Bard Fest cast brave Albee classic

By Wendy Carson

Let me begin by saying the old adage is true: Nothing good happens after 2 a.m.

This is the precise hour in which our tale begins. George (Tony Armstrong) and Martha (Nan Macy) have arrived home from one of her father’s numerous parties just in time to continue the “festivities” by initiating the new professor into the way of life at their provincial college. Since Martha’s father is the President (and ersatz owner) of this establishment, Nick (Matthew Walls) and his wife Honey (Afton Shepard) feel compelled to attend.

What begins as two couples sharing cocktails quickly escalates into a verbal brawl in which no one is safe. At first, Nick and Honey gape in shock as the barbs fly back and forth. but as time passes and alcohol is consumed, their own skeletons explode out of the closet for all to see.

Edward Albee’s classic play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” shows the author’s mastery of language and its power. Martha’s tongue is a lethal weapon, which no man, save perhaps George, can survive. However, George can hold his own in this melee.

Watching Martha and George go at each other is akin to seeing different beasts battle for dominance, the saddest thing is that they honestly do love each other, in their own way. Macy is a black belt at this sort of verbal karate, complete with Martha’s sharp tools of wit and psychological warfare. Armstrong presents George as the weathered stone taking on wave after wave of abuse, but with the eerie calm of one who has little left to lose, and one more devastating ace to play.

Walls brings his own cockiness, in which Nick manages for two of the drama’s three acts to feel that he will come out of this skirmish unscathed, and perhaps ready to exploit what he’s heard. But too late he finds he’s way too Kansas for these Ivy League-level head games. Shepard manages a lot with her character, an easy foil for Albee’s humor who, with the help of lots of brandy, devolves from a waif lost in the playground to a girl lost in the woods.

For those unfamiliar with the play, or the Oscar-winning Elizabeth Taylor film, note this production, directed by Matthew Socey, is a wild ride, an emotional roller coaster with no brakes, so engaging you may not notice it runs three hours. No story told or alluded to is without importance (except one bit in the first scene, more on that later) and only at the end do we get a full view of the field of play. However, while the show is very intense, it can be amusing to notice how often various couples in the audience knowingly look at each other after some of the exchanges.

Oh, and to save you a minute or two of Googling during the first intermission, the answer to Martha’s question is, “Beyond the Forest.”

Presented by Indy Bard Fest as part of its Prestige Project of great stage plays not written by Mr. Shakespeare, performances continue Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 14-17, at The Cat theatre 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel (note there are some construction street closures, but it’s possible to reach the building). Get info and tickets at indybardfest.com.

Scars and healing in ‘Alabaster’

By John Lyle Belden

“I’m not polite company,” says June, the lone survivor of a tornado that ripped through her family’s farm a few years ago. She was left with countless scars, many of which are on her body. 

This has brought a renowned photographer to rural Alabama — famous for celebrity portraits, Alice has taken on a project to feature the scars on various brave women, showing their defiant beauty. But then, she has deep wounds of her own.

Also on the farm is Weezy, a common goat gifted with insight she shares verbally with June, and compassion for her mother Bib, an old nanny-goat without long to live.

This is “Alabaster,” by Audrey Cefaly, the long-awaited drama that re-opens the Russell main stage of the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indy. Originally part of the 2019-20 season, the play is directed by Jolene Mentink Moffat, with brilliant performances by Maria Argentina Souza (June), Lauren Briggeman (Alice), Joanne Kehoe (Weezy), and Jan Lucas (Bib).

There are many themes at play here — loss, mourning, pain, recovery, holding on, letting go, and facing what comes next. There is also a constant stream of gentle humor, as one would expect when the narrator is a talking goat. Cefaly says in her program note that Weezy is “an instrument of the Divine.” I like to think of it as, “What if Jiminy Cricket were a goat?” Regardless, Kehoe takes on the role with a determined smile, giving the animal’s natural traits a sage quality.

