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.

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IRT blesses us, every one

By John Lyle Belden

Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” – you know it; everyone knows it.

The Scrooge-bahhumbug-Crachits-Tiny-Tim-Marley-three-ghosts-Godblessuseveryone story is nearly as familiar as the Nativity. In fact, some of our favorite tellings take great liberties with the story, like the Muppet version or the movie “Scrooged.”

But it is also promoted as a proper holiday tradition, faithfully executed, every year at Indiana Repertory Theatre. So, how do they keep it reliable, yet unique?

Start with the Tom Haas script, which hews fairly closely to the source material. Under director Janet Allen, have the cast tell the story as they portray the events, in a pudding-smooth blend of narration and action.

Keep the set simple, as scenic designer Russell Metheny has done. The dominant feature is the drifts of snow absolutely everywhere – pure white like holiday magic, yet also a constant desolate reminder of the dangerous cold of a Victorian English winter. Setpieces drift in and out, and a simple large frame sees duty in many ways – a doorway, a mirror, a passage to what comes next.

Cast some of the best talent in Indy, including a number of IRT regulars, starting with the brilliant Ryan Artzberger as Scrooge. Other familiar faces include Charles Goad, Mark Goetzinger and the luminous Millicent Wright. You may also recognize Emily Ristine, Scot Greenwell and Jennifer Johansen. Then there are Jeremy Fisher, Charles Pasternak, Ashley Dillard and Joey Collins. And mix in some great young talent as well, such as Tobin Seiple and Maddie Medley, who take turns as Tiny Tim.

Present it all in a single movie-length performance, submersing the audience into the story until we can’t help but get caught up in it. Of course, we know what’s going to happen next, but with the spirit of live theatre taking us along, we don’t just watch the play, we experience it.

I feel like a bit of a Scrooge sometimes, thinking of things like the Dickens story as stale and overdone; but having seen what IRT does with it, I now see why all those who go back every year enjoy it so much. You, also, might want to consider adding this show to your list of cherished holiday traditions.

Performances continue through Christmas Eve at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St. (near Circle Centre) in downtown Indy. Get information and tickets at www.irtlive.com.

Footlite’s offering not your typical ‘holiday’ show

By John Lyle Belden

Some of the most interesting movies and plays are based on real events, especially those with can-you-believe-it novelty. That was especially the case with the legend of the Texas “Chicken Ranch” – a brothel that was an open secret for most of a century, named from its willingness to take poultry in payment during the Great Depression. It inspired the ZZ Top hit, “La Grange,” as well as the Broadway musical and 1982 film, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”

And now, Indy has “Whorehouse” in it! (“Lord have mercy on our souls!”) A home-grown production is playing through Dec. 10 at Footlite Musicals.

This seems an odd choice for the season – though everyone else has all the classics covered, so this does stand out. However, the play is set around Thanksgiving-to-Christmas time, sometime in the 1970s.

The Chicken Ranch has been running smoothly for generations, now under the watchful eye of Miss Mona (Julie Powers), with a friendly relationship with local Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (Mike Bauerle). The house attracts young women who want something different from life, including Angel (Abby Okerson), who wants stability and away from violent pimps, and appropriately-named Shy (Molly Campbell).

But anti-crime and consumer-watch crusader Melvin P. Thorpe (Todd Hammer) has made exposing and closing the Chicken Ranch his next mission – pursuing fame and high TV ratings as well as a moral cause. Thanks to media exposure on televisions across Texas, the Best Little Whorehouse’s days are numbered.

Powers commands the stage well, along with Eryn Bowser as Mona’s assistant, Jewel. Hammer mentions in his program bio that Thorpe is a bucket-list role, and he certainly has fun with it – making him enjoyable to watch as well. Jim Nelms cuts a sweet “Sidestep” as the Texas Governor.

Needless to say, there is mature content (though no nudity) so this show is only for teens and older. It looks good,with a nicely designed and furnished set with the musical’s band visible playing in the parlor. The costumes appropriately range from sassy to classy.

As for the performance, overall it’s entertaining, and an alternative to all the Scrooges and Nutcrackers elsewhere, but what we saw left us feeling it could have been a lot better. Fortunately, off-key notes and missed dance steps can be fixed between shows, so we don’t want to come off as too critical (and others in the audience did enjoy it), just honest. Considering the high quality of previous productions at Footlite this year, perhaps we had set our expectations a bit high.

Find Footlite at 1847 N. Alabama St., or online at footlite.org.

Epilogue presents inspiring ‘Tribute’

By John Lyle Belden

Sometimes a man can be a friend or even hero to the people he meets and works with in a career, but still be distant to his own family. This theme is at the heart of “Tribute,” the 1970s comic drama by Bernard Slade (writer of the hit “Same Time Next Year,” who also helped bring “The Flying Nun” and “Partridge Family” to TV), presented through Nov. 19 at Epilogue Players.

