Foreign affairs are hilarious with Mud Creek’s brilliant ‘Amorous Ambassador’

By Wendy Carson

Mud Creek Players are sending their 2017-18 season out on a very high note with their production of Michael Parker’s hilarious farce, “The Amorous Ambassador.” While the show is a continuation of the saga of “The Sensuous Senator” (which Mud Creek staged in 2016), you need not have seen the previous production to enjoy this play.

The story centers on “Hormone Harry” Douglas, who, after losing his bid for the Presidency, was appointed as Ambassador to England. He and his family have now set up household in a nice little cottage in the countryside, complete with a butler. As we join the family unit, they have each decided to take off in separate ways for the weekend. Prior to leaving, though, each of them confirms that Perkins, the butler, will be “the soul of discretion” should anything occur. So daughter Debbie is off to make memories with her girlfriends; Lois, his doting wife, is off to the spa; and Harry plans to play golf in Scotland.

Once the wife and daughter have left, Harry and sexy neighbor, Marian, begin their tryst, including costumes to fulfil their fantasies: Marian’s is a French maid. But as soon as they exit the stage, Debbie reappears with her boyfriend, Joe, for their own little weekend of togetherness. Add to this, a bomb threat at the embassy suddenly brings security chief Captain South and Harry’s ditzy secretary, Faye, on site to turn the cottage into a temporary Embassy – complete with a total lockdown of the perimeter. Now Marian has to pretend to be a real servant, while Debbie adds a wig and dress to her friend, “Josephine.” The result is a sidesplitting evening of confusion and overall silliness.

Ronan Marra does a great job at keeping Harry’s lustful advances going while appearing to be in charge. Colin Landberg is masterful through the trio of characters he is given to embody – Joe, Josephine and “Marc Anthony.” Sara Castillo Dandurand handily keeps Debbie believing in her father’s virtue even while seemingly compromising her own. Katie Carter’s portrayal of “Maid Marian” shows that she is certainly up for anything. Tom Riddle brings all of the pomp and ruggedness that Captain South’s character demands, with a delightful slapstick turn. While Sherry Compton’s character of Lois is not on the stage for very long, she shines brightly in those moments that she is performing.

While everyone does a wonderful job of playing their roles for all that they are worth, I would like to highlight two exceptional performances:

  • Ann Ellerbrook’s take on the hot, blonde, airhead secretary, Faye, shows the amazing range that a seemingly one-note character can become under the correct actor’s interpretation of a role. She truly brought her character to life in a way that really made me wish I could see more of that character’s story.
  • Craig Kemp is likewise amazing for keeping his character of Perkins, the properly stogy English butler, from going too far into camp mode. While making sure that his character’s upper lip stayed as stiff as one would expect it to be and a slightly raised eyebrow could cause you to wither, he managed to keep Perkins a warmly accessible grandfatherly figure. That sort of depth in what, again, should have been a simple one-note character shows great range and depth of talent.

With everything happening right now, we can all use a spot of silliness and a good laugh, and this show presents it in spades.

Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through May 5 at the Mud Creek Players “Barn,” 9740 E. 86th St. (near Geist). Get tickets and info at www.mudcreekplayers.org.

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BCP hosts the original version of ‘Dolly’

By John Lyle Belden

Buck Creek Players presents, “The Matchmaker,” the Thornton Wilder farce that inspired the hit musical, “Hello Dolly” – and it’s easy to see how, as there were several moments in this non-musical comedy that I found myself thinking, “a song would go nice here.”

Set in the 1880s, this satire of society and attitudes of the era has a Yonkers, N.Y., merchant, Horace Vandegelder (C. Leroy Delph), hiring matchmaker Dolly Levi (Gloria Bray) to find him a wife, while denying his daughter Ermengarde (Sami Burr) permission to marry her true love, artist Ambrose Kemper (Manny Casillas). Meanwhile, Horace’s top clerk, Cornelius Hackl (Ben Jones) and his bumbling assistant Barnaby (Evan Vernon), fed up with a lack of respect at their jobs, decide to spend a day in nearby New York City – where, of course, everyone else will end up. The adventure begins at the hat shop of Irene Malloy (Brigette McCleary-Short), who Horace had sought to woo, but Dolly has someone else in mind for the rich man’s bride.

Bray holds the center well as the title character, never holding back on the clever charm and wit. McCleary-Short is also impressive in a character who would feel right at home among the independent women of today’s New York. Otherwise, Wilder apparently had trouble writing for the women, as Ermengarde has few lines, and Irene’s shy assistant Minnie Fay (Katie Thompson) practically none – though she makes up for it with effective physical comedy.

