Doomed ‘Lady Day’ lives again in Indy dive

By John Lyle Belden

It’s 1959, the last year of singer Billie Holiday’s life, and she is in a city she’d rather not visit, Philadelphia, at a place she loves to be. It’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” a Fonseca Theatre Company production hosted by the Linebacker Lounge, just a couple of doors down from Fonseca’s previous venue at Indy Convergence.

The cozy confines of the Linebacker stand in nicely for Emerson’s. It is a bar (but no grill, though there are delicious Mexican sandwiches next door that you are allowed to bring in) so entrance is restricted to ages 21 and up. Drink service is available before the show and a brief intermission, cash only (there is an ATM on site). But mostly, the place lends atmosphere, a small triumph of “site-specific” theatre.

As for the Lady herself, Monica Cantrell slips comfortably into a role she has played before. Holiday’s distinctive voice and vocal style can be difficult to emulate, especially without sounding like a parody, but Cantrell takes it on with apparent ease — singing soulful jazz ballads and purring stories that are a blend of reminiscing and confessional. Billie tells of idolizing Bessie Smith, honoring her with a rendition of “Gimme a Pigfoot;” life on the road, especially touring the Jim Crow South; and of how she wrote her biggest hit, “God Bless the Child,” for her mother, known as The Duchess.

She tells of men she loved and speaks frankly of her heroin addiction, advising patrons to watch out for “white men in white socks,” the probation officers who monitor her movements after her release from a year in prison. Her mind is not entirely her own, but she’ll pick up a snippet of song — “What a little moonlight can do,” she smiles — to get her thoughts on track.

“Singin’ is livin’ to me,” she says. But as she slowly breaks down, it becomes heartbreakingly apparent she doesn’t have much of either left in her.

Music is provided by Tim Brickley, and Jon Stombaugh as Holiday’s accompanist Jimmy Powers. Little Zoe Lee makes an adorable cameo as the singer’s canine companion, Pepe. And I’m pretty sure I heard Bryan Fonseca himself as the voice of Mr. Emerson.

Directed by FTC co-artistic director Dena Toler, “Lady Day” is a beautiful biography of a troubled woman in troubled times. It speaks volumes about addiction and our racial history without preaching. Just listen to that voice, the likes of which we may never hear again, a woman who “got her own,” on the verge of losing it all.

Performances run through April 7. Find the Linebacker, a sweet little spot that boasts Indy’s second-oldest liquor license, at 2631 W. Michigan St. Due to its small size, this show sells out easily, so find info and tickets at www.fonsecatheatre.org.

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IRT: Homecoming brings hard questions in stand-alone ‘sequel’

By John Lyle Belden

Regarding “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” I must first note – as others have – that you absolutely do not have to have seen or read the original Henrik Ibsen play to appreciate this follow-up by American Lucas Hnath. I read it in college, and about all I remember about it is the essential fact that Nora feels her life is too suffocating to bear any longer, and at the end of the play she boldly exits through the front door to go live her own life.

That’s about all you need to know, and that in doing so she also abandoned her husband, Torvald, and their children – an ending nearly as shocking now as it was in 1879. These facts are thoroughly reviewed in the scenes of “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” the Broadway hit now on the main stage of the Indiana Repertory Theatre.

It is 15 years later (1894) and there is a knock at the front door of Torvald Helmer’s house. The housekeeper, Anne Marie (Kim Staunton), answers to find it is Nora (Tracy Michelle Arnold), who has lived a full and successful life in the intervening years. But suddenly Nora has the need to take care of unfinished business with Torvald (Nathan Hosner). Amid a whirlwind of emotion, he tells her the resolution of their business will not be so easy. Nora then turns to Emmy (Becca Brown), the daughter she hardly knows, who has her own feelings regarding women’s independence, as well as the reasons why no one will end this visit unscathed.

Needless to say, this is some intense drama, but punctuated with moments of situational humor. Hnath’s play also connects to us through the use of contemporary speech (appropriate, considering that to be “authentic” everything would have been said in Norwegian). Director James Still said that at various points the dialogue read like a lecture, so, often the actors would seem to speak directly to the audience. To aid this, the stage front appears to thrust forward towards the seats.

Thus do Nora, Torvald, Emmy and Anne Marie bridge the 125-year gap to show us the issues of gender and family they struggled with then, which are still not perfectly resolved now. What Nora could do as a single woman, contrasted with being married, reminds me of how it wasn’t that long ago that American women couldn’t open credit card accounts without their husbands’ signatures. And what a better future could be differs for each person – Nora ecstatically desires a 20th century where marriage is abolished; Emmy, preparing her own wedding, greets that notion with horror. And Torvald gives his side of the story, providing even more rich food for thought.