Scottie Templeton (played by Greg Howard) has had a varied career – writing plays, producing in Hollywood – while taking none of it seriously. This attitude has made him a friend to everyone, giving him connections that he can link as a consummate man behind the scenes. But he is also long estranged from his ex-wife and a stranger to the grown son who had worshiped him as a child – before the divorce.

Circumstances bring his ex, Maggie (Laura Baltz), and son, Jud (Joshua Brunsting), to his New York apartment. Scottie tries desperately to reconnect – especially with the young man who is as humorlessly serious as he is carefree – because he has discovered he has leukemia and might have only months to live. His close friend and business partner Lou (Dennis Forkel) and doctor, Gladys (Wendy Brown), try to do what’s best for him. Meanwhile, Scottie sets up his young friend, Sally (Lauren McDaniel), with Jud in an attempt to loosen him up. Melissa Cleaver completes the cast as Hillary, a woman who received much-needed aid from unjudgemental Scottie, and returns to town to repay a little of his kindness.

We get the full measure of the man both from these scenes and in testimonials at the “Tribute” thrown in his honor, the dramatic device that enrobes the play. And we get a good measure of the style and charisma of Howard, who never lets up on the charm, yet often allows Scottie to betray the seriousness of the situation.

The women are each charming in their own way – Baltz as a caring realist who has come to terms with the quirks of the men in his life; McDaniel as a pillar of confidence who will not be taken lightly; Brown as a caring soul, both the healer wanting to help and the friend not wanting so see someone she cares for die; and Cleaver as one wacky nurse.

Brunsting’s Jud is such a stick in the mud, but he’s not unlikable. As we, and Scottie, come to understand the lifetime of pain and estrangement, we see through the layers to the boy inside who once enjoyed cracking corny jokes with his dad.

Directed by Catherine Mobley, “Tribute” fits excellently into Epilogue’s mission of finding great roles for young-at-heart actors, including strong woman characters.

In seeing this play, we can’t help but think of the people we need to better connect with, as well as consider how much what we do to help others’ success is really appreciated. The laughs far outnumber the tears here, but there is a heart to this show, worthy of being honored by a full applauding theatre.

Performances are Friday through Sunday, Nov. 17-19, at 1849 N. Alabama Street (corner of 19th and Alabama) in downtown Indy. Call 317-926-3139 or visit www.epilogueplayers.com.

KCT in interesting Shape

By John Lyle Belden

A hallmark of plays by Neil LaBute is the aspect of seemingly ordinary people doing terrible things.

On the other hand, Khaos Company Theatre strives to give ordinary people a place to do great things in the pursuit of art and performance, becoming a positive resource on Indy’s East Side.

So – cue the irony – a LaBute play, “The Shape of Things,” was KCT’s last production in its former home on Sherman Drive. While it was sad to have had only one weekend of performances in late September, the company did end on a very strong note.

In the 2001 play (and 2003 film), a young man, Adam (played here by Kyle Dorsch), who works at a museum, meets a beautiful woman, Evelyn (Gorgi Parks-Fulper) who takes an interest in him, helping him to improve his looks, wardrobe and physique. At first, this is well received by his best friend, Phillip (Aaron Henze). But then, the plot takes a turn.

Phillip is engaged to Jenny (Kayla Lee), who had secretly been in love with Adam – who had been too shy to make the first move – but settled for his friend, feeling it was as close as she could get. But she can’t help but notice her crush’s improvements, and his improved confidence. They kiss.

With his relationship with Phillip fraying, Adam is persuaded by Evelyn to cut off all contact with both him and Jenny. He is only devoted to her.

But then, the semester ends, and Evelyn reveals her Masters of Fine Arts project: Adam. It wasn’t love, just her “sculpting” him to put on display. He manages to regain a little dignity in an epilogue scene, but we are still left with the central questions of trust and honesty, and even though he was used for another’s gain, isn’t Adam better off in the end?

Director James Banta gets excellent performances from these four actors, especially Parks-Fulper as our smooth manipulator. Dorsch nicely portrays the transition from dweeb-with-potential to a man who appears complete, able to stand on his own – until that rug is ripped out from under his feet. Henze and Lee present a couple who appear to have a perfect relationship, but can stay willfully blind to its cracks for only so long. Kudos also to Case Jacobus for tech and props, including the climactic slide show.

The production of “Shape of Things” is not scheduled to resume, but KCT itself will continue in one form or another. Production director Anthony Logan Nathan says the organization has achieved 501c3 not-for-profit status through Emerging Artist Theatre Inc., and is searching for a new regular home.

Next, KCT, with Emerging Artist, present their scheduled production of the classic tragedy, “The Duchess of Malfi” – with a cast that includes Lee – Friday through Sunday (Nov. 10-12) at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St. Get info and tickets at www.indyfringe.org.

