Phoenix drama where steel of resolve reaches its breaking point

By John Lyle Belden

“Sweat,” the Pulitzer-winning drama making its Indy premiere at the Phoenix Theatre, is a riveting mystery wrapped in a stark examination of recent events.

Set in a Pennsylvania Rust-Belt town, we first meet Jason (Nathan Robbins) and Chris (Ramon Hutchens) as they talk to their probation officer (Josiah McCruiston). The former best friends are released from prison in 2008, having served time for what they did eight years earlier. Neither has come to terms with their act; Jason literally wears the shame on his face.

Much of the rest of the play takes place in the year 2000, in a bar near a local factory where generations of men and women have worked good Union jobs. But the changing times, aided by economic factors such as NAFTA and the decline of labor unions, have cast an air of uncertainty over the town. One plant, where Chris’s father Brucie (Dwuan Watson) worked, shut out its workers and may never reopen. But his mother, Cynthia (Dena Toler), is doing fine at her workplace, where she and her friends Jessie (Angela Plank) and Jason’s mom, Tracey (Diane Kondrat), even consider going for a recently-opened management position.

Bartender Stan (Rob Johansen) used to work at the factory, but thanks to an on-the-job injury he settles for just selling his old friends drinks. He is helped by good-hearted Oscar (Ian Cruz), who patiently puts up with the patrons assuming he’s Mexican (his family’s Columbian) and that he’s an immigrant (he was born in the town, like everyone else).

As for individual performances, director Bryan Fonseca has once again brought out the best in a very solid ensemble, familiar to Phoenix audiences.

As we see the social and economic darkness descend upon these characters, and we get to know their feelings and fears as we watch the inevitable from our perspective of over a decade later, one haunting truth lingers in the background: Something very bad is going to happen to one of them. We never really know until the moment it happens, and at that point, we truly feel the dark side of 21st-century America.

For a look at the hot human aspects of cold economic realities, experience “Sweat,” through March 4 at 749 N. Park Ave. (the last mainstage show at this address before the Phoenix’s big move). Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

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Rumor has it: Civic makes ‘Sense’

By John Lyle Belden

If you wonder at the possible appeal of a play based on a Jane Austen novel, consider the number of people, from all backgrounds, now hooked on Downton Abbey. And it’s not just the accents, the fine clothes, or even the tea – but a good well-told story that sustains such period tales’ popularity. And we all feel for those living mired in an environment of strict rules of conduct and etiquette.

“Sense and Sensibility,” a light drama based on Austen’s 1811 novel at Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre through Feb. 17, also emphasizes a public scourge with which we can all identify: Constant gossip and rumors, frequently spoken to set up and frame the scenes, sound all too familiar in our Twitter and TMZ world.

Weathering this social storm are the Dashwood family. The widow Mrs. Dashwood (Carrie Neal) and her daughters – sensible Elinor (Emily Bohn), romantic Marianne (Morgan Morton) and young Margaret (Elisabeth Giffen Speckman) – are forced to live on their own in a humble cottage, as their former estate had gone to a son from Mr. Dashwood’s prior marriage (women weren’t allowed to inherit). Despite being dropped to the lower rungs of the almost caste-like society of 1790s England, Elinor and especially Marianne receive the attentions of very promising single men, including shy Robert Ferrars (Joshua Ramsey), rakish John Willoughby (Justin Klein) and steady Colonel Brandon (Bradford Reilly).

In addition to these men, the cast also includes scene-stealer extraordinaire Matt Anderson as the Dashwoods’ cousin Sir John, whose generosity helps the women stay on their feet. In exchange, he – and nearly anyone else around – only want the latest juicy news from around the countryside.

This recent adaptation of Austen’s story by Kate Hamill, directed for the Civic by John Michael Goodson, is marked by its reliance on swirling rumor to drive the plot, as well as its minimalist staging. Little more than chairs and a few props are used, putting the focus squarely on the actors. Aside from Bohn and Morton, whose characters are the focal point of the book and play, all other cast members play multiple roles, and even the occasional dog or horse. This adds to the show’s sense of humor – enough to entertain, but never overreaching into farce. For instance, at one point Abby Gilster frequently enters and exits a scene as two different characters, making it an inevitable laugh line when one has to remark about the other.

High marks to all the cast, with clear characterizations despite a fairly high-energy pace (no dreary corset drama, this!). And as a woman’s novel adapted by another woman, it’s easy to see the story as a celebration of women working to live as much as possible on their own terms.