It’s become routine in these reviews to dwell on how completely and comfortably Briggeman embodies her every role, and this is no exception. However, Souza matches her in a skillful portrayal of a character with spiky walls, a soft interior, and a mood that turns on a dime. June, who spends her days painting artworks on broken barn wood, is a soul both standing in the eye of her storm and still caught in its vortex; taking her outside these two states is Weezy’s wish, and becomes Alice’s mission — but is it a directive from her worried brain or her healing heart? 

Though Bib only speaks “goat,” Lucas can still communicate so much with a single look, as her character bides her time until her catalyst moment.

To stay a step ahead of pop-culture trivia experts in the audience, there are references to a certain popular book-based movie — which this play is kinda like, but kinda not — but only the goat truly goes meta (in a scene that even involves yoga). 

Perhaps we can all use a barnyard animal to talk to. Performances of “Alabaster” run through Oct. 31, see www.phoenixtheatre.org for info and tickets.

IRT: Join the ‘Club’

By Wendy Carson

Book clubs are meant to be a gathering place where friends, both new and old, can commune together over literature – but are they, really? Many devolve into socially-acceptable drinking parties in which wine and gossip are far more important than some silly book.

Ana (Andrea San Miguel) is determined to have her Book Club – begun prior to Oprah’s, she notes – to be the gold standard to which all others should be measured. In fact, her group has been selected by a notable Dutch documentary director to be the subject of his newest work, captured by an all-seeing-eye camera installed in their living room.

This is “The Book Club Play,” by Karen Zacarias, directed by Benjamin Hanna and playing on the main stage at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, its first production before live audiences in over a year.

Ana’s group is comprised of her best friend, club co-creator Will (Will Mobley); faithful gal-pal Jen (Emily Berman); oh-so-perfect husband Rob (Sean Davis); and new (black) co-worker Lily (Cassia Thompson).

Will and Ana are literary elitists who insist that even though book choices rotate, they MUST be considered classic literature. Jen is doing her best to just get each book read (and find her keys), while Rob is only here because it’s at his house and he likes the snacks.

Lily appears to be the only member who is actually participating and gaining something from the group. Therefore, it’s no surprise that she disrupts the dynamic by not only choosing a recently popular novel as her selection, but also by inviting her neighbor Alex (Adam Poss) to the group.

Each of our actors also play short cameos of other people interviewed in the documetary.

Davis is spectacular as the jock husband who gains amazing insight into his being when he actually reads one of the books they choose. Berman plays Jen’s socially awkward bestie perfectly, embodying the comic timing of the role. Mobley does an excellent job of keeping the neurosis of his character in check with the desperate need for validation to bring out the empathy within. San Miguel brings Ana to life as controlling and haughty, while keeping her vulnerable. Thompson’s subtle turn at Lily keeps her part of the action without overtly betraying her role as instigator of the drama that unfolds. Poss is brilliant as the agent provocateur, questioning the club’s motives, choices, and inherent prejudices (both literary and social).

Aside from brilliant comedy, with moments of slapstick, this production is impressive for the simple yet elegant living room set coming alive between scenes with the words of various books projected on the walls, the work of scenic designer Junghyun Georgia Lee.

While a quote from the show describes it as “Lord of the Flies with Wine and Dip,” I think it’s better described as “A coed version of The Talk that you’d actually want to watch.” Oh, and please don’t exit the theater quickly as there is one final joke at the end of the credits.

Performances run through Oct. 31 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington in downtown Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at irtlive.com.

Don’t ‘fiddle’ and miss this one

By John Lyle Belden

“Seneca and the Soul of Nero” is a new play by Southbank Theatre Company artistic director Marcia Eppich-Harris, but stands well in style and content with other great historical tragedies. I sense it could have been written at any time between now and the 900s, when the myth that Emperor Nero “fiddled while Rome burned” became popular. 

The premiere Southbank production of the play, at the IndyFringe Basile stage through Oct. 2, resembles a Bardfest event in its excellent handling by director Doug Powers and a cast that includes David Mosedale as Stoic philosopher Seneca and Evren Wilder Elliott as teenage “Princeps” Nero. 