Jones truly shines, making his supporting role feel like a lead, his excellent comic timing and delivery aided by the slapstick skills of Vernon, as they play well off of McCleary-Short and Thompson’s characters.

I must also commend stage first-timer Nickie Cornett for her charming moments as the Cook for Flora Van Huyson (Kassy Cayer, a study in melodrama), Ermengarde’s aunt, at whose home the farcical situations reach their climax.

The play includes the device of various characters, notably Dolly, speaking directly to the audience. It’s hard to say whether that, or a lot of the humor, has aged well. (There was, however, a bit of unexpected amusement by younger audience members, associating Ermengarde’s name with the “Ehrmagerd” internet meme.) The show also features clever stage design by Dan Denniston, with setpieces for a number of locales easily moved in and out of the scene.

One weekend remains of “The Matchmaker” at Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road Exit off I-74); call 317-862-2270 or visit www.BuckCreekPlayers.com.

Civic hosts Christie’s deadly countdown

By John Lyle Belden

Set in the intimate confines of the Studio Theater, rather than its regular stage next door, the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre invites you to look in on a classic mystery: See those 10 people at the party? They are all guilty of something, and one by one they will die. Who will be standing at the end? Are you sure you know?

The Civic presents Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” Director Charles Goad (who we are more used to seeing on the stage than behind it) has trusted his talented cast the freedom to bring out the dark humor in the play’s growing suspense. Even when a character is one you wouldn’t mind seeing become the next victim of “Mr. Unknown,” he or she is presented in an entertaining manner.

Matt Anderson and Christy Walker sharply portray the domestics who literally help set the scene in a fine house on an island off the English coast. Vera (Carrie Schlatter at her steadily unraveling best) thought this was just a job opportunity. Army Cpt. Lombard (Joshua Ramsey as a unflappable man proud of all his qualities, good and bad) was advised to bring his revolver, just in case. Anthony (Bradford Reilly, doing upper-class spoiled well) is up for any kind of adventure. Mr. Daniels – or is that Blore? – (Steve Kruze, working the fine line between gruffness and guilt) was, or is, a cop – making him impossible to trust. Retired Gen. MacKenzie (Tom Beeler, showing mastery of a subtle character) can see this for the final battle it is. Emily (Christine Knuze, working a stiff upper lip that could break glass) is as sure of her own innocence as she is of everyone else’s immorality. Dr. Armstrong (David Wood, becoming even more likable as we find the man’s flaws) feels he could really use a drink, though he doesn’t dare. And prominent judge Sir William Wargrave (David Mosedale in top form) knows a thing or two about unnatural death, having sentenced so many to the gallows.

The cast is completed by Dick Davis as Fred, the man with the boat.

These actors give a delicious recreation of the old story which doesn’t feel dated, considering a strong storm on a remote island would cut off smartphone reception just the same as past means of communication. The plot is propelled by the old poem “Ten Little Soldiers” (a more palatable version than the frequently used “Ten Little Indians” or its original, more controversial, title). Ten tin soldiers stand on the mantle, their number decreasing throughout the play as the victims accumulate. The verse is on a plaque by the fireplace, and reprinted in the program for us to follow along.

I don’t want to give spoilers, but bear in mind that Christie wrote more than one way to end the story. See for yourself at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel through April 8. Call 317-843-3800 or visit civictheatre.org.

Fat Turtle hilariously handles impossible quest to dramatize Don Quixote

By Wendy Carson

Don Quixote. We all know the story – or do we?

It turns out that the storyline we are so familiar with is actually less than 20 percent of the thousand-page tome. The beautiful Dulcinea, for whom Quixote pines, is merely referred to and not actually a character in the book. The vast majority of the saga involves the deranged “knight” and his faithful squire just riding through the countryside getting beaten up frequently.

So why does this epic novel continue to inspire numerous attempts to adapt it for stage or screen only to be defeated by the effort? That is the focus of Mark Brown’s whimsical play, “The Quest for Don Quixote,” produced by Fat Turtle Theatre Company through Sunday at Theater at the Fort.

Jason Page portrays Ben, our intrepid playwright, whose passion for the text is only eclipsed by the despair of his inability to write anything at all. His agent Jeffry (Dan Flahive) has tracked him down to a coffeehouse in order to retrieve Ben’s script – after all, rehearsals begin tomorrow. Flahive shines through his desperation and terror at discovering the situation, especially as he relentlessly tries to kick-start Ben’s writing.

As they deliriously brainstorm throughout the night, the story comes alive with the coffeehouse staff and patrons joining them to act out their efforts. The results are wacky and bizarre, yet tenderly true to the intentions of the original story.

Nan Macy and Savannah Jay embody a myriad of characters each, yet manage to bring each one fully to life in such a manner as to make you forget that they are just two people.

