Serving up something darkly unique in Lawrence

By John Lyle Belden

“It’s fun to cook with someone else.”

That quip by our host Terry becomes an incredibly loaded statement in “Taste,” a co-production of Monument Theatre Company and Theatre Unchained at Arts For Lawrence’s Theater at the Fort.

Based on a bizarre true story, this play by TV writer Benjamin Brand presents a “unique” two-person dinner party. Terry (Austin Hauptstueck) has arranged for Vic (Bradley Allan Lowe) to come to his apartment, where he will kill and eat his guest. This is no ambush; in fact, Vic is eager to be consumed, and even joins Terry in tasting the first piece that is chopped off and cooked.

Needless to say, this is for mature audiences only, and not for anyone squeamish about the subject matter. The stage is a working kitchen, with a bit of (simulated) flesh put on the plate. Discussions are frank, and there is even some audio from adult films.

As director Megan Ann Jacobs notes, this is an opportunity to not only look into the mind of someone who would consume another human, but also into that of one who would agree to be eaten. Once you get past the true-crime premise, seeing this as absurdist metaphor, we get at the relatable issues of loneliness and feelings of self that make a person this desperate for intimacy in any form. Thoughts of sex (in which “eat” is a common euphemism) lie just below the surface. The desire for a “real” experience overrides all other considerations. Issues of trust become vital: Did Vic really tie up loose ends to vanish from his past life? Will Terry keep his word and eat all of Vic, and not discard him like garbage? Who are the recorded videos for?

One mark of how absorbed we get in this weirdness is how much we find ourselves laughing at this dark comedy.

To engage us in the audience, no doubt the actors had to dig deep into perspectives we presume they wouldn’t normally hold, into the darkest aspects of humanity. Hauptstueck presents as an eccentric epicure, not entirely detached like a Hannibal Lecter sociopath. He relishes this experience in his own way, the foodie wanting to get not just the recipe but the whole culinary experience just right. Lowe portrays a lost soul seeking a sort of salvation, a bizarre “communion” in which he can be integrated completely – giving himself to nourish another. Fascinated by anyone’s life but his own, he sees this as his way out of an empty existence.

What less-desperate things have we all done to feel connection, belonging? There may be a place for more of us at this table than we’re willing to admit.

“Taste” is served Friday through Sunday, Sept. 29-30 and Oct. 1 at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., Indianapolis. For info and tickets, visit artsforlawrence.org, monumenttheatrecompany.org, or theatreunchained.org.

A ‘Sense’ of optimism at IRT

By John Lyle Belden

It’s intriguing to see how a classic work of literature is interpreted in adapting to the stage. If, upon hearing that Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” is now playing at Indiana Repertory Theatre, you think you only recently saw it, you’d be mistaken. The IRT version, adapted by Jessica Swale, is not the play that was performed at the Civic Theatre in 2018.

The differences go beyond the name on the program. While a major theme of “Sense and Sensibility” is, in all cases, the lack of power women had in English society and law, the Kate Hamill script used by Civic emphasizes the insidious nature of gossip as both social control and cheap entertainment. Though Swale’s take has a definite nod to the wagging tongues, there is an overall lighter touch to the story. Aside from its characters’ struggles, the novel’s situations are rife with bits of humor. And in that the earlier production could be considered a “rom-com,” IRT’s show is more of a sitcom.

After her husband’s death, Mrs. Dashwood (Elizabeth Laidlaw) and her daughters Elinor (Helen Joo Lee), Marianne (Cereyna Jade Bougouneau), and Margaret (Claire Kashman) find themselves kicked out of their home. The girls’ half-brother John Dashwood (Ron E. Rains) inherits the property, and his spiteful elitist wife Fanny (Devan Mathias) wants it all to herself. The displaced Dashwoods move to a cottage near the sea, under the eye of cousin Sir John Middleton (Rains) and his busybody mother-in-law Mrs. Jennings (Priscilla Lindsay).

While prospects for young English women around the year 1800 with hardly any dowry aren’t good, our heroines have the fortune to attract suitors including Fanny’s kind brother, Edward Ferrars (Casey Hoekstra); local gentleman Colonel Brandon (La Shawn Banks); and the dashing John Willoughby (Nate Santana). They are vying for the hand of Elinor or Marianne – young Margaret, a budding “naturalist,” is too occupied with her collection of invertebrates and sea creatures.

