Life lessons continue for aging friends in IRT comedy

By John Lyle Belden

Even after we’ve been around for decades, life can surprise or even shock us, and as long as we’re alive, we have to work out what’s next. In this spirit, “Morning After Grace,” by Carey Crim, a comedy with all the dramatic feels, appears on the Indiana Repertory Theatre stage. 

As the play opens, Abigail (Laura T. Fisher) and Angus (Henry Woronicz) experience a “morning after” following meeting at a funeral. Since they live in a retirement village in Florida, it’s not as unusual as you’d think. And while they are sorting things out, neighbor Ollie (Joseph Primes) pays a visit. From the beginning, misunderstandings and miscommunications bring about hilariously comic moments. 

Through the actors’ skill, and direction by IRT Artistic Director Janet Allen, this trio develop a wild, quirky chemistry that you get with people with so little in common thrust together. What they do share is a need to deal with loss, and with conflicts with those they now find it difficult to love. 

But another facet is how all three look forward — while acknowledging it being “of a certain age,” they each see a future: Abigail has a career as a counselor; Angus has a beautiful house and an opportunity to start over; and soon Ollie will put aside that cane he walks with and embrace life with his beloved. 

With all this depth, I must reiterate that this is a comedy; at times I nearly laughed myself blind. The trio execute the comic beats perfectly — for Woronicz especially refreshing to see the flip side of his dramatic acting in “12 Angry Men” last year.

The end result is like your favorite episode of a classic sitcom with serious undertones, like “MASH,” “Seinfeld,” “Mom,” or the similar “Cool Kids” — but with one well-placed F-bomb.

Escape the cold for this warm-hearted delight, through Feb. 9 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington in downtown Indy (near Circle Center). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

And congratulations to Janet Allen for being named the Margot Lacy Eccles Artistic Director with the endowment of a $2 million gift to the IRT by the Eccles charitable fund. The late Ms. Eccles was an avid supporter and board member of the theatre.

Changes around us come into focus on Fonseca stage

By John Lyle Belden

Gentrification is a word and concept that gets brought up a lot — how it’s bad, how it has benefits, how it is inevitable. Indianapolis has seen aspects of it in play in neighborhoods such as Broad Ripple, Mass Ave./Chatham Arch, Irvington, and Fountain Square.

This phenomenon is at the heart of “Salt Pepper Ketchup,” a drama by Josh Wilder now on stage at Fonseca Theatre Company in Indy’s near-westside — an area starting to see the effects of redevelopment.

The play is inspired by the recent real-world transformation of Point Breeze community in Philadelphia’s infamous South Side. “Salt, Pepper, Ketchup” is how longtime local residents, mostly African-American, order the popular fried chicken wings at Superstar Chinese Restaurant, and owners John and Linda Wu (Ian Cruz and Tracy Herring) are happy to fill the orders as they save up for their American Dream. They had just been granted citizenship, and with improving credit, hope to buy their building.

But changes are already under way. New apartments sprang up, occupied by young white people seeking affordable rent. There is a coffee shop, and at the center of it all, the Co-Op grocery. 

Paul (Robert Negron), a leader at the Co-Op, is trying to sign up new members among the locals. John Wu, reflecting the worries of his regulars, suspects some sort of scam. Paul’s heavy-handed and tone-deaf manner isn’t helping. Still, Linda sees hope for life beyond their “Chinese joint.” Tommy (Chinyelu Mwaafrika) and Raheem (Aaron “Gritty” Grinter) see the Co-Op as a threat, a danger to the ‘hood they grew up in, and they are prepared to take drastic action. CeCe (Chandra Lynch) is trying to see all sides of this, as she works at a daycare and wants the area to get better. She even likes the idea of the Co-Op, until she discovers that a single apple costs $2.50.

We also meet the enigmatic Boodah (Dwuan Watson Jr.) who is street-smart, emphasis on both. A little older and wiser than Tommy and Raheem, he avoids conflict and criminal solutions, but when he senses injustice, he takes action.

Finally, Megan (Lexy Weixel) is a perky Co-Op worker who finds herself thrust into an unfamiliar world, struggling to make the best of it.

Seeing the events play out, I couldn’t help but feel a bit ashamed for being white. Paul is such an overbearing caricature, reeking of privilege even as he remarks on it dismissively, that it is easy to understand the backlash that overwhelms him midway through the show. Eventually he takes a more corporate attitude — or was that behind his facade all along? While this can be difficult to watch from my seat, and generating nods of agreement from minorities around me, this portrayed example of how not to gentrify can help start the conversation of how best to positively deal with the changes coming to our own streets. It helps that this important drama brings out the best in all its players.