Justin Lyon’s portrayal of the buffoonish “squire” Sancho Panza brings out the heroic heart of the character.

Of course, the story could not work without our hero, Don Quixote. Jeff Maess deftly brings the deluded, yet inspired, mania of the character fully to light.

While not actually playing one of the various actors in the story, Chris McNeely uses his guitar as a driving force in the narrative by setting the tone for each scene. In fact, you might recognize a bar or two of some more contemporary songs that punctuate a few plot lines.

In adapting the unadaptable, this hilarious play about a play about a immortal character that transcends his literature bends the rules enough to blend medieval chivalry with Pinkie Pie from “My Little Pony.” Yet the soul of the story of the man who showed us the folly of fighting windmills – no matter what form they take, such as a difficult script – remains as pure as a noble knight’s heart. Director Aaron Cleveland acquits himself well in taking up the lance against this mill.

Find Theater at the Fort on the former grounds of Fort Benjamin Harrison, just west of Post Road just north of 56th Street in Lawrence. For info and tickets, visit www.fatturtletheatre.com.

Hilarious lessons for us all at ‘Fairfield,’ the final Phoenix show at its old home

By John Lyle Belden

It’s not easy being an educator these days, having to dialogue with fellow teachers, staff, and parents; keeping students engaged; and fulfilling all sorts of jargon-fueled metrics. All while being inclusive and diversity aware!

At “Fairfield,” the comedy running through April 1 at the Phoenix Theatre – the last show at its old location – first-year Principal Wadley (Milicent Wright) and rookie first-grade teacher Miss Kaminski (Mara Lefler) each try to guide students through Black History Month. Wadley, an African-American, hopes for a simple diversity curriculum leading into the “Celebrethnic” Potluck at month’s end. Meanwhile, young, eager – and Caucasian – Kaminski has more ambitious ideas; and when her tone-deaf spelling list and an ill-advised history role-playing exercise become known to the children’s parents – well, just be glad February has only 28 days.

This hilarious farce by Emmy-nominated playwright Eric Coble, loaded with razor-sharp social commentary, appears to have elements of HBO’s “Vice Principals” and the drama “God of Carnage,” with the attitude of “South Park.” From a central stage cleverly designed by Zac Hunter, the educators speak over the audience to the pupils of Fairfield Elementary. A conspicuous absence of child actors keeps the focus squarely on the adults, as while everything is “for the children,” in essence it’s really all about them and what they want (for the kids, of course).

The cast includes Doug Powers and Jean Arnold as parents of a gifted white boy caught up in the role-playing incident with a black classmate, whose parents are played by Dwuan Watson and LaKesha Lorene. As they all “dialogue” with Wadley and Kaminski, we find that when you scratch beneath their liberal progressive veneer, old suspicions and stereotypical thinking still persists. Powers also portrays the district Superintendent (and Kaminski’s uncle), who hates having to deal with racial tension, especially when it could mean firing his only black principal. And Watson also plays a civil-rights struggle veteran called on to speak to students – giving a far more detailed lesson than anyone expects.

Directed by Ansley Valentine, this show is full of bust-a-gut funny moments and I-can’t-believe-they-just-said-that lines, while deftly skewering educator double-talk and our national hypocrisy on politically correct topics. Everyone around me, as we tried to catch our breath from laughing so hard, declared that the Phoenix is departing the old church at Park and St. Clair on a strong note.

Help say farewell to the underground Basile Theatre and its pesky load-bearing poles (cleverly blended into the set, as usual). Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Experience Venice through the eyes of its visitors in IRT’s ‘Appoggiatura’

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Repertory Theatre play “Appoggiatura,” by IRT playwright-in-residence James Still, is a “Venecia story:” A story of Venice, Italy.

Venice, the centuries-old artistically and architecturally rich city of gondola-filled canals, is a unique place, and it can’t help but become a character in any story set there. I understand this, because I once spent the day there; so I, too, have a Venecia story – but that’s not what we’re here to discuss.

This play is also the third in Still’s loose “trilogy” involving characters related to a man named Jack, who died on 9/11. But this is not about him, except that relatives give brief mention in the way you can’t help but talk of someone you loved so dearly and lost so tragically. And it is not at all in the same style as the two previous plays: “The House That Jack Built” (premiered by IRT in 2012), a family drama set around a New England Thanksgiving table; or “Miranda” (on the IRT upperstage last year), a spy thriller set in Yemen. This play truly is, you must understand, a Venecia story.

Venice is not only rich in art, architecture and history, but also in music. The strains of violin and operatic voices are performed throughout this show, framing and accentuating scenes (yet this is not a musical) with a masqued man who might even be the spirit of Venice-born composer Vivaldi. Venice is a city of patient natives and multitudes of tourists, which our characters can’t help but bump into. It is a city of labyrinthine narrow streets between the canals, so that the directions of “go right, go left, go straight, go straight” will take you virtually anywhere, especially to the centrally-located world-famous Piazza San Marco.