But then, Jennings’ cousin Lucy Steele (Caroline Chu) confides to Elinor her secret engagement to one of the men.

Some actors play more than one part, such as Hoekstra’s entertaining moments as Edward’s goofy brother. Also notable is that Mathias – ironically a nice person offstage – manages to play four distinct characters, none of which you want to spend more than a few seconds with, often to hilarious effect.

The play also features ethnically blind casting, which in these days of “Bridgerton” on TV and online debates over the color of a mermaid don’t seem too odd. Besides, no one on stage is an 18th-century English person in real life. These actors were picked for exceptional talent and stage presence, and none feel out of place. In fact, the most surreal of this company is how Santana looks like he just stepped out of the cover illustration of a Harlequin romance novel.

And we must note that it is wonderful to see Pricilla Lindsay again; a past IRT mainstay, she has been working at her alma mater, the University of Michigan. Her joyous presence as ever-optimistic Mrs. Jennings is like a reflection of Lindsay herself.

Directed by Peter Amster (who also directed “Pride and Prejudice” at IRT years ago), this classic story of romantic misadventure has its serious moments, but despite the threat of tragedy, love and laughter shine through – something we can hope for in our day as well.

Performances run through October 9 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indianapolis. For information and tickets, visit irtlive.com.

Dark side of humanity and academia explored in new play

By Wendy Carson

With “The Profession,” Marcia Eppich-Harris has written a play that encompasses our current political and social climate just a little too well. I was privileged to attend a staged reading of the script a couple of months ago and it has stayed with me ever since. Her script roots out not only the dark underbelly of male dominance and what men will do to protect their own, but also the appalling lack of power or support women have when confronting a system stacked against them. Needless to say, nobody emerges from this story unscathed.

Two main storylines intertwine here. One is about Valerie (Becky Schlomann), a dedicated literature teacher at a small, private university who is desperately fighting to keep her job. Secondly, we have Marina (Trick Blanchfield), the impassioned student every teacher longs for, just trying work her way through college no matter how she has to swing it.

Valerie’s nemesis in her plight is Mark (Brad Staggs), a dean still smarting from her questioning of his decisions last fall and ensuring that her future employability is forever doomed. Department chair Jill (Jeri Jackson) has no desire to ruffle feathers herself. Meanwhile, Theology professor Paul (Brian Stuart Boyd) is also relieved of his job, but with a much better settlement check, wonderful references, and a promising spot at a major university.

For her dedication to learning, Marina deals with the exorbitant fees and ends up working as a stripper in order to stay in school. At the club just off campus, she is mentored by the lovely, yet jaded, Lucy (Lola Lavacious) and watched over by the club’s tough but fair manager Flint (Tom Smith).

Seeing Valerie, her favorite teacher, getting a raw deal, Marina divulges to her the seedy goings on by college staff at the club. Valerie’s personal morality keeps her from using this dirt, at first. But as the situation gets ever more serious, and dangerous, she knows she will have to do something.

This drama pulls no punches in all it entails. It does contain vivid discussions of sex work and abortion. As I noted above, the abuse of power and workplace discrimination are rampant as well. Still, it shows vividly how gender politics, as well as other ills contained within, play out in a realistic manner. Eppich-Harris and director Elisabeth Speckman both drew on their experiences in academia in creating this work and bringing it to painfully vivid life.

The cast is sheer perfection with each one embodying the true soul of their character. While Schlomann and Blanchfield are easy to root for, and to understand the impulsive decisions they feel necessary to make, Jackson and Staggs come off so oily with corruption you may need to remind yourself they’re just good actors if you see them off-stage. Boyd has two faces to work with in his character, and plies them well. Smith, a natural at paternal roles, is no angel, but feeling no need to put on a façade, Flint comes off better than the learned men who frequent his club. Also, a shout-out to Ms. Lavacious – while she has years of stage performance under her belt, this is her first performance in a scripted show.

I cannot recommend this play enough. The concurrence of its opening on the same date as the state’s abhorrent anti-abortion law taking effect feels like a sign that maybe with enough encouragement, we can make some real and lasting changes for the good of all. I honestly hope you leave the theater in this frame of mind as well.

