Marie’s; she wants to save her own life as well. Perkins as Crow/Axel isn’t self-sacrificing, either, showing genuine concern as he presents a way out, but with a price. Allen exudes the only-taking-so-much-of-this attitude, and when the dust is finally settled, trickster Sambo has the last surprise. In other eras, Akua brings the Haitian Revolution to life, and Gray reminds us, for any who still haven’t gotten the message, that Black Lives Matter.

This is one of those theatrical experiences that’s supposed to make you feel a bit uncomfortable – those involved would be concerned if you weren’t. Right up until the end, I wasn’t sure how this unconventional history lesson was going to come together to an appropriate conclusion. But when the lights finally came up, I reflected on it all and thought, OK, I see it now.

You should see it, too. “Marie Antoinette and The Magical Negroes” runs through Sunday at the Fonseca Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at southbanktheatre.org.

Rising Stars ‘slay’ in CCP production

By John Lyle Belden

Wendy and I have been at this for some time now, and we can point to several stage veterans who we first saw as shining stars as far back as sixth grade. So, consider the Carmel Community Players Rising Star Production of “A Medley of Murders” an opportunity to see kids on a path towards a lifetime of great roles – on stage, or elsewhere as they take confidence into their careers.

Murder seems a dire subject for middle- and high-schoolers, but this set of three one-acts are all comedy, and while death and destruction are at hand, we’ll leave it a surprise as to how many felonious slayings occur.

The hilarity gets under way in “Death of a Dead Guy” as Charlie Haas plays a cheesy noir-inspired Private Eye bumbling the case and dealing with a daring dame (Ava Button), a droll butler (Owen Yeater), the posh lady of the house (Isabella Bardos), the maid dropping all the china (Camren Davis) and a subtly brilliant turn by Mason Yeater as a surprisingly lively “victim.”

In “Cheating Death,” the Reaper (Lilliana Rondinella) comes to collect a soul during a group session in a mental hospital. Needless to say, things get a bit dysfunctional, as Death finds she, too, could benefit from some therapy. The patients, neurotic but clever and good-hearted, are nicely portrayed by Quinn Yeater, Kaavya Jethava, Veronica Rondinella, Camren Davis, Mason Yeater, and especially Kathryn Kirschner.

“Murder at the Art Show” involves nearly the whole company in a fairly complex plot, as Charlie Haas plays an art-hating jerk taking over the gallery from its curator (Jayda Glynn) and resident artist (Joey Brandenburg), so he can tear it down. The make-or-break exhibition features artists of varying renown (Emerson Bobenmoyer, Mason Yeater, Ava Button, Isabella Bardos), a bitter critic (Owen Yeater) and a “discovered” Monet painting. After a chaotic opening that seems to shock Rising Star director Tanya Haas as she tries to stage-manage the mess, an investigator (Quinn Yeater) declares there is evidence of foul play. This story brings out lots of promising performances, including by Morgan Rusbasan, a seventh-grader in her first major role as the keeper of the alleged masterpiece; and Kaavya Jethava, showing great stage presence for a sixth-grader as a competent but mysterious personal assistant.

Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday, June 17-19, at Carmel Friends Church, 651 W. Main St. You don’t have to be a relative or friend of these youths to enjoy this bit of silly fun. They’ll appreciate your support, and we wouldn’t be surprised if, before long, you see some of them on stage again.

Info and tickets at carmelplayers.org.

Wild ‘Rumors’ in Westfield

By John Lyle Belden

There’s a reason why Neil Simon’s classic farce, “Rumors,” is a community theatre staple. It’s an intricate yet easy to follow comedy that allows local actors used to one others’ rhythm to pull out all the stops and set an appreciative audience practically rolling in the aisles with laughter.

Main Street Productions in Westfield stepped up to the challenge, and under the direction of Jen Otterman, succeeded wildly. Otterman notes that the theme undergirding the wacky plot is friendship – especially the kind that freaks out at the thought of a BFF getting a soiled reputation. We get this sense immediately when dear friends Ken and Chris Gorman (Robert Webster Jr. and Laura Givens) arrive at the home of their best friend Charlie (who happens to be Deputy Mayor of New York) for his anniversary party to find him upstairs, injured, and his wife Myra missing. And did they hear a gunshot?

Before getting any answers, more friends arrive: Accountant Lenny Ganz and his wife Claire (Josh Elicker and Monya Wolf); then Ernie the analyst and Cookie the TV cooking-show host (Jason Vernier and Kelsey VanVoorst); and finally, Glenn and Cassie Cooper (Jan Hauer and Sara Castillo Dandurand), he’s running for State Senate and she’s running him ragged with her crystal obsession and constant suspicions of his infidelity.