Performances are solid, from Hosner’s overwhelmed gentleman to Brown’s confident air, to the ever-shifting facade Arnold puts forward as events unfold. Staunton is the proud patience-wearing-thin mother figure, just wanting things to resolve as well as possible.

Don’t let the title dissuade you; this is no mere sequel. Performances run through April 7 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indianapolis (near Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

Messages go out about the struggle within

By John Lyle Belden

“I don’t know what’s worse, trying to kill yourself or living with the fact that you tried to kill yourself.”

This lament sums up the situation for Claire, the young woman at the center of “Letters Sent,” the new drama by local writer Janice Hibbard in its world premiere with Fat Turtle Theatre Company at the Indy Eleven Theatre.

Not every suicide comes with a note, but Claire (Lexy Weixel) wrote nine. She composed and sent them as snail-mail letters — bypassing the Internet for greater privacy — then went to her apartment bathroom and opened up her wrist. However, her mother, Florence (Kathryn Comer Paton), happened to discover her before it was too late.

The play begins with Claire cocooned in a bed in the attic of her mother’s house, just days after her discharge from the hospital. Adjusting to being not-dead is rough. We come to meet the people closest to her, including boyfriend/pseudo-brother (it’s complicated) Jack (Joe Barsanti), best friends Emma (Becky Lee Meacham) and Jane (Victoria Kortz), and her father, Robert (Doug Powers), who had moved to Florida after the divorce. Our story is set in Michigan, for a reason that soon becomes evident.

Claire’s mental progress is tracked through sessions with her therapist (Wendy Brown). Here we find that the letters were sent not only to the five people we meet, but also to four people Claire considered enemies — a final middle-finger to them on her way out, she says.

There does indeed seem to be progress, but the way isn’t easy, and when secrets held by those closest to Claire are uncovered, everything could come undone.

Weixel inhabits Claire perfectly, swinging from charming to childish to morose to wracked with guilt, constantly struggling with the messages from others as well as from within her head. Though the character, like the actor, is in her early 20s, Claire being at this life crossroads has regressed her into a sort of frustrated teenager. Still, she is relatable, someone you want to reach out to.

Paton, as a Mom who must maintain control as chaos terrifies her, is both Claire’s savior and a well-meaning obstacle to her recovery. Powers is the cool Dad, perhaps because he understands Claire’s struggle more than she knows. Barsanti’s Jack is a hot mess in his own way, and Kortz and Meacham are friends dealing with the desire to be supportive, but either too confident (Emma) or unsure (Jane) of exactly how.

The topics of mental illness and suicide seem to pop up quite often lately, even on stage. Just a couple of months ago, we had “Every Brilliant Thing” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. One important lesson we get from both that play and this is that what we think will help won’t necessarily work — but given a chance, a spark from within can be what saves us. Will Claire find hers?

Directed by Fat Turtle artistic director Brandi Underwood, performances of “Letters Sent” run through March 24 at the Indy Eleven, a stage in the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair. For tickets and info, visit fatturtletheatre.com or indyfringe.org.

Phoenix: Check out this quirky ‘Hotel’

By John Lyle Belden

What do a hat box, the song “Afternoon Delight,” the television show “Bewitched,” and a toy giraffe have in common? As you find out, you’ll discover that the taxi driver is not Carl, the dispatcher is not an astronaut, and wait until you meet the human pincushion in purple!

This is all part of your stay at “The Hotel Nepenthe,” a surreal comedy by John Kuntz (and not by Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch on mushrooms as I’d suspected) now playing at the Phoenix Theatre.

Kuntz embraces the term “schizophrenic noir” for his web of intersecting plots. Ben Asaykwee, Jolene Mintink Moffatt, Betsy Norton, and Scott Van Wye play multiple characters in and around the titular hotel — including Van Wye as the busy bellhop. There has been a murder, and others may die. Things are lost and found. And then there’s the mystery of who, when, where, what and why is Tabitha Davis? We get a provocative look at celebrity stardom, as well as lessons on possibility and parallel universes. All this, delivered with moments of both exquisite tension and gut-busting hilarity.

In the end, it will all seem to make a sort of sense. Or not. Either way, this foursome deliver outstanding performances, slipping in and out of various characters, sometimes right before our eyes. The atmosphere breathes with an impressive soundscape masterfully woven by Brian G. Hartz. Kudos also to scenic designer Daniel Uhde, and costume and props designer Danielle Buckel, for the walls of curiosities that add another layer of depth to the intimate confines of the Basile “black box” stage. Phoenix artistic director Bill Simmons directs.

For anyone open to the unusual, you will find something to enjoy at “The Hotel Nepenthe.” Make your reservation by calling 317-635-7529 or visiting phoenixtheatre.org. The Phoenix is located at 705 N. Illinois downtown.