Presented by Southbank Theatre Company, performances of “The Profession” run through Sunday, Sept. 25, at Fonseca Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at southbanktheatre.org. (Note: Venue requires masks due to close proximity between audience and stage.)

Mothers know best in Epilogue comedy

By Wendy Carson

Parents – we all have them; we all love them; they all give us both good and bad advice; and they all drive us crazy. This is the basic premise of Katherine DiSavino’s “Things My Mother Taught Me,” presented by Epilogue Players.

Young Olivia (Erynne Sutton) and her long-time boyfriend Gabe (Ethen Romba) are in the process of moving in together. However, the new chair they picked out together is stuck in the doorway, which also alludes to how they are still stuck under their parents’ careful scrutiny, even after moving halfway across the country.

Since Gabe is a mama’s boy, he, naturally but to Olivia’s surprise, invites his parents to come help with the move. Lydia (Serita Borgeas) is the classic definition of a “Smother,” and her husband Wyatt (Tom Meador) is easy-going and totally oblivious to her overzealous nature. Once they arrive, Lydia takes over everything and poor Olivia is overwhelmed.

Things go even more haywire when Olivia’s parents Karen (Karen K. Temple) and Carter (R.C. Thorne) arrive as well. Add to this their moving van being stolen and the crazy antics of their building manager, Max (Stephen E. Foxworthy) and you can see how the laughs just keep on coming in this delightful farce.

Sutton gives Olivia a tender hopefulness that everything will eventually work out for everyone while Romba keeps Gabe at wits end trying to keep all of his plans together, no matter who spoils them.

Borgeas shows the caring side of Lydia that is often overlooked due to her commandeering ways while Meador shows Wyatt is more interested in finding a fix to a situation that the repercussions his actions might have. Temple brings Karen’s fears of her child repeating her own mistakes to the forefront of her own neurosis while Thorne brings so much light-hearted sweetness to his role as Carter.

Director Brent Wooldridge keeps the laughs coming, while allowing the solid parental advice within the script to be heard.

Learning can be fun – at least when you’re in the audience. Take a lesson at Epilogue, “Hedback Corner” at 1849 N. Alabama, Indianapolis, through Sunday, Sept. 25. Get information and reserve tickets at epilogueplayers.com.

ALT: What happened there

By John Lyle Belden

In the early 2000s, by annual average there was a suicide in Las Vegas roughly every 26 hours. However I feel about this, I can be confident it is true, as someone checked. The serious and fraught topic of self-harm is what gives the play “The Lifespan of a Fact” its riveting emotional heft, but at its core is the principle noted in the previous sentence.

This drama – with hilarious comic moments to get through the serious context – by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell, is presented by American Lives Theatre, directed by Chris Saunders, at the Phoenix Theatre. It is based on a book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal detailing their struggle with D’Agata’s 2010 essay in The Believer magazine.

Editor Emily Penrose (Eva Patton) calls upon intern Jim Fingal (Joe Wagner), a recent Harvard graduate, to fact-check the piece by D’Agata (Lukas Felix Schooler), which is ready to go to print in just a few days. Fingal is told to give it his best effort, as the writer is known to take liberties with details. “Give it the ‘full Jim’,” Penrose instructs, and boy, does she get it.

The essay, focusing on a teenager’s suicide – jumping from the city’s tallest casino tower – to comment on the greater culture of Las Vegas, is riddled with factual errors, starting with the lead paragraph. While the death itself is well-documented, various added details are wrong. Penrose tells Fingal to bring them up directly to D’Agata, which he does by flying out to visit his Vegas apartment.

At first the altered “facts” are trivial, inspiring much of the humor. When Penrose is alerted to one that could get the magazine in legal trouble, she, too, travels from to New York to Nevada, just hours before the presses in Illinois roll for national distribution.

I must note my own bias here. I am an experienced journalist, including a university Journalism degree and experience at four daily newspapers (most recently the Daily Reporter in Greenfield, Ind.). In my mind there was no question that D’Agata was in the wrong with the initial version of the essay. Deviations from the truth, even in details having nothing to do with the core event, and especially easy to confirm and debunk, hurt the credibility of not only the periodical and the writer, but also the valid point of the story itself.

