There’s a lot going on with ‘Hir’ at Phoenix Theatre

By John Lyle Belden

Talk about having issues with the “binary” – if one feels overwhelmed while viewing “Hir,” on stage through June 18 at the Phoenix Theatre, it’s because we are slammed with two dramatic themes simultaneously.

First, we are hit with the affects of trauma and abuse: After years of dominating his family and using them as punching bags, Arnold (Brad Griffith) suffered a stroke, making him barely able to talk or even think. We meet him a year later, during which his long-suffering wife, Paige (Jen Johansen), has gone the opposite way in every aspect of life. What was clean is left dirty; what was ordered is in disarray; what was put away is tossed to the floor or stuffed in an odd place. And, once forbidden to work outside the home, she has taken a job with a non-profit. What she makes there doesn’t matter, as paying bills on time was the old life. As for Arnold, he is kept in a medicated stupor and deprived of all dignity.

Into this situation comes their son, Isaac (Ben Schuetz), a discharged Marine who had the duty of picking up combatants’ body parts from the battlefield. Returning from his recent traumatic environment to his old one, all he wants is a world that makes sense.

The second theme – from which comes the play’s title – is that among the family’s changes is that the younger sibling has changed from daughter to son. Max (Ariel Laukins) has taken hormones and insists on being referred to by the pronouns “ze” and “hir” (rather than he/she or her/him). Paige is overjoyed to have something so different and new – “the future!” she declares – that she homeschools Max so that they can learn together.

The aspect of gender roles and identity takes on irony in that while Max is free to be hir-self, part of Arnold’s humiliation is being made to always wear a dress. What’s more, in the mixed-up world of this drama, Max is the most stable and certain person on the stage.

Johansen once again comes through in chewing through a meaty role. Griffith ably compensates for his role’s limited speech with his physicality. Schuetz has Isaac deal with the swirling insanity in a convincing manner, without going over the top. And Laukins makes an excellent debut.

The world of “Hir” is exaggerated and mildly bizarre, providing a lot of laughs, but this is no comedy. Trans playwright Taylor Mac’s script uses the funhouse mirror to magnify these issues, allowing us to confront what is wrong about these people’s lives without distraction by the underlying tragedy – but one way or another, it has to be dealt with.

Find the Phoenix at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair downtown, near Mass. Ave.); call 317-635-7529 or visit http://www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Putting the ‘Cat’ in Catalyst

DSC00110
Corbett (Pat Mullen), right, converses with local cats (from left) Orangey (Dane Rogers), Calico (Audrey Stonerock) and Striper (Matt Anderson) in Bennett Ayres’ “Feral Boy,” presented by Catalyst Repertory at Wheeler Arts Community near Indy’s Fountain Square.

By John Lyle Belden*

We’ve likely all seen that internet meme along the lines of “I don’t want to adult today; I want to cat.” Local playwright Bennett Ayres took that idea to its bizarre conclusion in the new drama, “Feral Boy,” presented by Catalyst Repertory on the LongShot Theater stage at Wheeler Arts through May 28.

Corbett (played by Pat Mullen) has graduated college and is expected to take his next step in life. But is it truly his? He excelled in classes, became president of a fraternity, made friends with his bros and had sex with the right girls. Next comes internships and an internet marketing career to make his upper-class parents proud.

But after his roomates (Matt Walls and Donovan Whitney) depart, he starts to see the world through his own eyes – the fish tank in the neighbor’s (Dennis Forkel) window; the cute townie, Betsy (Patty Blanchfield), who works at the nearby convenience store; and especially all the neighborhood’s feral cats.

One night, a feline neighbor, Orangey (Dane Rogers), speaks to him. From then on Corbett draws himself further into their world, meeting gentle Calico (Audrey Stonerock) and their alpha, Striper (Matt Anderson). With the help of Wikipedia’s data on cat behavior, Corbett makes joining their ranks his mission.

The cats are represented by Patrick Weigland’s puppets – elegant slender alley-cat forms with expressive movement provided by their three actors, as well as lurking projected shadows. The portrayals nimbly display their cautious grace and suspicious attitudes expressed in different ways: Rogers’ Orangey blustery and paranoid, Stonerock’s Calico wary but trusting, and Anderson’s Striper cool and controlling.

Mullen excellently guides us through his journey from “imaginary” human to something he sees as more “real.” What appears to others as a man coming apart and abandoning responsibilities, he embraces as a necessary transformation. Blanchfield also shines as the woman caught up in his madness, seeing Corbett as her means of escape – but she can’t follow where he’s going.

The cast also features Sarah Holland Froehlke as Corbett’s mother, and the voices of Jim Tillett, Jolene Moffat and Ayres.

The play itself is an absorbing story, embracing its absurdity – reminiscent of Chuck Palahniuk (“Fight Club”) – without any tongue-in-cheek. Is Corbett delusional? (The cats never speak to anyone else or when he’s around others.) It hardly matters when considering the play’s allegory and questions raised about identity, expectations and how we decide a life’s path. Taken together, director Zach Stonerock and his cast and crew have woven a darkly beautiful drama.