The play is directed by Tom Evans, with a set designed by Daniel Uhde including a clever way of changing between acts. Founder Bryan Fonseca designed the lighting and Tim Brickley the soundscape, which includes hip-hop by Gritty from his upcoming EP.

As an epilogue, the play program includes a recent article on the real Point Breeze, providing more food for thought. 

“Salt Pepper Ketchup” is served up through Feb. 2 at the FTC Basile Building, 2508 W. Michigan Street. Get info and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

Summit: Finding life’s meaning in unlikely ways

By John Lyle Belden

Summit Performance explores connections, being in the moment, and the fears that affect both, in the comic drama “Be Here Now,” by Deborah Zoe Laufer, directed by Amy Lynn Budd.

Bari (Carrie Ann Schlatter) is an aspiring professor of philosophy, specializing in nihilism, who needs to finish her dissertation. Being in a process that requires a lot of work to argue that nothing at all matters, she’s stuck. Also, her headaches aren’t helping.

Patty (Cynthia Collins) and Luanne (Zariya Butler), coworkers at her other job, a distribution center for knicknacks of various faiths, dislike Bari’s “smug gloom” and seek to somehow make her happy. Desperate, Patty sets up a date with her cousin Mike (Ryan Ruckman), who has issues of his own.

Suddenly, Bari collapses. After a brief seizure, she awakens to unheard music, experiencing fantastic visions — and the realization that absolutely everything is awesome.

While this play is Bari’s story, Mike is a complex presence as well, with a tragic past and an eccentric present life of gathering cast-off items and building them into little houses. And he has a pet crow. Ruckman is solid, maintaining an easy charm that makes his oddities quaint rather than disturbing.

The setting, a little town just a couple of hours away from New York City, is sort of a metaphorical character of its own: Cooperville, where nearly everyone has the last name of Cooper, including Patty. She believes in astrology and fate, and easily justifies her fear of ever leaving town by citing the dangers of the Big City. Collins plays her a little curmudgeonly, but with a big heart. By contrast, her niece Louanne blithely walks the thin line between optimistic and naive. Butler serves up a perfect dose of sweetness.

As for Bari, Schlatter expertly carries her philosophical load, expounding on questions that would give Hamlet a stroke, at times seeming to babble like one who is high (which technically the character is “tripping” at times) yet thanks to Laufer’s script, giving profound insights. This being modern times in enlightened society, she (and the others) understand there is likely a serious medical explanation for what is happening to her. But realizing that even if it’s endangering her life, it does seem to make her feel happy for perhaps the first time, does she really want to give that up?

When all is said and done, you might find yourself looking for the “garbage house” in your own backyard. See for yourself to understand what I mean. “Be Here Now” runs through Feb. 2 on the Basile Stage at the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

ALT: Intense drama includes talkback after every show

By John Lyle Belden

American Lives Theatre, the latest new company to the Indianapolis stage scene, makes a bold and provocative debut with its production of Pulitzer finalist “Gloria” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.

In the offices of a New York-based magazine, aspiring writers, stuck as assistants to faceless editors, snipe at each other as they lament their lack of opportunity, discuss their exit strategies, and seek to take advantage of the breaking story of a celebrity death. Dean (Joe Barsanti) is facing his 30th birthday with the vain hope that his memoir on his struggles in a dying industry will make all this worth it. Ali (Morgan Morton) is very go-along-get-along, which infuriates super-ambitious Kendra (Kim Egan). It’s the last day for intern Miles (Joshua Short), who is questioning his career path, now that he has seen the beast from the inside. The general commotion in this room infuriates Lorin (Tom Weingartner), trying to keep up with the demands of being chief fact-checker down the hall. Meanwhile, Gloria (Bridget Haight) — generally quiet and kinda weird, but a constant presence for the past 15 years — keeps dropping by, appearing anxious. Could this have something to do with the housewarming she hosted the night before, to which only Dean showed up?

This is about all I dare reveal of the plot. Director (and ALT founder) Chris Saunders notes that the content of this play includes a “trigger warning” due to a very specific trauma at the heart of the story. But I won’t spill, as the shock is an essential part of the drama. 