However, D’Agata argues, this isn’t a news “article” but a non-fiction “essay,” and “the wrong facts get in the way of the story.” He justifies altering events for his writing’s symmetry, or because the wording doesn’t “sing” to him otherwise. What could appear as indulging in ego he sees as a higher calling to a deeper “truth.” Having gone to extensive research, interviews, and discussions with the deceased’s family, he feels too personally invested to submit to the smallest correction or alteration.

For his part, Fingal appears absurdly nit-picky – what color were the bricks, how many strip clubs were there? But what we would call “white lies” also contain more misleading falsities, and if any were detected by a reader, he notes, that same person could decry the whole essay as a “hoax” on social media.

Penrose understands the writer isn’t, strictly speaking, a journalist, and her magazine is more literary than hard-news, but she insists on having standards. Still – the writing was so good she senses this could be a major milestone for the publication, if she could just get everyone in agreement on the actual text.

Patton, Wagner and Schooler deliver riveting, top of their game, performances. No winks at the audience, this is serious business involving real people and real incidents (both the publication of the essay and the death that inspired it). The humor is purely situational, the absurd that comes with doing one’s job, this time with higher stakes.

“Trigger Warning” is very much applicable here, if you hadn’t guessed by the subject matter. The play contains the most heart-wrenching moment of silence, and an ending that lets no one off the hook.

The ALT play runs through Sept. 25 at the Phoenix, 712 N. Illinois St., Indianapolis; details and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org or americanlivestheatre.org.

The best-selling 2012 book, also called “The Lifespan of a Fact,” is still available in stores and online. The essay in question is still online in its checked, edited, and published form (Note: intensive discussion and description of suicide) here.

IndyFringe: Gloria Mundi

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden and Wendy Carson

Gloria (Kayla Jo Pulliam) is not having a good day. She is an addict, out on parole and living in a halfway house. Last night an angel, Harold (Bryson Kramer), came to give her the news that she is to be the parent of the new child of God. When she tells her ex, Jody (Cameron Pride) this “happy” news, is it any wonder he,* and social worker Harold (Kramer), suspect she is using again?

This sets the plot of “Gloria Mundi,” Pamela Morgan’s tale of recovery, parenting, relationships, and faith presented by Nomad Theater Company under the direction of Ashleigh Rae-Lynn.

Morgan and company have created a story that is full of hilarious moments (“the doughnuts have suffered the consequences”) and heartbreaking emotion (the fate of Lanie, Gloria’s first child).

“Don’t f*** it up this time,” angelic Harold advises, and it’s possible that Gloria already has. Through twists both dramatic and funny, we’re taken on a wild ride that ends in a miracle of hope no one expects.

Witness this blessed event, 5:15 p.m. today (as we post this) and 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 3-4, at the District Theatre.

(*EDIT: Character’s pronouns are he/they, we were informed by Morgan after this initially posted, and pronoun and name spelling have been updated.)

IndyFringe: The Ballad of Blade Stallion

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Matt Kramer and the troupe at Defiance Comedy have brought us another kooky laugh-fest for our enjoyment. From the opening scene of “The Ballad of Blade Stallion” – in which yoga balls are bounced upon to simulate spaceships – you know to expect a silly great time.

Having been hired to retrieve the only copy of some very important secret plans (Who doesn’t make a copy?) as well as a kidnapped girl, Astria (Emily Bohannon), Blade Stallion (*sting* “Blade Stallion!”) sets off to get his paycheck.

Stallion (Zack Joyce) was not aware of the choreography included in his theme song, but manages to make it through that obstacle, only to find that he must also babysit two young children once he gets to his ship.

Cobalt (John Kern) and Skye (Rachelle Martin) are not only familiar with his legend, they feel he might even be “Space Jesus.” As much as Stallion hates telling stories, he manages to control the kids somewhat by telling them his backstory.

We learn he was raised by witches, as well as the origins of his Space Nemesis, The Dandelorian (Clay Mabbitt). This chapter also introduces us to his fellow Space Pirate Academy graduates: cyborg Ann Droid (Meg McLane), with whom he shares a sordid love; and Bando (Kelsey VanVoorst), an anthropomorphic feline who may or may not have his best interests at heart.