NoExit ‘1984’ – experience the love of Big Brother

By John Lyle Belden

It was a bright cold day in November, and the clocks had struck nineteen 30 minutes ago. The back door to a facility commandeered by the Party and Ministry of Truth opened, and we were allowed to enter.

After Agents determined our country of origin and loyalty to the Party, we were detained with other participants until 20:00, when the Ministry provided a goodthink show of a man discovering his love for Big Brother. This is all it is and ever was.

I would never be unfaithful to the Party and tell you that this was a clever and insightful production of “1984” – adapted from the George Orwell novel by Matthew Dunster, produced by NoExit Performance (with co-conspirators including AnC Movies, Cat Head Press and iMOCA) and directed by Ryan Mullins – as that would be “fake news.”

But if I were to say such a thing, I would point out that Ryan Ruckman gives an excellent performance as Winston Smith, the conflicted everyman who tires of his duties for the Ministry, constantly “correcting” history and sending obsolete information down the Memory Hole so that it never happened. He wears his depression and ennui like an extra layer of clothing, feeling the weight of the Telescreen eyes upon him. NoExit mainstay Georgeanna Smith Wade wins his heart and ours as secret rebel Julia, who inspires Winston to defy the Party – simultaneously the smartest and stupidest thing he would ever do.

The Party orders that I denounce Dave Ruark for his commanding portrayal of the mysterious O’Brien, Adam Crowe for his deceptively warm turn as Charrington, and Tristan Ross for his appropriately milquetoast presentation of Smith’s co-worker Parsons (extra rations go to Zac Schneider and Elsie McNulty as the Party-faithful children, though Shannon Samson as Mrs. Parsons is still under suspicion). If Syme had not become an unperson, I’d praise Phil Criswell’s double-plus-good performance. I also hallucinated sharp work from Taylor Cox and Ann Marie Elliott in supporting roles.

Where NoExit – I mean the Ministry – most excels is in the way this drama is presented. It is totally immersive: You stand in or right outside the room where each scene occurs; and the actors frequently move from one area to the next, forcing all to turn and/or follow. Ministry agents help guide the audience. There is no climbing stairs, and limited seating is provided at every scene. Compare the amount of movement necessary to an easy tour of a museum gallery with about a half-dozen display areas in three large rooms. Appropriate set design (by Andrew Darr), with occasional video images (by AnC) and haunting sound (by Rob Funkhouser) enveloping the rooms, provide a perfectly tense atmosphere throughout. Big Brother’s red glowing eye is everywhere, watching us all.

I advise all to take time out from news of whatever war we have always been fighting, and observe this double-plus-good entertainment appropriate for whatever year this happens to be. Performances through Nov. 18 at Ministry Headquarters, 1336 E. Washington St., Indianapolis. For information and tickets, visit www.noexitperformance.org.

OMGWTFBBQ — Phoenix cooks up another masterpiece

By John Lyle Belden

If you’ve ever joked about being the “white sheep” of the family, then “Barbecue,” the comedy presented through Nov. 19 at the Phoenix Theatre, will stir up some memories.

Family members gather at a park for what looks like a cookout, but is actually an intervention for the sister affectionately known as “Zippity Boom.” But, you know the Bible saying that one shouldn’t try to take the speck out of another’s eye before removing the stick out of their own? With this bunch, there’s lumber everywhere.

This play is about more than addiction and the comedy inherent in family dysfunction. It also delves into the fickle issue of honesty vs. “truth,” as well as a critique of today’s pop culture. Most importantly, as director Bryan Fonseca says in a note tucked into the program: “We present a play about race in America where none of the characters are racist.”

Chelsey Stauffer is fabulous as Zippity Boom, a force to be reckoned with. Likewise, LaKesha Lorene shines as the kind of driven diva you might be familiar with if you watch “Extra!” or “Entertainment Tonight.” As for the rest, Dena Toler is in top form, and we also get excellent work from Joanna Bennett, Jeffery Martin, Brianna Milan, Abdul-Khaliq Murtadha, Angela Plank, Beverly Roche and Jenni White.

The play’s structure hooks you in with hilarity, then takes a curious twist that becomes clear in Act 2 (so no leaving at intermission!). By the end, the full depth of the satire is revealed in entertaining fashion. Theatre-in-the-round staging helps draw the audience in, and ensures there is no bad seat (though sitting on the side by the entrance ensures the best view of the Epilogue scene). Bernie Killian’s set design is a perfect recreation of a park shelter, providing a realistic environment for the absurdity that ensues.

Like all Phoenix shows, this play – by celebrated writer Robert O’Hara – is thought-provoking, but it’s also side-splittingly funny. Even if, to some degree, we’re laughing at ourselves.

The Phoenix is at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) in downtown Indy. For info and tickets call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.