In this setting, we meet Helen (Susan Pellegrino) and her grown granddaughter (and Jack’s daughter), Sylvie (Andrea San Miguel), who arrive in Venice on a rainy night with luggage missing and their rooms not ready. They are accompanied by Aunt Chuck (Tom Aulino), who is definitely not happy with the way things are turning out. But he also still feels the loss of his husband, Gordon, who had previously been Helen’s husband.

The next morning, they are greeted by their “tour-guider,” Marco (Casey Hoekstra), who reassures them that they and their luggage being lost is only part of their Venecia story, which they will eventually come to treasure. As it turns out, Marco isn’t much of a “guider,” but still a good man to have around.

As she wanders the city, Helen is reminded of her own previous Venecia story, crossing a bridge into the past and encounters with a young Helen and Gordon (San Miguel and Hoekstra) on their honeymoon. Chuck also finds echoes of the man he loved at a Venecian fountain. The blending of time and space, especially when 21st-century technology gets mixed in, would be concerning to a hard-core sci-fi fan, but this is a romantic tale – and no dangerous side effects of paradox seem to take place.

Still’s characters are charming and likeable, even the extras (performed by wandering musicians Andrew Mayer, Paul Deboy and Katrina Yaukey) such as a man (Deboy) walking and singing to his two (puppet) dogs – based on a memory from Still’s own personal Venecia story. San Miguel plays her Millennial character as impatient, searching and a bit cynical, but not whiny; a measure of how much we care for Sylvie is that we understand her perspective during a heated Skype conversation with her fiance (Yaukey) in the States. Pellegrino and Aulino touch our hearts as two people united by their longing for the same man, each taking an opposite approach: she always sunny, he ever under a cloud. Hoekstra’s Marco is eager and a bit of a hustler, but with an easily detected good heart.

As Venice is a literal maze of history and blended eras, I can forgive fantasy elements that wouldn’t work as well in other settings. And, while I know a trilogy is supposed to be just three stories, I feel that there should be a follow-up with what happens between Sylvia and her beloved in Vermont. It is refreshing to see a story with elements of same-sex love that never dwells on it; it’s just a part of normal relationships. And it is notable that in the 20-teens, references to 9/11 no longer shock, yet retain their sting. I must also note how truly funny this play is at various points, but it’s not a full-on “comedy,” just a lifelike reflection of both the comic/drama masks we all wear.

Otherwise, this is a hard show to critique, as its blend of music, drama, love, and comic moments stands alone and could only be categorized as – dare I say it again: A Venecia story.

Save the cost of airfare to Italy and head downtown to 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis. Performances are through March 31. Call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.

Before CCP shuffles off: a bold ‘Buffalo’

By John Lyle Belden

A quick note for those who haven’t heard: Carmel Community Players has lost its lease at the Clay Terrace shopping center, where “American Buffalo” is their last play on that stage, and is in the process of finding a new home. The next production, the musical “Ragtime,” will be presented at the Ivy Tech theater in Noblesville in April. For more details see carmelplayers.org.

Famed stage and screen writer David Mamet once said that the key to writing drama is to present a character wanting something, then placing obstacles in the way of him getting it. (Apparently swearing a lot is important, too.)

In Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” on CCP’s Clay Terrace stage for one more weekend, Donny (Larry Adams) really wants a valuable coin. It was just another trinket at his junk shop, but some slick buyer came in and bought it from him at a surprisingly high price – now Donny is sure it was worth a lot more, and that this man has other priceless coins as well. Faithful but mentally challenged Bobby (Daniel Shock) is eager to do “the job” for Donny, and not just be the lookout, but Teach (Earl Campbell) insists that the burglary be entrusted to him. Donny agrees, but also wants another accomplice – but can you trust a man who possibly cheated you at cards the night before?

Under the direction of Lori Raffel, this production presents the Mamet formula as a study in complex and conflicted characters. Donny wrestles with his pain at feeling he was taken advantage of, his feelings of responsibility for Bobby, and the need to get one good high-dollar score – Adams works all these subtleties well. Campbell is sharp as a jerk who talks big, but is no fool. Bobby is a cypher, making one unsure what he does and doesn’t know, and does and doesn’t understand – and why is he always asking for money? – Shock is spot-on in his delivery.

It’s that simple, and that complex. Add in some F-words and you’ve got classic Mamet, ending this chapter of the CCP’s ongoing story on a very strong note. Get tickets while you can: call 317-815-9387 or visit the website.