Fortunately, there is plenty of satirical and workplace humor, even as the characters become haunted by their circumstances. Haight also plays Nan, an editor with her own perspective that receives attention. Most of the cast also have additional roles, notably Short as a rather in-charge Starbucks barista. All have talents well up to their task.

“Gloria” is not so much about what happens, but rather how we deal with it. As each person comes to terms with their role and reactions, it becomes a question, as Saunders asks in the post-show discussion, “who owns the rights to trauma?”

Yes, there’s a talk-back — after every performance. Saunders hosts, and the actors may also get involved. Given what happens in the play, this can be a very important part of the overall experience.

Performances are Friday, Saturday (Jan. 17-18) and the next Friday through Sunday (Jan. 24-26) at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair. Get info and tickets at americanlivestheatre.org or indyfringe.org.

Silly Santa shenanigans in Greenfield

By John Lyle Belden

You don’t have to have children to get a little silly around Christmas. In fact, allegedly normal adults can find themselves in the goofiest situations, especially when you throw in a couple of Santa suits and some festive pajamas.

This is the scene in “Sorry, Wrong Chimney,” a farce by Jack Sharkey and Leo W. Sears presented by CrazyLake Acting Company in Greenfield. Set in a more innocent time — around the 1980s — recently-married Samantha (Alexandra Kern) wants to share a romantic first Christmas with husband David (Luke Agee), but he is always working late. She confides her frustration to neighbor and best friend Natalie (Stephani McDole), who assures her there’s nothing to worry about. But then she overhears something between Natalie and David — could they be having a fling? Sam calls Natalie’s husband, Bill (Corey Yeaman), for advice; he had been napping, so comes over in his pajamas and robe — this will prove problematic.

But the trouble really begins when Bill, a psychiatrist, is talked into using his skill as a hypnotist. But instead of mesmerizing David to reinforce his love of Sam, his charm snares the Santa Claus Burglar! The bad Santa (Trever Brown) actually believes he is Kris Kringle, which his loving fiance Sheila (Chris Vehorn) has learned to live with. 

Oh, and there is also an inquisitive police officer (Coy Hutcherson). What else could go wrong?

The result is one very funny holiday diversion, complete with slapstick, slamming doors, goofy chase scenes, misplaced mesmerism and a little dirty dancing. Directed by Christine Schaefer, this talented cast elevate an okay script with a lot of great physical humor and total dedication to the absurdity in each scene.

Granted, I’ve got a soft spot for Greenfield since I used to work there, but trust me, it is again worth the drive to see “Sorry, Wrong Chimney,” Friday and Saturday, Dec. 13-14, and Dec. 20-22, at the H.J. Ricks Centre for the Arts, 122 W. Main St. (US 40) downtown. Get info and tickets at crazylakeacting.com.  

Searching for something to believe in at ‘Prospect Hill’

By John Lyle Belden

What or who do you have faith in? What is it telling you? And are you truly listening?

These questions of faith and the angels among us come alive in “Prospect Hill,” a new play by Bruce Walsh, presented by Fat Turtle at the IndyFringe Theatre.

Jacob is a therapist badly in need of help, himself. His husband, Rex, a cancer survivor whose last round of chemo left a particularly frustrating side effect, obsesses with kitchen renovations to avoid their waning relationship. Jacob has given up alcohol, but finds addictive urges satisfied by the constant snacks and sodas brought by his young patient, Ethan, a driver for PepsiCo.

And it doesn’t help that Jacob has been in contact with his Mennonite father, who doesn’t approve of him being gay, let alone his relationship.

Ethan has his own problems: His girlfriend is expecting their child, but now wants nothing to do with him, in part due to his drug addiction. He wants to make more to help support the baby, so, hearing that Rex retired from his sales job in his 50s, asks him for “financial advice.” Relishing the challenge, Rex sees the young man as a potential protege. 

But when the inevitable conflicts occur, a sort of miracle happens. Could Ethan be the “third angel” in their relationship?

Directed by Fat Turtle Managing Director Aaron Cleveland, our well-chosen trio of actors bring out three vivid characters, each searching for meaning in his own way.

Zachariah Stonerock presents the stoic Jacob as a miserable mensch who has been worn down over time, so occupied with pleasing others he has no idea how to be happy, himself. Going through the motions, he simply repeats a mindfulness exercise he had just heard from Rex in his session with Ethan — to hilarious effect — almost accidentally making a sort of breakthrough.

