Catalyst’s ‘Class’ in session

By John Lyle Belden

Nan Macy is a master of portraying strong mature women, and shows this to brilliant effect in the current production of Terrance McNally’s “Master Class,” presented by Catalyst Repertory in association with the Indianapolis Opera Company and The Switch Theatre.

Macy portrays legendary opera soprano Maria Callas, who, late in her career, is giving the titular class for young vocal students. Callas’s career was notable not only for her exceptional voice, but also tabloid-style scandals including rivalries with other singers and her affair with shipping magnate Aristotle Onasis. Here we see this brash, blunt diva with a well-established chip on her shoulder from having been looked down upon for her Greek heritage and her weight (she underwent drastic weight loss at the peak of her career, a boon to her casting but possibly hurting her voice). She is far too proud to acknowledge her declining vocal ability, living the adage of “those who can’t do, teach.” Regardless, she gives her charges a lot to learn about presentation and passion.  

With such serious subject matter, and her lapses into troubled memory, it’s easy to forget until you see this how incredibly funny this show is. For instance, Macy’s timing is perfect in saying “let me stop you there,” the moment a poor student opens her mouth.

As for her “victims,” we get some nice vocals from Abigail Johnson, Shederick Whipple, and Rachelle Woolston. And we see, as they do with Callas, that there is more to great opera than just knowing the words. Sean Manterfield is Manny, the piano accompanist. Thomas Smith is a stagehand badgered by Callas, but also turns the tables portraying Onasis in her recollections. Director Tony Johnson also has other cast members drift in and out of her memory as figures from her past.

This is a “class” you won’t want to skip, as hilarity and tragic depth occupy the stage in equal measure, wielded by a master, portraying a master. Brava!

“Master Class” performances are Friday through Sunday at 10029 E. 126th St., Fishers. Get tickets at theswitch.yapsody.com.

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IRT revisits the radical notion of doing what makes you happy

By John Lyle Belden

As for the appropriateness of bringing out the classic comedy, “You Can’t Take it With You,” I’m tempted to say “in times like these” – but really, there will always be distress and drama around us, thus it is always a good time to see this funny, heartfelt show.

So here we are, with the Indiana Repertory Theatre giving us its finely crafted production. While the Great Depression continues outside their beautiful house, “Grandpa” Martin Vanderhof (Robert Elliott) and his brood are feeling quite fine, thank you.

Penelope Sycamore (Millicent Wright) taps away at a typewriter that was accidentally left at their doorstep years ago, while her husband Paul (James Leaming) works on innovating large-display fireworks in the basement with Mr. DePinna (Ansley Valentine), a delivery man who never got around to leaving. Daughter Essie (Mehry Eslaminia) pursues ballet dancing, without quite catching it, under Russian ex-pat Boris Kolenkhov (Joey Collins), with her husband Ed (Carlos Medina Maldonado) accompanying on xylophone while printing whatever phrase sounds clever on his little press. Maid Rheba (Brianna Milan) happily prepares whatever meals the family’s whims dictate, from corn flakes to canned salmon, while wooed by handsome Donald (Adam Tran) who is helpful, but no too much as he’s “on relief.” Speaking of romance, the Sycamores’ other daughter, Alice (Janyce Caraballo), is about to marry her boss, Tony Kirby (Aaron Kirby, coincidentally), but she frets at the prospect of his parents (David Lively and Carmen Roman) meeting her not-quite-“normal” family. And on an evening when everyone is just being themselves, joined by friend and tipsy actress Gay Wellington (Molly Garner), they do.

In addition, we get visits from characters played by Scott Greenwell, Michael Hosp and Zachariah Stonerock, as well Jan Lucas as the Archduchess Olga.

For the unfamiliar, I can’t help but describe this play as “The Addams Family,” but without the creepy aspects – partly because the recent Addams Broadway show borrowed a lot of the same plot points. At the core of it all is the notion that there shouldn’t be something wrong or embarrassing with doing what feels right, along with the gentle lesson that one needn’t be doing what makes them miserable, either.

All performances are spot on and appropriately hilarious. It would be a crime not to have someone as talented as Wright in the lead, and her being in an interracial couple in the 1930s only underlines the exceptionally open and accepting nature of the central family. Also, Maldonado gets to show off his musical side.