A review of the original New York production of this version calls it “Jane Austen for those who don’t usually like Jane Austen,” but that sells the source material short. This “Sense and Sensibility” looks through the old story through a more contemporary lens, while leaving Miss Austen’s intentions intact. It only makes “sense” that you should check this out.

Performances are on the Tarkington stage at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800 or visit www.civictheatre.org, or thecenterpresents.org for tickets.

#Juliet and her #Romeo @ IRT

By John Lyle Belden

A month after giving fresh polish to a well-worn Christmas story, the Indiana Repertory Theatre presents possibly Shakespeare’s most familiar play, “Romeo and Juliet.” Everyone knows this story, or at least assumes they do. My first thoughts regarding the IRT production were: Didn’t they just do this one? (It was 2010.) At least it’s only 90 minutes. (The edits are well crafted, aiding the flow and drama.) And, oh! I see Millicent Wright is the Nurse again. (She is marvelous.)

Fortunately, the IRT and director Henry Woronicz breathed new life into the old pages you read in high school – in a show performed for today’s students through the NEA Shakespeare in American Communities program – by presenting it in a “contemporary” setting. This involves more than putting the cast in today’s clothing, with modern blades taking the place of swords. Most importantly, vocal patterns (while still Shakespeare’s words) are more like familiar American speech. Wright’s delivery, for instance, is more BET than Bard.

Aaron Kirby is our Romeo, the hopeless romantic far more interested in girls than fighting in the ongoing Montague-Capulet feud. Either path to him is more a boy’s game than a man’s quest. As for Sophia Macias as Juliet, I believe this is the first time I’ve seen the character truly look and act 14 years old, complete with naive faith and immature impatience and impetuousness. If it is argued that this couple showed more wisdom than the adult characters, that is only a reflection of how foolish the fighting families are.

Romeo’s cousin, Benvolio (Ashley Dillard) and friend Mercutio (Charles Pasternak), also youths, are caught up in the excitement of the goings-on, the latter so manically Pasternak nearly acts like the Joker from Batman. Lord and Lady Capulet (Robert Neal and Constance Macy) are occupied with ensuring their family stays on top with a lucrative marriage of Juliet to Count Paris (Jeremy Fisher). The most noble characters, Prince Escalus (Pasnernak again) and Friar Lawrence (Ryan Artzberger), only want peace – the former through law and order, the latter through love.

With these, we present the boy-meets-girl story with a unique whirlwind courtship and marriage resulting (spoiler alert) in them both lying dead in a crypt just a few days later. But is there more to this?

Perhaps it was seeing this in today’s context – months into stories and reports of young women taken advantage of (the #metoo and #timesup movements, the USA Gymnastics abuses), reminded of the constant tragedy of youth suicide and self-destruction – that I couldn’t help seeing this story more through Juliet’s point of view. Macias’s scenes with Wright and Macy help bring the feminine struggles of the story (as applicable today as in the 1590s) in sharp relief. We see a girl – not a woman yet, though she desperately wants to be – working her way through impossible choices. Add to this the female casting of Benvolio (pitch-perfect work by Dillard), emphasizing the peacemaker aspects of the character.

“Romeo and Juliet” is said to be timeless, but this show boldly thrusts itself into the 21st century – with only the lack of text-laden cell phones in the kids’ hands separating it from our own world. For #R+J fans old and new, this version is worth checking out. Performances are through March 4 on the IRT Upperstage, 140 W. Washington St., downtown Indy (by Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

CCP drama presents public family’s private truths

By Wendy Carson

In “Other Desert Cities,” presented by Carmel Community Players, the Wyeths aren’t an ordinary family.

The father, Lyman, is a retired Hollywood actor and staunchly Republican former politician and foreign ambassador. The mother, Polly, also a past actor, is a devoted political wife. Her sister, Silda Grauman, was writer and costar of their forgettable series of movies – their Tinseltown legacy. Silda is also a resentful recovering alcoholic whose circumstances force her to endure living with her sister’s family.

It’s Christmas time, and Lyman and Polly’s grown children have come home to Palm Springs, Calif., for the holidays. The son, Trip, lives nearby and works in the entertainment industry, producing a trashy, exploitative reality show. The daughter, Brooke, is a troubled novelist residing in New York. After a broken marriage, mental breakdown and institutionalization, a combination of effective therapy and completing another book has brought her out of her darkness and back to the desert.

The family has lived in the public eye, yet hides dark secrets. It turns out that Brooke’s book is a memoir focused on her older brother Henry, who committed suicide years ago after being implicated in a deadly bombing. Considering Henry a free-spirited hero and best friend, Brooke blames their conservative parents for his fate.