Before it’s all done, there will be numerous well-meaning falsehoods, a literally deafening second gunshot, DIY meal and cocktails, and further damage to Lenny’s BMW. So, when Officers Welch and Pudney (Nathaniel Taff and Nicole Amsler) come around asking questions, what do these paranoid partygoers say?

Again, this is all very, very funny. Comic goddess VanVoorst is in her element, as well as Webster, a versatile talent who has become a familiar face on the Westfield stage. The rest of the cast stay right on the pace, delivering one zinger or sight-gag after another. Givens and Wolf have Lucy-and-Ethyl chemistry and timing. Elicker puts the “suffer” in longsuffering but keeps it all light. Vernier is a hoot as the expert on human behavior who barely has a clue. Hauer displays the desperation to come out of this with his dignity and campaign intact. Dandurand brings flaky fun without going over the top. Even Taff gets to shine, as the cop with little tolerance for foolishness finding himself in Fool Central.

Rumor has it you will have a great time at performances Thursday through Sunday, June 9-12, at the Basile Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St. Get info and tickets at WestfieldPlayhouse.org.

‘Fade’ reflects insider view of ethnic struggle in showbiz

By John Lyle Belden

The play “Fade,” presented by Fonseca Theatre Company, is not a true story, but contains an immense amount of truth.

It is based on the experiences of playwright Tanya Saracho, who, like her character Lucia, is a Mexican-born writer who worked in Chicago and got an opportunity to write for television in Los Angeles. Saracho went from being a “diversity hire” in the room that wrote cable series “Devious Maids” all the way to Shondaland, a writer and co-producer on “How to Get Away with Murder.”

We meet Lucia (Lara Romero) at the beginning of that journey, where the all-white-male writing team call her “Loosha” (not “lew-see-ah”) and think of her as little more than the coffee-fetcher and a translator for show-runner John to talk to his maid. We don’t see the co-workers but know them through Lucia’s conversations with janitor Abel (Ian Cruz; by the way, the Latinx character is pronounced “Ah-beel”).

People are people, so rather than have an instant “you and me against the world” bond, Lucia and Abel initially clash, each making class and ethnic assumptions about the other. She grew up with wealth, which he immediately senses, but she doesn’t consider herself “rich,” especially now in starving-writer mode. And Abel has a far more complex backstory than she could have suspected. In fact, Lucia realizes, it’s the kind of story that would look great on TV.

The play is a sly commentary on class, stereotype, tone-deaf Hollywood, and its ambitious culture. Lucia wants to change this place, but how much will it change her?

Romero ably portrays the likable go-getter feeling out of her element from the get-go. She comes across as smart yet needing to absorb some hard lessons. Cruz channels his paternal side (he’s the Dad of his “zoo” offstage) to bring an earnest gravatas to a surprisingly complex character. He knows what life can do to a person, now he’s witnessing the dark side of showbiz.

Assistant stage manager Chris Creech appears briefly, and as a Maintenance worker executes smooth scene changes.

Note the play is in “Spanglish,” reflecting natural conversations between two bilinguals in a mixed culture. However, Spanish phrases are translated or understandable in context. Direction is by Fonseca Producing Director Jordan Flores Schwartz.

Performances of “Fade” run through June 12 at the FTC Basile stage, 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

IRT stages solid ‘Steel Magnolias’

By John Lyle Belden

When the Indiana Repertory Theatre takes on familiar material, there is always an effort to make it fresh. This is especially important when the play has also been a beloved film.

For “Steel Magnolias,” the essence of the story has not changed, but the IRT has brought in the sets and cast from their co-production at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. With unfamiliar faces, it is easier to see them as their characters, and for their part they have had a lot of practice inhabiting them.

If you are unfamiliar with this story, this is an excellent opportunity to discover what millions have enjoyed since it premiered on stage in 1987, and on film in 1989. Robert Harling wrote the play based on events in his own family. “All the characters were based on real people, Mama’s friends,” he said in a 2017 interview. The scenes all take place in the women’s sanctum of Truvy’s Beauty Shop, the main plot centering on young Shelby and her mother, M’Lynn.