Despite the abundance of written material in the First Century, much of it surviving to today, the true history of Nero is anything but clear, with contemporary accounts often written by those who didn’t like the young tyrant and centuries passing to add myth and legend to his story. The fiddle didn’t even exist at the time, but it was possible to draw a bow across a lyre, an instrument that Nero did enjoy playing — and he embraced music and theatre at a time when its practitioners were in lower regard than prostitutes (never mind an alleged god-king). Just as we don’t mind the words that Shakespeare put into the ancients’ mouths, Eppich-Harris is perfectly entitled to her well-researched dramatic license, especially as she captured the spirit of the era and its abundant lessons for today’s social and political climate. 

Seneca was Nero’s tutor when he ascended to the throne, and the boy, feeling immediately in over his head, smartly kept the philosopher on as principal advisor and speechwriter, as well as trusted military leader Afranius Burrus (David Molloy) to head his guard. Also on the scene were his ever-hovering mother Agrippina (Rachel Snyder), naive half-brother Britannicus (Brant Hughes), and dutiful but suspicious stepsister/wife Octavia (Bra’Jae’ Allen) whom he would ignore in favor of the beautiful and ambitious Sabina (Trick Blanchfield). At Seneca’s side were faithful wife Pompeia Paulina (Jenni White) and his nephew, the famous poet Lucan (Noah Winston).

Elliott brilliantly brings us along on the emperor’s journey, as he grows older and more at ease with power, but no more mature. At first troubled by signing off on the deaths of the justly condemned, Nero comes to find a quick murder is an easy solution to an immediate problem — but then more issues pop up in its place. Each death takes a little more of his soul, power-madness devolving to madness, reducing him until nearly no one is left, and the knife is in his hand.

Mosedale stands ever solid, defending his young charge as long as he can while defending himself against the hypocrisy of living large yet espousing Stoic principles. In the end, he must choose between Nero and Rome. White’s Pompeia leads the greater example, steadfast to her husband but never wavering on their moral stand. 

Snyder embodies the complex Agrippina without slipping into villainous caricature, perhaps even engendering some sympathy as the evil she sows grows out of her control. Molloy exemplifies the “good soldier” completely, bearing his orders until his sense of justice can do no more.

An exceptional look at history and the dynamics and hazards of unfettered power, “Seneca and the Soul of Nero” is worthy to stand among the Classics. We encourage all who can to see it, and to those reading this in the future to consider bringing to your own stages.

Find information at southbanktheatre.org and tickets at indyfringe.org. Note that COVID-19 vaccination and masking are required of all audience members. Home viewing via “on-demand” streaming available Oct. 15-Nov. 14 (see Southbank site for details).

Comedy classic comes to Epilogue

By Wendy Carson

Epilogue Players presents the popular comedy, “Arsenic and Old Lace,” by Joseph Kesselring, directed by Brent Wooldridge.

If you have not seen the amazing 1944 Frank Capra film of this show, starring Cary Grant, we are doing our level best to keep as many plot spoilers out of this review as we can. Also, find it and watch it now! It is a true classic and you will be better for seeing it. However, don’t you dare let that deter you from seeing this delightful version of the darkly hilarious show.

Our story is set in 1941 Brooklyn at the home of Abby (Serita Borgeas) and Martha (Hazel Gillaspy) Brewster, two darling older women who think of nothing more than bringing joy to all of those around them in any way possible. They share their home with their dear nephew Teddy (Scott Prill) who is convinced he is Teddy Roosevelt.

While their nephew Mortimer (Jaime Johnson) is a big-time theater reviewer living in downtown New York, he frequently visits his Aunts because he is dating Elaine Harper (Caity Withers), the daughter of their neighbor Reverend Dr. Harper (Ron Pittman).

Since Teddy’s affinity for blowing his bugle at all hours is a bother to their other neighbors, there are regular visitations by an assortment of policemen throughout the show. This presence makes for great tension when their villainous third nephew, Jonathan (Daniel Scott Watson) shows up with his hesitant partner Dr. Einstein (Mike Harold).

And apparently there are bodies, lots of them. Mortimer is faced with a dilemma, with the best resolution being Happydale Sanitarium. With lots of farcical ins and outs, misunderstandings and plot twists, and a fair amount of physical humor, we find entertaining insanity running through this fun production, “It practically gallops!”