Being the IRT, the whole look and feel is perfect, including scenic designer Linda Buchanan’s busy-yet-orderly set decoration. Peter Amster directs.

Do something that makes you happy – like check out this show. Performances are through May 19 on the IRT mainstage at 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indianapolis (near Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

Phoenix: Thinking of ‘The Children’

By John Lyle Belden

“The Children,” the title of a recent Broadway drama by Lucy Kirkwood, now at the Phoenix Theatre, doesn’t seem to tell us much. There are no youngsters on the stage — in fact, the trio we meet are all in their 60s. But this play understands that when we are grown, if we’re not thinking of our children and what we would do for them, we often indulge in that child still within each of us.

On the English coast, at a time that could be now, we are in the aftermath of a disaster much like the one that occurred several years ago in Japan: the triple-shock of earthquake, tidal wave and a crippled nuclear power plant.

Hazel and Robin (Donna Steele and Charles Goad) were among the scientists who engineered the reactor, now they live on the very edge of the irradiated zone. They are visited by past friend and colleague (as well Robin’s lover) Rose (Diane Kondrat). Old memories and issues are brought up, leading to moments of friction. But even more devastating is the issue of what happens next.

Directed by Phoenix artistic director Bill Simmons, this veteran cast give excellent, layered performances. In Hazel, Steele presents a fastidious character who prides herself on her maturity, while staying young as possible through healthy eating and yoga. Goad’s Robin seems fondly attached to the farm he is having to give up, but his daily trips to the barn have a darker purpose. Kondrat, once again a woman of many facets, gives us a Rose who has come a long way from her impulsive youth to a woman who has faced her mortality and must finally think outside herself. Their interactions throughout the play crackle with energy that rivals the broken facility on their horizon.

The larger questions surrounding nuclear energy and the environment stay in the background, as the issues at play here are more personal — dealing with reconciling out pasts, facing our ends, considering the next generation, and what we all must do to make our actions and lives meaningful. Sometimes it takes a disaster to make us truly think of The Children, and to force us to finally grow up.

Performances run through May 19 on the smaller Basile stage of the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

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One last note (this did come up with an audience member at the preview performance): Though she is in the promotional photo, actor Jolene Mentink Moffatt does not appear in the play. The publicity picture was taken long before casting decisions were made, and aside from being not quite old enough for the roles, she was busy with her recent run on the Phoenix’s “Hotel Nepenthe.”

DivaFest: An odd Irish ‘three men and a baby’

This is part of the 2019 Diva Fest, presented by IndyFringe at 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis, through April 21. All shows are by women playwrights, presented as one-hour one-acts at a Fringe price. For information and tickets, see www.indyfringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Kate Duffy Sim once again blesses us with a brilliant parody of the British sitcom, “Father Ted,” which relates the quirky lives of priests living on a remote island off the Irish coast.

This time, in “Who’s Minding the Snapper,” Father Ned and company are visited by a very pregnant American woman. The baby quickly arrives, but the mother disappears — can Ned, dimwitted Father Dermott and drunken Father Finn successfully care for the little “snapper”?

Presented by Clerical Error Productions and directed by David Malloy, the surreal atmosphere and comic potential are enhanced by “cross-gender casting,” as the program put it. Sim ably plays Ned, while Bridget Schlebecker is a hoot as Finn. Kyrsten Lyster is outstanding as Dermott, displaying deft skill at the hard task of playing a “stupid” character so cleverly. Manny Casillas charms as the housekeeper Mrs. O’Boyle, while Anthony Logan Nathan is something to behold as brash, devious Mrs. McShane, who tends the home of a rival priest.

Case Jacobus is the “girl in trouble,” while actual rapper Nate Burner plays her rap-star boyfriend. “N8” also performs the opening theme, and spun some rhymes at curtain call to introduce the cast.

Hilarious with the right amount of heart, you’ll need to do penance if you miss this one. Performances are 8:30 p.m. Saturday and 5:30 p.m. Sunday (April 20-21).