Directed by Laura Gordon (who previously worked with IRT on “Boeing Boeing”), the cast are Susan Lynskey as Truvy, the benevolent queen of this domain; Kate Abbruzzese as Shelby, whose fierce spirit strives to compensate for physical frailty; Annie Fitzpatrick as M’Lynn, a loving Mom dealing with the fact her girl inherited her stubbornness; Gina Daniels as Clairee, as close to high society as one gets in small-town Louisiana; Brittany Anikka Liu as Annelle, a young woman with a bad past hoping to build a better future with her faith; and Naomi Jacobson as feisty cantankerous Ouiser, whose rough edges guard a kind heart.  Their polished performances feel genuine, with a relaxed air like we’re all invited guests, or just fellow customers waiting our turn at the beauty chairs.

This show has what recent lingo would call, “all the feels.” There are scenes of rollicking hilarity, with dozens of quotable lines, as well as wells of wet-eyed emotion – sometimes within moments of each other. It is wondrous, charming, cathartic, and uplifting.

One doesn’t have to be from the South to understand the spirit of the play – that women are delicate flowers made of the sturdiest stuff, because they have to be. See it for yourself through June 5 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., downtown Indianapolis. For information and tickets, visit irtlive.com.

Traumatic issues taken seriously in new drama

By John Lyle Belden

Over time, I have gotten to know persons who shared their struggles with Dissociative Identity Disorder, which pop culture gave the misleading label of “multiple personalities.” This mental health condition is complex and usually borne of deep personal trauma. 

Therefore, the Trigger Warnings for “Coping with Autumn,” the new drama written and directed by Megan Ann Jacobs for Theatre Unchained, presented by Arts for Lawrence, should be taken seriously.

Autumn (Kyrsten Lyster) is under observation after her arrest for killing her boyfriend. She decides that if you are going to watch, she will give you a show, telling you the story of how she arrived in this unfurnished cell.

During her narration, we meet the occupants of her mind: Dee (Maresa Eileen Kelly), the eternal child who won’t tell her what happened when alone with her father, appears shortly before her mother (Rachel A. Snyder) divorces and moves them from Wisconsin to Indiana. Joy (Ethany Reeder Michaud), the impulsive, takes over when potential new high school friends invite her to a party, then ensures Autumn has a “good time.” When regrets set in, Vera (Roci Contreras), the confrontational, appears to make sure those classmates never bother her again.

Like many misfits, Autumn feels more at home at a distant college. There, she is befriended by Kasey (Brittany Magee). They bond over poetry and spend a lot of time together, until Kasey invites Autumn to a “small” get-together. Naturally, it’s another wild crowd, and then the bag of drugs comes out.

Before her “friends” emerge, Autumn exits, and meets Steven (Thomas Sebald). He seems so nice, and perfect. He pampers her, gives her fancy meals and nice gifts. Then he starts making demands. Is this what love is like? Must be, she thinks, and does everything she can to please him – until she can’t. Kasey has been shut out, and Steven has charmed Mom. Who can help her? I’ll give you three guesses.

The second act features Autumn’s trial and aftermath. New allies include therapist Dr. Weber (Kelly Keller) and pro bono attorney Alex (Joe Wagner), who feels a personal connection to the case. But Sebald returns to the stage as a prosecuting attorney, the resemblance not lost on Autumn. 

Lyster, who has shown so much range in past roles, is amazing here. Magee, who joined the cast late into the production, is incredible in support. Snyder is superb, and by happy accident has a physical resemblance to her “daughter.” Their portrayals of well-meaning but damaged women never slip into cliche and evoke appropriate emotional responses from the audience and each other.

This ain’t “Inside Out.” The two adolescents and child that represent portions of
Autumn’s psyche are neither cartoonish nor comic relief. The dissociation is handled respectfully in smooth transitions with Lyster so that we easily see the four actors as aspects of the same woman. 

Sebald plays Steven so disarmingly kind (when the monster is hidden away), it’s easy to see how men like this character can charm and trap women who find no one believes them when relationships turn abusive. And when he’s a beast, “evil” is an understatement.

Cast and crew took this sensitive topic seriously. During a post-show talk-back, dramaturg Max Andrew McCreary said he shared his mental health research with them, including that according to one source, it is estimated that nearly half of adults have at one time had a sort of dissociative incident, from a moment feeling outside one’s body, all along the spectrum to rare cases of true DID (fictional Autumn’s condition is on the spectrum). All involved took consent into account throughout the entire process, from the first rehearsal. Sebald, who said he had helped workshop Steven/Prosecutor, said this was especially essential for him to feel comfortable in his role. This atmosphere of trust helped make the action in this drama more raw and natural, which some in the audience noted in their comments.