The remaining dates are today (Thursday) through Sunday, Sept. 23-26, at 1849 N. Alabama St. (on the corner). Get info and tickets at epilogueplayers.com.

Story of doomed campaign a winner for Storefront

By Wendy Carson and John Lyle Belden

Storefront Theatre of Indianapolis presents its first live production in exactly two years, the comic drama “1980 (Or, why I’m voting for John Anderson),” by Patricia Cotter, directed by Ronan Marra.

As you would surmise from the title, the year is 1980 and Kathleen (Carly Wagers) is a wide-eyed innocent come to make a difference, and earn some college credit, by working for John Anderson’s presidential campaign in Boston. At 19, she has led a sheltered life and is about to have her preconceptions – about life, politics, even herself – shattered.

Brenda (Bridget Haight), the campaign office manager (when she’s not tending bar next door), tries to teach her to face her fears and follow her passions but actually shows her how messy a blue-collar worker’s life can get when one tries to do just that.

Will (Jamaal McCray), who recently arrived from the campaign’s Chicago office, makes her aware of the racism inherent even in a city historically known as the cradle of liberty. His experiences echo incidents that we are currently facing. He also gives Kathleen a glimpse into office politics, not just the kind that involves elections.

Robin (Chelsea Anderson), however, is like the professor emeritus of the group, a blue-blood who has not only worked on past campaigns, but also knows various politicians from social events. Her jaded world outlook, psychological manipulation (masking her own mental issues), and pure ambitious nature are a force beyond anything Kathleen has ever experienced.

Also part of this play are two faces only seen on a TV that was crappy by that era’s standards. One is John B. Anderson (you need to include the middle initial when Googling, or the unrelated country music star comes up first), a moderate Republican from Illinois serving in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was highly intelligent, capable, and popular among fellow lawmakers, but in the 1980 Presidential primaries was quickly overshadowed by eventual nominee (and President) Ronald Reagan – the other face we see on the screen. Anderson managed the near-impossible feat of running as an Independent, getting on the ballot in every state. Still, even in badly-tinted color, Reagan’s charisma shined through to the voters.

Musing on Anderson’s long-shot chances, Brenda says, “If he can win, what’s that say about the rest of us?” In rock-solid performances, all four of our characters confront questions of what it means to “win,” and what is worth the risk. Also, reflecting what’s sometimes called politics’ “silly season,” this show is leavened with plenty of laugh-out-loud humor.

We know how the story turns out for the men on the TV debate stage (even Anderson, who passed away in 2017 after a long career in politics and public service). But this play focuses on the ones, like us, watching it all unfold, doing our small part – how does our “campaign” turn out? That’s what’s important, no matter what year it is.

Storefront Theatre is at 717 Broad Ripple Ave., Indianapolis. Performances of “1980” run though Oct. 3. Get info and tickets at storefrontindy.com.

Star encounter opens ATI return to the stage

By John Lyle Belden

Think of your favorite singer. Imagine that person – someone whose voice spellbound you, someone you could listen to every day for the rest of your life – came to your town. Then, you found yourself talking one-on-one with that person like you’d been friends all your life. And then after joining her on stage, she came home with you for a few hours.

Impossible? For divorced working mom Louise Segar of Houston, Texas, it actually happened.

Quite a character on her own, Louise discovered country music legend Patsy Cline during the singer’s appearances on Arthur Godfrey’s morning television show in the 1950s. She quickly became Patsy’s biggest fan in Houston, constantly pestering the local country radio DJ to spin Cline’s records. When, in 1961, the star was to play a local honky-tonk, Louise made sure to arrive early. Patsy did as well, sent to travel alone by her apathetic record label. Segar’s pushy personality would come to Cline’s rescue, ensuring fair treatment by the venue’s staff and giving her a place to relax (Louise’s kitchen) after the show. She even got Patsy an impromptu interview with the radio station.