DivaFest: Bittersweet ‘Tomato’

This is part of the 2019 Diva Fest, presented by IndyFringe at 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis, through April 21. All shows are by women playwrights, presented as one-hour one-acts at a Fringe price. For information and tickets, see www.indyfringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

In “I Say Tomato, You Say Cheese,” by MaryAnne Mathews, Tom Harrison is superbly charming as Joe Carpenter, an 85-year-old man living alone — aside from the spirit of his recently-passed wife, Annie (Wendy Brown) — as best he can.

Joe’s daughter Sarah (Laura Baltz) is getting concerned, as he tends to forget and lose track of things, and keeps getting into accidents while driving. The doctor (Stefanie Patterson) confirms that his cognitive abilities are indeed on the decline.

It doesn’t help the situation that there are constantly scammers out to take advantage of the elderly. The voice of the “IRS agent” on the phone Joe can deal with, with great humor. But the fast-talking roofing contractor (Joe Maratea) is a different matter.

Mathews’ gentle drama is an interesting look at this serious situation with characters we can relate to, or even feel we’re related to. The title refers to a family story melding the old song with the meal of tomato soup and toasted cheese — like this play, comfort food for the soul.

Remaining performances are 8:15 p.m. Friday and 3:30 p.m. Saturday (April 19-20).

DivaFest: Oh, ‘Dear’

This is part of the 2019 Diva Fest, presented by IndyFringe at 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis, through April 21. All shows are by women playwrights, presented as one-hour one-acts at a Fringe price. For information and tickets, see www.indyfringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

In “Dear Mavis,” by Enid Cokinos, there are big changes happening at the Rustbelt Herald-Times.

The newspaper’s chief editor has stepped down, replaced by the owner’s son, “Biz” Underhill (Spencer Elliott). The young man, fresh from college, wants to make changes, taking aim at the paper’s longtime advice columnist, Mavis (Forba Shepherd). He has her team up with young blogger Mique’ (Ashley Elliott) to write a new point-counterpoint column, and daily rather than weekly. This will not turn out well.

Holly Stults is Luella, Underhill’s assistant and Mavis’s dear friend; and David Mosedale is the elder Underhill, who comes in to clean up the inevitable mess.

Shepherd radiates dignity and wisdom as the disciple of Miss Manners who always has the right thing to say, and doesn’t mind using an old typewriter to say it. Spencer Elliott — .also the play’s director — contrasts well as the guy with big ideas but little sense. Ashley Elliott’s turn as a clueless Millennial edges towards caricature but gets to learn a bit towards the end.

Having been a newspaper journalist, seeing the industry’s changes first-hand, I felt at first that Cokinos had written a work of horror. But for those who don’t bleed India ink, this is a fun look at how sometimes the old ways are best, and can still win through.

Remaining performances are 7 p.m. Friday and 7:15 p.m. Saturday (April 19-20).

DivaFest: Truly inspiring

This is part of the 2019 Diva Fest, presented by IndyFringe at 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis, through April 21. All shows are by women playwrights, presented as one-hour one-acts at a Fringe price. For information and tickets, see www.indyfringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

In “aMUSEd,” by Megan Ann Jacobs, one of the lesser-known Greek Muses — Sebastian, the Muse of Comedy (Kyle Dorsch) — breaks his own rule against staying too long, remaining with his latest charge, author Anita (Becky Schlomann), until the moment she passes. He promises to finish their last work with a new human, but in his grief, chases off every person who moves in.

Enter Nikki (Kyrsten Lyster), a woman as determined to stay as Sebastian is for her to leave — New York apartments at this price don’t come along every day. The landlord, Tyler (Jerry Beasley), is just grateful someone is staying in his “haunted” flat.

Grant Nagel plays Nikki’s fiance, Ryan, a victim of Sebastian’s pranks, and Ilandia Johnson is Kasey, a local police officer tired of being called to arrest a “trespasser” she cannot see.

Jacob’s sweet story excellently showcases the comic talents of manic Beasley, wonderfully frustrated Lyster, and Dorsch’s acid wit like a young Jack Benny. Schlomann’s presence gives this all the right amount of heart.

Remaining performance is 4:45 p.m. Saturday, April 20.