If you have experience with abuse and/or psychological trauma, be careful about seeing this. But for any who can manage, this is highly recommended. Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, May 19-21 (post-show talkbacks on Thursday and Saturday) at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., Lawrence (off the north end of Indy’s Post Road). Get info and tickets at TheatreUnchained.org or ArtsForLawrence.org.

Shakespeare fun and foolishness set to music

By John Lyle Belden

It’s hardly a new idea to base a musical on a Shakespeare play (a recent Oscar-winning remake of an Oscar-winning film comes to mind). New York based songwriter Shaina Taub, with Kwame Kwei-Armah, adapted the Bard’s comedy “Twelfth Night” for its musical debut in Central Park in 2018.

Southbank Theatre Company brings that version to the IndyFringe Theatre (outdoors preferably, but on the Basile stage in bad weather) through May 8. 

If the story doesn’t easily spring to mind, note it is where we get the quote, “If music be the food of love, play on.” The play checks many of the boxes for a Shakespeare comedy: disguises, mistaken identities, siblings separated, wild wooing, nobles who will not marry, and ending up with a wedding anyway.

What makes this musical version exciting and interesting is that Taub’s songs do more than just put a tune behind Shakespeare’s words. They illuminate the themes of this old story, making it fresh and relatable. This makes the show the perfect companion to a traditional production of the play.

For instance, our central character Viola (Michelle Wofford), a woman recently arrived in mythical Illyria (vicinity of today’s Albania) finds it safer to disguise herself as a man, opening up surprising opportunities. In the song “Viola’s Soliloquy,” she sings of “the Devil’s blessing” that simply wearing trousers gives her.  

Viola, taking the name Cesario, finds her/himself between Duke Orsinio (Dave Pelsue), his employer, and the Countess Olivia (Natalie Fischer), who keeps spurning Orsinio’s advances, but has found herself smitten with Cesario. However, the Viola within the disguise pines for Orsinio, who only sees in her a dutiful young man.

Still, this wouldn’t be a Shakespeare comedy without the silly subplots. There is much opportunity for merriment in the Countess’s court, with sack-sotted Sir Toby Belch (Mark Cashwell), worst-at-wooing Sir Andrew (Kim Egan), mischievous Maria (Brittney Michelle Davis) and Fabian (Jordan Paul Wolf), who all seek to take pompous Molvolio (Hannah Boswell) down a peg or two.

Then there is the arrival of Viola’s lost-at-sea twin brother Sebastian (Matthew Blandford), accompanied by his rescuer Antonio (Z Cosby), who braves arrest to be by the man he secretly loves. Other roles are played by Brant Hughes, Ron Perkins and Yolanda Valdivia, who is also on hand as Officiant for the inevitable marriages. 

All this is accompanied by a live band, and the wit and wisdom of accordion-wielding jester Feste (Paige Scott).

With all the action of the classic comedy, but condensed down to a manageable hour and a half, this romp is an excellent showcase for the talented cast. Scott is simply amazing, whether giving chiding counsel, a beautiful ballad, or some handy narration to the audience. Speaking of fools, Boswell is a riot in an arc that goes from bombastic to pathetic, but always fun. Cashwell employs his improv skills and comic chops to great effect. Pelsue has long cornered the market on cool-guy-who-can-sing, so is totally in his element. Fischer has the sweet/feisty mix down perfectly. And Wafford is endearing with an inner strength befitting the character. Everyone else? Awesome, awesome, awesome – directed by Max McCreary with musical direction by Ginger Stoltz.

Performances are Thursday through Saturday evenings, and Sunday afternoon, at IndyFringe, 719 E. St. Clair, Indianapolis. Get information at southbanktheatre.org and tickets at indyfringe.org.

Little-known story of man’s American ‘Dreams’

By John Lyle Belden

While most know how the United States has failed to be a land of opportunity for natives and people of African descent, we might be less familiar with the manner with which Asian immigrants have been treated. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act made coming to America difficult, but in the 20th century, circumstances gave some hope by way of “paper families” – exploiting the loss of official records in events like the Great San Francisco Earthquake to claim relatives in the States.

This process, and the consequences of its necessary deception, are dramatized in “The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin,” by Jessica Huang, on stage (after a two-year delay) at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.

It’s been one year since Laura (Anne Bates) departed, but still too early for the traditional month when the Dead come to visit – however, she’s not Chinese, so she haunts her daughter Sheila (Allison Buck) and husband Harry (David Shih) anyway. 