The resulting conflict drives the plot of this acclaimed drama by Jon Robin Baitz. Brooke (Shannon Samson in top form) wants her parents’ blessing before the book publishes, but their pushback, especially from Polly (Vickie Cornelius Phipps, a sharp performance with cutting edges) pushes everyone to the brink. Lyman (Ronn Johnstone, giving the impression this role was written for him) struggles to avoid the growing conflict, but secrets have their own inevitable weight. Trip (Jeremy Tuterow, delivering a lighter counterpoint) also wants to avoid drama, and doesn’t recognize the apparent monsters in Brooke’s book as their parents. Meanwhile, Silda (Miki Mathioudakis, excellent as usual) gives full reign to her bitterness in entertaining fashion.

To discover these fascinating secrets and lies, take the Clay Terrace exit to visit “Other Desert Cities,” through Feb. 11. Call 317-815-9687 or visit carmelplayers.org.

IRT presents sweet ‘Raisin’

By John Lyle Belden

“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?”
— From “Harlem” by Langston Hughes

It is the end of the 1950s, and postwar prosperity hasn’t quite reached the Black neighborhoods of Chicago. But for the Younger family, a windfall in the form of a life insurance check – a sad compensation for dreams deferred – brings hope of better times, better things. And every member of the family has ideas for how to invest or spend that money.

This sets up the plot of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic drama, “Raisin in the Sun,” on stage through Feb. 3 at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. The IRT’s high professional standards are reflected throughout this production, including director Timothy Douglas and his cast.

Chike Johnson is solid as Walter Lee Younger, who struggles with his need and expectation to be the man of the house. But it’s hard to stay a proud black man when your only way to make money is to drive white men around the city, at their beck and call. His frustration makes communication difficult with wife Ruth (Dorcas Sowunmi), who feels the strain of working as a cleaning woman on top of starting an unplanned pregnancy. She is also wary of Walter’s dreams of business schemes he works up with his drinking buddies. The latest, for which he wants the insurance money, is to start a liquor store.

But matriarch, and widow whose name is on the check, Lena Younger (played with sweet strength by Kim Staunton), doesn’t want her Christian witness tainted by financing such a business. She would rather see the money go towards putting daughter Beneatha (Stori Ayers) through medical school, as well as a down payment on a house for the whole family, especially Walter’s son (and Lena’s grandson) Travis (Lex Lumpkin).

Meanwhile, Beneatha’s college studies are opening her to the swiftly changing world of the era, and the overtures of two very different suitors. George (Jordan Bellow) is from a wealthy family, and sees keeping status as a black man of means through a rather conservative lens. But through Joseph (Elisha Lawson), a Nigerian student, Beneatha sees Africa and becomes fascinated with their ancestral culture. Ayers takes on her interesting and complex character with gusto, adding to the play’s sometimes dark humor. And she provides a great model for costumer Kara Harmon’s designs.

Supporting characters are played by D. Alexander, Dameon Cooper, and Paul Tavianini as the lone white role – a man with a rather interesting offer when the Youngers seek to move into an all-white neighborhood.

The struggle of people of color in America is an ever-present backdrop, even before the family comes face to face with thinly-veneered bigotry. We would like to argue that it’s a different country today – and to a fair degree, it is – but the attitudes in this drama do feel too familiar. And consider that Travis would be in his 60s today; this is not ancient history.

Scenic designer Tony Cisek’s stage emphasizes the oppressively crowded feel of the setting with stacks of old furniture for walls, a decaying ceiling overhead, and an endless maze of balconies and stairs surrounding the Youngers’ one-bedroom apartment, which doesn’t even have its own bathroom.

In all, IRT provides an excellent opportunity to revisit or discover this brilliant work. Don’t defer your chance to experience it. Performances are on the main stage at 140 W. Washington St., downtown Indy (by Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

Phoenix: Unforgettable encounter with ‘Don’

By John Lyle Belden

Underlining the drama of “Halftime With Don,” a new play at the Phoenix Theatre, is the proposition – likely a fact – that America’s favorite sport is killing its players.

While Don Devers (an awesome performance by Bill Simmons) is fictional, the NFL heroes he mentions whose lives ended violently, often by suicide, were very real. Years after retiring from 10 seasons of pro football as a star defensive tackle, enduring, in his words, “a thousand car crashes a season,” Don’s body is in ruin with his brain succumbing to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Caused by long-term repeated head impacts, CTE symptoms include dementia, mood swings and violent impulses. It has been found, in autopsy, in numerous football players and other athletes.