This is remembered and relived in the popular Off-Broadway musical, “Always, Patsy Cline,” by Ted Swindley, which opens the 2021-22 season for Actors Theatre of Indiana. ATI co-founders Judy Fitzgerald and Cynthia Collins portray Patsy and Louise, respetively, the former with sweetness and latter with lots of sass.

They are accompanied by an excellent on-stage ensemble of “Bobs,” musicians Nathan Perry, Matt Day, Michael Clark, Greg Gegogeine, Kathy Schilling, and Greg Wolff. The audience also gets involved a bit.

The show is directed by Bill Jenkins, with musical direction by Terry Woods, featuring a wide range of 50s-60s hits including Cline’s chart-toppers (“I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy,” “Walkin’ After Midnight”).

Third ATI co-founder and artistic director Don Farrell announced on opening night, “Intermission is over!” This fun and sentimental production marks a strong return to regular live theatre. Performances of “Always…” run through Oct. 3 at The Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get tickets and info at atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

IndyFringe: Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

The title of the show was never said in the 24 tiny plays presented by the University of Indianapolis Theatre at the Murat Oasis. To be more accurate, it’s: “Too Much Time Makes the Audience Get Cookies.”

The series, “neo-futurist plays” by Greg Allen performed by UIndy students Refik Dogruyol, Nick French, Kyle Jeanor, Kielynn Tally and Kelli Thomas, is represented by cards numbered 1-24 at the back of the stage. The audience chooses the order, so the show is different every time.

The topic and form of each vary widely, from funny to absurd to introspective to disturbing to deadly serious. There’s also a bit of audience participation within the action. And remember, Play 23 does not exist.

It’s easy to see how this was one of the hottest tickets the last time it was at the Fringe. Add to this the fact it’s hard to get this many scenes done in 48 minutes (an average of 2 minutes per play). The performance we saw clocked in at 51 minutes — and we did get cookies!

IndyFringe: The Old Man and the Old Moon

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Why see this new folktale, created by PigPen Theatre Co. of New York, and presented complete with on-stage musicians and shadow puppets by Carmel High School students?

As one character puts it, “I like a good story.”

And quite a tale it is. Jack Sullivan, who narrates, acts, sings and plays some guitar, introduces us to the Old Man (Micah Phillips) whose job it is to refill the Moon after light leaks out, and the Old Woman (Madelyn Wood) who had been by his side for years, but now wants to take a walk — which includes stepping on a boat headed westward on the Sea.

Panicked, the Man looks for a ship to follow her, but ends up – by mistaken identity – on one headed to the south, and war. Will he find his wife? Will the crew survive this risky voyage? What actually happened to Lt. Pericles Llewelyn McWallander? We do understand that “dirigible” also means “air balloon,” right? And, most importantly, what will happen when all the light has finally leaked out of the Moon?

“The Old Man and The Old Moon” is an adventure fable full of wonder, whimsy, and music, also featuring Ella Asher, Kyle Barker, Josh Baxter, Theo Curtis, Seth Jacobsen, Kaylyn Johnson, Sarah Warf, and shadow puppetry by Elliot Clancy with Marybeth Okerson. Direction by Maggie Cassidy and Grace Fellabaum, with stage manager Gavin Griffin, sound by Ryan Dafforn, lights by Arthur Mansavage and technical direction by Andrew Okerson.

This charming show is an excellent choice for all ages, with plenty of seating room in the Basile Auditorium at the Athenaeum.

IndyFringe: Pixel the Cat Does Shakespeare

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

To The Rescue Theater and Monroe County Civic Theater have combined their efforts to bring this charming tale to the Fringe.

Lawrence (Jason Lopez) is a tiger-striped tabby who is the protector of his territory, prowling regularly to keep out danger. Tabitha (Robin Lea Pyle) is a rambunctious kitten who doesn’t understand why her desire to climb the fence makes her a “Bad Kitty”.

Enter a Persian interloper, Pixel (Roy Sillings), who quotes feline-inspired Shakespearean variants expressing his desire to become part of their home.

Because the show is meant to be light and whimsical, it is an excellent choice for families and small children. Note as well that all moneys received from the performances here go to a local Indianapolis feline charity, Cats Haven.

Performances are in the District Theatre.