Mud Creek: Where ‘Almost’ seems exactly right

By Wendy Carson

On the heels of their hilarious Christmas show, (“Inlaws, Outlaws, and Other People Who Should Be Shot”) Mud Creek Players give us another sweet laugh-fest with their latest production, “Almost Maine.”

The title comes from the “not-quite” town in extreme northern Maine, small in population, but overflowing with quirkiness.

There are two people who are either close together or vastly far apart; a woman whose defenses keep her from seeing what’s right in front of her; a misspelling possibly leading to love; the answer to a question asked a very long time ago. Plus, you have two people literally falling in love, the other shoe literally dropping, a couple literally returning their love for each other, a man who literally feels no pain, and an actual broken heart.

All this happens on a cold, wintry Friday night. Those of us of a certain age will feel like we are watching a romantic update of “Northern Exposure,” with all the whimsy on display under the Northern Lights.

This series of scenes is brought to life by Matt Harzburg, Kyrsten Lyster, Lexi Odle, Mason Odle, Jennifer Poynter and Jackson Stollings in multiple roles, directed by Andrea Odle with Amanda Armstrong. They all embrace the charm, wonder and weirdness of the stories, aptly acting as though these odd northwoods happenings occur every day. Thus they make the accompanying feelings seem natural – and somehow relatable to us, watching from a “barn” in the woods near Geist.

While this is a perfect show to bring a date, singles and families will find it just as enchanting. Also, each lady in attendance was given a long-stemmed rose. So brave the cold, and warm up to the sweet charm of “Almost, Maine.”

Performances run through March 2 at 9740 E. 86th St.; call 317290-5343 or visit www.mudcreekplayers.com.

An American classic comes to life on Civic stage

By John Lyle Belden

“To Kill A Mockingbird,” the celebrated novel by Harper Lee, is likely a book you are familiar with, perhaps from reading it in school, or by seeing the Gregory Peck film which closely followed Lee’s story.

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre presents a live production of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the play adapted by Christopher Sergel which is performed annually in Monroeville, Alabama, Lee’s hometown on which the novel’s setting is based. Unlike that production, the local staging doesn’t pick a trial jury from the audience – but attorney Atticus Finch still speaks directly to us.

For the unfamiliar, the story, set in Mayscomb, Ala., in the mid-1930s, is told by Finch’s young daughter, Jean Louise, known as Scout. The play gives us a grown-up Jean Louise (Michelle Wafford), who emerges from the audience to narrate for her younger self (Bridget Bingham), who is trying to make sense of all the things happening around her.

Scout, her brother Jem (Dalyn Stewart) and friend Dill (Ben Boyce) are occupied with what the reclusive neighbor Boo Radley might look like. The only clues are items left in a tree in his yard. But a bigger distraction comes when Atticus (Steve Kruze) is appointed by Judge Taylor (Tom Smith) to defend a black man, Tom Robinson (Antoine Demmings), who has been accused of beating and “having his way” with teenager Myella Ewell (Morgan Morton) by her father, town drunk Bob Ewell (Joe Steiner). The children endure taunts for their father defending a black man, but Atticus counsels them to endure and be confident he is doing the right thing. Scout wonders if she can feel pride in her father at all, until an incident with a mad dog reveals there’s more to the man than she ever suspected. Likewise, Jem wonders why his punishment for his vandalism of bitter, hateful neighbor Mrs. Dubose’s (Holly Stults) garden is to deliver kindness, until he comes to understand the whole situation.

The Robinson trial is a big spectacle, so the children sneak in to see it for themselves (thus allowing us to witness it), finding only room to sit in the “Colored” section with the Rev. Sykes (Brad Thompson). They marvel at how Atticus takes advantage of flaws in the testimony, and the kids are sure this will come out in their (and Robinson’s) favor. What does happen gives life lessons the children will never forget. And the events that follow will result in men killed, Jem injured, and Scout becoming a whole lot wiser.

Other notable characters include Sheriff Heck Tate (Clay Mabbit); the Finches’ cook, Calpurnia (Chandra Lynch); and an appearance by Boo Radley (Colby Rison) himself.

Under the direction of Emily Rogge Tzucker, this important story rises from the page to remind us of how horrible, yet accepted, hatred and injustice can be – then, and even more than 80 years later. Of course, that includes the bigoted context of the South in the 20th century, in which no person would even think of saying “African American” and “black” was mostly just a color you painted. So, be warned, the word “nigger” is used numerous times, by characters with either malice or apathy towards its dehumanizing effects. And if my writing the word out in the previous sentence bothers you too much, you should steel yourself before seeing this play – and go anyway.