About a week before the Super Bowl, devoted fan Ed Ryan (Michael Hosp) visits his idol in a meeting arranged by Don’s estranged daughter, Stephanie (Lauren Briggeman), and Ed’s wife, Sarah (Chelsea Anderson). Both women happen to be pregnant, with Stephanie due to deliver any day.

However, Ed finds that his hero, barely able to stand without a walker, spends all day in a reclining chair, a dozen pill bottles by his side, surrounded by what appears to be an endless supply of products he might have endorsed in his playing days – cans of Pringles chips and bottles of Gatorade. Don’s lifelong habit of writing Post-It notes (originally for motivation and inspiration) is now his lifeline, with little reminders of daily facts and random thoughts all around him. But when Don finds a note he wrote saying, “He’s the One,” he opens up to Ed, and in his moments of lucidity he knows how this young man will help him.

Hosp’s natural ability to play an aw-shucks type character suits him well here, while imbuing Ed with surprising depth. He finds himself in a situation befitting a madcap comedy, but with serious consequences, and nails the performance. Briggeman and Anderson are outstanding as well, with stormy Stephanie and sunny Sarah’s growing relationship a vital subplot.

We’ve come to expect brilliance from Simmons, and he does not disappoint. When Don is in pain, we feel it; when he innocently looks at a friend like they have never met, you fight the urge to speak up and remind him. Even when the focus is not on him, his presence is felt. Were this a Broadway stage, a Tony would be in order.

Written by Ken Weitzman, “Halftime With Don” is a National New Play Network “Rolling World Premiere,” meaning more than one NNPN theatre will produce it, each lending the drama different stylistic touches. Phoenix producer/director Bryan Fonseca, with set designer Daniel Uhde, made use of the open space of the theatre’s downstairs area, placing two small stages – one, Don’s living room; the other, Stephanie’s home – on opposite corners with an open path between. This helps focus the action with smooth transition between scenes, as well as close audience seating for an immersive experience.

A story that’s about far more than football and the man who played it, “Halftime With Don” runs through Feb. 4 at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair, near Mass. Ave.) in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.PhoenixTheatre.org.

BCP: It’s a wonderful show

By John Lyle Belden

It’s Christmas Eve, 1945, and we’ve gotten in out of the cold to sit in the studio audience at WBFR Radio, New York City. Freddie Fillmore, who is as handsome as he sounds, comes out to greet us commoners, along with fellow stars of the airwaves, Jake Laurents, Sally Applewhite, Lana Sherwood and Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood. Sound-effects expert Art Foley teases us with an earful of a common kitchen utensil, challenging us to guess what that sound will represent on air – none of us can!

Soon they settle in on stage, and present a new holiday story, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

This is the trip to the past delivered by Buck Creek Players, a parallel world where the Frank Capra film is just a rumor, and we get the Christmas legend of George Bailey and Clarence the Angel as a live radio play (adapted by Joe Landry). The cast does work the crowd a little before the show, while stage manager Nicole Droeger, in period costume, helps set things up as a WBFR staffer. There are “APPLAUSE” signs to cue us (though they often weren’t needed) as well as the “ON AIR” light to let us know the show is under way.

Jeff Wilson plays Fillmore, the established star who hosts the event and provides numerous character voices, including complete opposites Mr. Potter and Uncle Billy. Tiffany Wilson is Applewhite, who portrays the major women characters, including George’s wife, Mary. Sami Burr is Sherwood, who does the minor women’s roles. Ben Rockey is Jazzbo, who can’t help providing visual gags when not voicing Clarence, or George’s brother Harry or friend Sam. Christian Condra is up-and-coming star Laurents, tasked with the voice of George himself. And Christopher Brown is Foley, who works with a table of noisemakers a lot like those used in the Golden Age of Radio.

The result is an brilliant rendition of the now-familiar story. If you close your eyes, it’s exactly like the show would have been as a radio drama, or you could even fill in the film visuals with your mind’s eye as only a little was changed, and all major plot points are intact. Of course, if you’re not watching, you don’t get to see the method of Foley’s clever effects, Jazzbo hamming it up, or a bit of shenanigans that happen in the studio, including some sneaking around during intermission.

The cast, under the direction of Cathy Cutshall, are all in fine form. The Wilsons, Burr and Rockey nimbly shift from one distinct character voice to another. Condra delivers an excellent, genuine George Bailey without slipping into a James Stewart impersonation.

It’s worth the trip out to the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74), through Dec. 17.

Also, this being the BCP holiday show, there is the annual cookie sale during intermission. They accept cash, cards or checks, so pick up a bag or tin of fine baked goods and help support local theatre.

Get info and tickets at 317-862-2270, or visit www.BuckCreekPlayers.com.