Wheeler Arts Community is located at 1035 Sanders St. in Indy’s Fountain Square neighborhood. For information and tickets, visit uncannycasey.wixsite.com/catalystrepertory or Catalyst Repertory’s Facebook page.

– – –

*Full disclosure: Wendy and I are good friends with Catalyst founder and artistic director Casey Ross, and I helped the production by designing the play program booklet – and making a few copies. But it really IS a good show, just ask Lisa G!

OnyxFest: New voices bring truth, drama and song

OnyxFest takes the stages of the IndyFringe Theatre this weekend and May 19-20. The festival is devoted to the stories of African-American playwrights.

According to the festival press release: A recent survey reveals the number of productions written by African Americans in a single year is as low as five percent. IndyFringe recognizes this lack of diversity and seeks to change the landscape of local theatre by bringing together storytellers, actors and audiences in its two theatres. OnyxFest is determined to be the vehicle to expose theatre-goers to the voices and talent of new and emerging black playwrights.

The four plays selected for this year’s OnyxFest are:

“The Quilting” by Mijiza Holiday of Indianapolis, an autobiographical play that depicts the abuse the playwright’s mother endured and how her strength had the ability to heal.

“Black Lives Matter (Too)” by Angela Jackson-Brown and Ashya Thomas of Muncie, one part play and one part story poem that explores the struggles and triumphs of black people from slavery to the present.

“Truth – The One Man Show” by Ryan Bennett of Indianapolis, the culmination of 152 years of truth coming from the souls of four individuals: Silas Christian, a runaway slave; Harley Wallace, a Ku Klux Klan member; Malik Muhammad, a civil rights activist and Jackson Thomas, a misguided young man, all of whom are fighting for their families.

“The Wedding Bells: A Musical about Tying the Knot” with book and lyrics by Nicole Kearney of Indianapolis, music by Warren Lankford. Bride-to-be Etta receives an unexpected visit from her ex-husband as she prepares for her wedding. As she and her bridesmaids try to deal with him without telling the groom, chaos ensues. Will her past ruin her future?

IndyFringe is located 719 E. St. Clair St. (just east of St. Clair/College/Mass Ave. intersection) and online at www.indyfringe.org.

IRT ‘Dial M’ nearly perfect

By John Lyle Belden

Many have considered what it would take to commit the “perfect crime;” some even attempt it. The concept is fascinating, especially when it comes to murder. This could explain why the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, chose the Frederick Knott stage drama, “Dial ‘M’ for Murder,” to be one of his iconic films.

To conclude its 2016-17 season Indiana Repertory Theatre presents Knott’s noir thriller, complete with Hitchcockian touches, on its mainstage through May 21.

Jealous, scheming husband Tony (Matt Mueller) has planned the perfect murder, arranging for an unsavory acquaintance to kill his wife Margot (Sarah Ruggles) while he is at a party, alibied by none other than the man she had had an affair with, Max (Christopher Allen). But when the perfect crime goes wrong, Tony resorts to the next-best thing: the perfect frame-job.

As always, the IRT provides excellent production values in setting and costume, and sharp direction under James Still (who is also IRT’s playwright-in-residence). The atmosphere is completed with projected images and shadows on the set’s upper walls. Performances are first-rate, including Robert Neal as Detective Inspector Hubbard, who must sort out the truth from the contradictory evidence he has found.

There’s also a cheeky touch that Hitch would have loved: Major scene changes are done by “detectives” acting as though they are removing and planting evidence.

The weather is warming up, but IRT is good for one more chill. Call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.

The generosity ‘The Open Hand’ and its consequences on Phoenix stage

By John Lyle Belden

While most of us like to think of ourselves as generous people, we forget how deeply ingrained our capitalist culture is in our psyches. We give to get. When we receive, there is a price, even if it’s “free.”

The notion of something-for-something, and making sure two parties are “even” need not apply just to events that are deep or life-changing. What do you do when someone gives something to you, truly expecting absolutely nothing in return?

This is question drives the plot of “The Open Hand,” a play by Robert Caisley at the Phoenix Theatre through May 14.

Allison (Leah Brenner) seriously wants no presents, or even acknowledgment, of her upcoming birthday. We are unsure of her vocation, as may be she, admitting, “I majored in indecision.” But her fiance Jack (Jay Hemphill) is a talented chef and aspiring restaurateur. Her friends Todd (Jeremy Fisher) and Freya (Julie Mauro) are at crucial points in their careers – he is a car salesman who hates his job and she is a wine expert about to potentially win a highly-lucrative position. All four are full of potential, but their hopes for a lucky break are overshadowed by fear that they haven’t earned it.

One day, after Allison is accidentally left at a restaurant with the check and no money, a curiously friendly man, David Nathan Bright (Charles Goad), steps in and pays the bill. As it had started to rain, he also gives her his umbrella, then exits.

Allison is so stunned by this generosity that she can’t bring herself to tell Jack about it, until later, giving the impression that she had done something wrong. When she, by chance, comes across David again, she offers to do something to repay him, but he sees no need. She finally invites him to a gathering that is “coincidentally” on her birthday. But when he arrives, his generosity becomes even more casually extravagant. This does not sit well with anyone.