Craig Kemp as Rex counters with energy and humor, masking a deep desperation. He needs to feel vital. not only in his loins (another comic point), but in his mind, as his salesman’s instincts are aroused by the prospect of “selling” Ethan to his old pharma company as a potential employee. Meanwhile, despite proclaiming his atheism, he is hooked on a “six-part series” on PBS on the world’s religions, finding inspiration in spite of himself.

As for 20-ish Ethan, Evren Wilder Elliott* excellently presents a character who seems at first so simple, yet has depths and aspects that even surprise him. “I am here because I am a prophet,” Ethan says — to be fair, it wasn’t his idea — which seems absurd, until it isn’t. The actor channeled the insecurity of playing their first “male” role to convincingly give us a grown boy full of bluster and desire to do right, yet lacking the personal discipline to pull it off. 

This locally-based script (Prospect Hill is a neighborhood in Bloomington) makes an excellent debut, a nice blend of human drama with laugh-out-loud moments. It’s still a work in progress, as the ending seemed a little muddled, hinting at more story to tell (perhaps a sequel play or trilogy could come of this?), but it raises some interesting points on faith, relationships, and what we seek to do with our lives.

Performances run through Nov. 24 at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, downtown Indianapolis. Get info at fatturtletheatre.com and tickets at www.indyfringe.org.

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*Trans actor formerly known as Ann Marie (A.M.) Elliott

Kids make a splash in KidsPlay’s ‘Mermaid in Miami’

By John Lyle Belden

Being a former writer and “Arts Editor” at the Daily Reporter in Greenfield, I have long followed and been a booster of KidsPlay Inc., the local children’s theatre featuring kids in grades 3-8 from all over the area. Under the direction of Christine Schaefer, the company puts on a high-quality show, and has helped to develop a lot of talent – a number of central Indiana performers are former KidsPlayers, and now there are alumni with their own children in the program.

Of course, I bring this up because this week is the KidsPlay Inc. fall production, the quirky comedy “Mermaid in Miami” by Wade Bradford. Directed by Schaefer with Alexandra Kern, choreography by Frances Hull and Amy Studebaker, this take on “The Little Mermaid” has a contemporary setting, yet is in a surprising way true to the Hans Christian Andersen story.

An old fisherman, Ernie (Joseph Shininger), happens to come across a young mermaid, Breeze (Olivia Greer), on the run from her tyrannical father Emperor Tropico (Matthew Hentz). As she had escaped with her mother, now missing, the angry monarch asks Ernie if he has seen two mermaids, so he honestly answers “no,” helping Breeze to escape. Grateful, she stays in the safety of the lagoon the fisherman calls home, located just a beach away from Miami, Florida.

Meanwhile, on that beach, hot Latin dancer Rico (Jaxon Brittsan) is ready for the local dance contest, he just needs a partner. The Lambada sisters (Zora Coe and Ashley Pipkin) are injured, and best friend Grace (Ella Miesse) he only sees as his tailor. But hearing of the opportunity, Breeze makes a deal with the Swamp Hag (Bella Turner) for legs so he can join Rico in the dance.

Naturally, those legs come at a cost.

The large cast also includes Anthony Stunda and Josie Joyner as dolphins Ebb and Flo, who provide a lot of the punchlines; Brodie Stout-England as Prince Dorkus, the Emperor’s goofy hand-picked fiance for Breeze; Jordan Kuker as the mysterious Spirit of the Air; Hank Lee and Ava Peters as local reporters; Abbagail Gantt and Cooper Schmitt as vendors with well-timed wares; and Jack Joyner, Grace McCaw, and Lucy Reed, as an entertaining trio of crabs.

This show has excellent performances throughout. Greer shows off some great physical comedy, as she nimbly portrays a wobbly girl who just got her legs minutes ago, right through the obligatory dance montage where she learns to move with rhythm.

Turner is appropriately menacing, and manages to keep a Caribbean accent without it slipping into caricature. Hentz is naturally haughty, while Shininger plays a good go-with-the-flow guy. Miesse stitches together a role with surprising range. Stout-England is too much of a doofus to dislike, despite his role in Tropico’s plot.

Brittsan not only manages to stay likable even while being a bit cheesey, but also he, Coe and Pipkin show off some genuine dance flair, including leading the traditional opening dance number before the play.

As usual, this show is a lot of fun, but there is some substance with the silly, especially in the way this story ends. Performances are 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8-10, at the H.J. Ricks Centre for the Arts, 122 W. Main St. (US 40) in downtown Greenfield. Tickets are just $5 at the door.