Scout’s purpose in this story is to learn to see the world through others’ eyes – a man who would rather do what’s right than what’s popular, a person in unspeakable pain, a person judged purely by his skin tone, even a person who just can’t deal with other people – and thus teach us to do the same. Experience it for yourself at the Tarkington theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, through Feb. 23. Information and tickets at civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org, or call 317-843-3800.

Catalyst’s ‘ArcadeFire’ strikes Irvington

By John Lyle Belden

Readers might recall that I reviewed the Catalyst Repertory musical “ArcadeFire! The Redemption of Billy Mitchell” when it was part of the IndyFringe festival last August. Now a full two-act show has returned to the stage, produced in collaboration with Carmel Theatre Company, playing at the Irvington Lodge in Indy’s Eastside.

For those new to this, the title is not a reference to a band, but to actual “arcades” that used to take our lives one quarter at a time back in the 1980s. Playwright and Catalyst founder Casey Ross recently became interested in the story of Mitchell, who was a master of various video games, most notably Donkey Kong (the original low-res game with “Jumpman” [later named Mario] making his way up ramps and ladders while a giant ape throws barrels down at him, in a quest to rescue the damsel that Kong kidnapped). Mitchell had the official all-time high score and was known as “King of Kong” until a documentary by that name came out not long ago, accusing him of cheating. The internet pounced, as it likes to do, and records were officially stripped.

Ross wrote a musical play, with songs by Christopher McNeely and D. Bane, portraying Mitchell as an egotistical, yet basically decent guy who seeks to restore his reputation by challenging his competitors – especially DK-obsessed middle-school teacher Steve Wiebe – to a “Kong Off” to determine the true King. But one has to be careful when writing about actual people, so Ross made contact with Mitchell (this is even referenced briefly in the play) to beg him not to sue or block her from producing the show. On the contrary, Mitchell jumped in as a producer, making personal appearances and providing his signature hot sauce (which is delicious, by the way) with show labels at the Fringe performances.

Life has imitated the art imitating life. Mitchell and Ross work together to aid his “redemption” through this musical, as well as events at video game establishments featuring past star arcade players. Thus, when Billy steps up to a console in Indianapolis that he had never seen before and racks up a literal million points, it’s harder to believe the haters who say he cheated. While performances of “ArcadeFire!” are playing in the upper chambers of the Irvington Lodge, recently opened video venue Level Up Lounge hosts gaming on the first floor. Other sponsors include One Up Arcade Bar in Broad Ripple, Video Game Palooza in Westfield, Comics Cubed of Kokomo, and Team Scorechasers.

In all, this is an awesome spectacle, especially for Gen-X geeks like myself who spent a fair amount of time on arcade joysticks back in the day. But when we get to the show itself, the concept is much better than the execution. Even accounting for only seeing a very rough dress rehearsal, it appears the added material magnifies the musical’s flaws as well as its assets.

Fortunately, the main cast do make this somewhat work. Luke McConnell returns as a dead ringer for Mitchell (though Billy admits Luke is the better singer), calmly portraying all the unflagging confidence of a man who wears an American flag tie like a superhero’s shield. Anthony Nathan is at his perfectly-campy best reprising Mitchell’s “nemesis” Wiebe – his scenes are by far the most fun to watch. Kayla Lee also returns as longsuffering wife Nicole Wiebe (she also plays “Dave,” the podcaster that airs Mitchell’s “Kong Off” challenge); she convincingly gives the “I don’t know why, but I love him” look, several times. New to the cast are Andy Sturm ably taking the role of Brian “Killscreen” Kuh, Mitchell’s coach and “professional number two;” and Craig Kemp solidly embodies arcade manager and competition judge Walter Day.

A more functional backstage screen is up this time – and yes, all the video game consoles you see are genuine. Hopefully the show’s flow will be tightened up with each performance, as well as the dance steps.

Script-wise, Ross has written much better. For instance, we get little insight into why all the red, white and blue, aside from a reference to a Canadian player dissing Mitchell – also, I theorize using USA as your three-letter high-score ID (initials were all those machines’ memory could handle back then) looks a lot better than BM. But with an opportunity for more detailed background in a full-length play, we get precious little more than we had in the 45-minute Fringe edition. Fortunately, Ross’s skills at crafting conversation make what is revealed sound natural.

This is a fun show, especially if you keep your expectations low and go with the cheesiness of it, as well as its stranger-than-fiction real-world aspects. And pick up some sauce!

One weekend of performances remain, Feb. 15-17, at the Irvington Lodge, 5515 East Washington St., Indianapolis. Get info and ticket link on Catalyst’s Facebook page (fb.com/CatalystRepertory).