This drama, with lots of comic elements, has surprising depth as we see each character’s relationship with giving, receiving and obligation (real or imagined), including hints into David’s mysterious backstory. It is also an interesting look at the different perspectives between the haves and the have-nots – or in this case, the wish-to-haves.

Goad is in his element, bringing gentle gravitas to a character that is all subtlety. Brenner, too, embodies the complexity of her role. Fisher, Hemphill and Mauro all ably portray explosive personalities with fuses of varying shortness.

Whether it is better to give than receive, this play suggests it might also be easier. The Phoenix is at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or visit http://www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Hero-ing ain’t easy

By Wendy Carson

We have all heard of Hercules and that he performed numerous “labors” as penance for his past misdeeds. He is always thought of as a noble hero – but what if he was actually a douche?

In “Mad Mad Hercules,” presented by NoExit and Zach Rosing Productions, we see him as a horny, drunk asshole who disrespects everyone and only aspires to become a constellation. To do so, he must complete these labors, which he has no desire to work for. True, he has been tortured and almost killed his entire existence by his reluctant stepmother, Hera. Still, that is no excuse for him being this big a tool.

This being Greek theatre, we have a Chorus to keep things going, fill in exposition, pose as occasional characters in the story and so on. Matthew Altman, Carrie Bennett Fedor, and Devan Mathais do an wonderfully energetic and whimsical job in this case.

Ryan Ruckman portrays Hercules so well, you will fight to keep yourself from punching him out. Nathan Thomas brings great passion to his character, Iolas, who must force Hercules to accomplish those tasks. He had always thought of Hercules as his hero, until he met him.

Beverly Roche is hilarious as Hippolyta, the leader of the Amazons. She also does a great job puppeting Galinthias, who was transformed by Hera into a polecat for helping to birth Hercules.

Speaking of puppetry, Matt Roher is a master at transforming himself into many of the creatures that are essential in the labors. His turn as the Ceryneian Hind is a marvel to behold.

Dena Toler gives a solid turn as the Trisha-Yearwood-idolizing Hera. However, it is her touching portrayal of Echidna, the monstrous mother of the Nemean Lion, that truly shows her amazing depth as an actress.

Josiah McCruiston is delightful as Eurystheus, Ruler of Hercules’s homeland and biggest pain in his ass.

Seemingly underused in the cast is Tony Armstrong as Zeus, the loving father who just can’t keep it in his pants.

The show, written by Bennett Ayres and Directed by Zack Neiditch, is an irreverent and thoroughly enjoyable interpretation of this epic tale. Be sure to catch it before it, too, is but a legend.

Find “Mad Mad Hercules” at the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair (just east of the Mass Ave./College/St. Clair intersection) in downtown Indianapolis, through May 7. Get info and tickets at www.indyfringe.org.

It’s like this thing than never happened, totally happened, at Mud Creek

By John Lyle Belden

We know two things for certain: First, Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso were alive and in Europe during the first years of the 20th century, and second, comic legend Steve Martin has an exceptional wit and entertaining flair for the absurd.

These things considered, it was inevitable – in a Martinesque world much like our own – that Einstein would meet “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” in the play by Mr. Martin now on stage at Mud Creek Players through May 6.

When you arrive at the old barn – which hasn’t seen livestock in ages, but they call it that anyway – at 9740 E. 86th St., Indy, you will receive a program, and looking within, you will notice two things: First, that the director, Kelly Keller, is quite handsome. Perhaps it is Photoshop, perhaps moisturizer. Second, you will see the characters listed in order of appearance. This is important, as characters must appear in order for a play to happen. They should also arrive in order, but note that this is Paris and people like Einstein are forever altering history.

You will also notice the barman, barmaid, a local drunk who really should get his prostate checked and others engaged in interesting clever conversations on art and genius. Perhaps this is a European thing. And Picasso does show up, redeeming the apparent premise of the play, to learn the most important aspect of his career – that he should sign his drawings.

We also meet the greatest inventive mind of the 20th century, Charles Davernow Schmendiman. This alone should have you calling the box office.

By this point in the review you should notice two things: First, that I do like doing that “two things” thing, and second, that I’m not very good at being consistent.

I must warn you that when this comic drama of a dramatic comedy concludes, you will discover that the ladies and gentlemen are not who they have presented themselves to be. Einstein turns out to be Justin Lyon, a local actor, though he is quite convincing, and even shows us “the hair.” Likewise, Picasso was nicely impersonated by Brad Root, who, it turns out, does not have a single piece hanging in the Louvre. Zach Haloski should be commended for his striking resemblance to Schmendiman. We are also cleverly deceived by Eric Matter, Collin Moore, Monya Wolf, Savannah Jay, Robert C. Boston Jr., Susan Hill and Lexi Odle. It would be best not to mention that Brock Francis appears in this production, as it is a surprise. Fortunately, despite this allegedly being a barn, there were no pitchforks or torches, so the audience was very forgiving of the illusion portrayed on the stage – on the contrary, they quite enjoyed it.

For a pleasant evening of highly meaningful nonsense, call 317-290-5343 or visit www.mudcreekplayers.org.