Her arrival takes Harry Chin back to past moments, meeting young Laura as he struggles with his English, yet managing enough to tell her an old story. The supernatural effect then takes him further back, to when he was Leong Cheung Yu, leaving behind his name and past life to become the alleged relative of a Chinese American named Chin, complete with backstory he must memorize to the last word. He coaches a fellow immigrant (Linden Tailor), who grows more nervous every moment. Reciting the papers exactly becomes literally the most important thing in their lives.

Flashing back from the present-day of the 1970s to decades past takes its toll, as his boss (Sam Encarnation) re-appears as his Immigration interrogator. Harry sees the face of the woman he left behind (Stephanie Soohyun Park) in the interpreter assigned at his questioning, and later in a surprise visit from Susan, the girl he had last seen as an infant.

The restless dead have a lot to teach Harry, Sheila (a person “of two worlds,” they note) and, most importantly, us. After all, “Haunting is helping,” as Harry’s old companion says. 

Be sure to read the historical notes in the play program, as they add clarity to what is happening on stage. Huang based this on the actual story of a man who lived in Minnesota after arrival via a “paper family,” so this dramatization contains a lot of discomforting truth, as well as the strength of character of a man trying to do the best he can for himself and his people – both those he left, and the new family he makes here.

Shih excellently gives us the fiercely proud Chin. Buck is both caring and curious, portraying a woman at the crossroads of immense possibility – not only in learning more about her true heritage (in shocking fashion) but also being in the “women’s lib” era with the openings that entails. Bates has Laura loving fiercely as well, to her limit and beyond. Tailor entertains in his supporting roles. Park catches our heart in softly tragic moments. Encarnacion is appropriately frightening as the face of cruel bureaucracy.

Jaki Bradley directs this otherworldly yet accessible story, set in the IRT’s intimate Upperstage, with clever set design by Wilson Chin. 

An important story, as well as a bold and fascinating drama, “The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin” continue through May 15 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at irtlive.com.

District drama explores daunting ‘Place’

By Wendy Carson

By Wendy Carson

The District Theatre presents “What Is This Place? A Journey of Self in the Aftermath,” in which five souls ask the title question, while knowing on some level exactly where they are.

Welcome to their nightmare – where you, too, will likely go one day.

I first saw a version of this show in August of 2016, at IndyFringe. In the six years since, playwright Jan White has reshaped it into an even greater work of beauty and hope. If you go back to that first review, I didn’t say much about the show because I didn’t want to spoil the mystery for anyone. However, the current version allows more room to meditate on the performance.

The story begins with Darlene (Holly Hathaway) being flung in through a door which she cannot unlock to make her escape. She claims to know the place, because in her past she saw her mother inside it. She protests that she wants to leave, but is afraid of what lies beyond the door.

The other denizens of this place are: Maggie (Miki Mathioudakis), a wealthy widow, distantly connected to Darlene, who has transformed into a sloppy, hot mess; Sophia (Brittany Magee), a perky, meditating, goof who searches for peace she cannot find; Cindy (Bianca Black), who just wants to sleep, but no combination of drugs and alcohol are able to work; and finally, Jake (Chad Pirowski), the apparent caretaker, whose silence makes him appear creepy.

Periodically, each person will go to a space at the side of the stage to view pieces of their memories, which we are privy to by way of a video screen. It does not take us long to realize what this place actually is, but the point here is the characters’ journey to that same discovery. Once they fully acknowledge it, they must then decide whether to leave or stay (each option has its benefits).

As each woman comes to terms with that which landed them there, they must also deal with the fact that some questions never have answers, that perhaps “everything happens for a reason” is nonsense, whether you accept it or not. Eventually, they find the darkness they have in common, and how to wield it as a key to that door that perhaps was never really locked after all.

While this is a story about grief and loss, it also embodies the accomplishment and hope that lies at the end of that road.

Performances are truly remarkable, considering the gut-wrenching dramatic exercise this play puts the cast through, under the direction of Rosana Schutte. We get small bits of relief, in humorous moments with Cindy’s substances, Maggie’s endless Doritos bags, or Sophia’s attempts at serenity with bells and “tapping.” Still, the pain is never far from them, lurking just outside the windows. Our heart goes out to all five, even Jake, who has the darkest truth.

Remaining performances of “What Is This Place?” are Friday and Saturday, April 29-30, with ASL interpretation, at the District, 627 Mass. Ave., Indianapolis. For info and tickets, go to IndyDistrictTheatre.org.