Add to this a lot of crazy songs, improbable plot twists, the entire cast milking every bit of humor out of the entire script, and some bizarre characters thrown in, and you have another typically hilarious Defiance show.

Witness the marvel that is “The Ballad of Blade Stallion (Blade Stallion!)” at the District Theatre, 5:30 p.m. Thursday and 8:45 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 1 and 3.

IndyFringe: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Essentially, if you see a Fringe performance listed as being by Carmel High School theatre department, just go see it. I’ve now seen four of their professional-quality IndyFringe offerings, and I am still in awe of their 2018 show.

This production, “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” is a fairly new play (likely an Indiana premiere) by Dwayne Hartford based on the 2006 award-winning children’s book by Kate DiCamillo.

On Egypt Street of an American city in the 1930s, little Abilene (Kate Sullivan) is given a fine china rabbit by her grandmother Pelligrina (Madison Alig). Abilene names him Edward Tulane, and adores him – as she should, the self-centered rabbit thinks. The spoiled, well-dressed rabbit silently makes demands that apparently only Pelligrina can hear, so she tells Abilene a bedtime story for Edward to also hear, a dark tale that puzzles the china toy.

Then, during a sea cruise, Edward falls overboard and his long journey begins. He becomes “Susanna,” the proxy child of a fisherman (Micah Phillips) and his wife (Sullivan); “Malone,” the companion and keeper of secrets for hobo Bull (Phillips) and his dog Lucy (Eden Hammond); “Clyde,” the scarecrow on the farm of an Old Lady (Alig); and “Jangles,” the treasured dancing doll of doomed Sarah Ruth (Juliet Malherbe, also our Narrator) and her loving brother Bryce (Sam Tiek), who makes him kick to his harmonica playing for nickels on the streets of Memphis, Tenn. However, an angry diner owner (Aaron Young) brings the journey to an abrupt end.

At last, Edward sits in a doll-shop window, older and repaired – but wiser? As the novel says, “If you have no intention of loving or being loved, then the whole journey is pointless.”

The play features a recurring song, “North Star,” by student director Ella Asher with Sarah Warf and Micah Phillips. Eden Hammond choreographed bits of movement. And an on-stage musician, Seth Jacobsen, strums the guitar and expresses Edward’s thoughts.

This Hans Christian Anderson-esque story with rich thematic layers and childlike wonder is excellently rendered by the teen cast and crew. Adapted to under an hour from a full-length 80-minute play, this production does not feel rushed or missing any pieces – like with Edward, the cracks don’t show. This is essential viewing for all children and kids-at-heart.

One performance remains, 1:45 p.m. today (as we post this), Saturday, Aug. 27, at the District Theatre.

IndyFringe: Hope – A Theatrical Dance

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson and John Lyle Belden

Gerry Shannon and Melissa Hawkes have come down from Maine to bring us a spectacular piece of theater, “Hope: A Theatrical Dance.” The story is told through the dances of the two performers onstage, as well as in a video projected behind them highlighting memories of Asher (Shannon) with his wife, Hope, and his child (both played by Mackenzie Krueger).

Asher enters the scene clearly depressed and drinking heavily. A pair of hands appear out of the curtain behind him causing him to be manipulated like a puppet. While this may sound like whimsy, the sheer heartbreak he manages to convey keeps the audience rapt with attention. Soon the strings are cut and Asher is once again left to his own devices.

Hope, as a concept, enters as an Angel (Hawkes) and dances around him, forcing him to remember and relive the happier days of his marriage. Just as he is beginning to smile, we are transported to the birth of his daughter and the loss surrounding this event.

Grief once again threatens to overtake him, but he is shown that “hope” lives on.

The entire show is presented without words, the narrative woven through dance, mime and music by various artists including The Chainsmokers, Better Than Ezra, Jason Mraz, and Ed Sheeran.

A note to anyone who saw this show at a previous Fringe: Shannon has restructured it and cut some of the songs, making it a lot less funny than you’d remember.

Wendy’s thoughts: When I first watched the show, the portrayal of Asher’s grief hit me hard. Not only was it perfectly enacted, Shannon is literally an “everyman”. He looks like the kind of guy who’d be more at home at a sports game than dancing on stage. Still, the skill of both he and Hawkes make the show tender and unforgettable.

From the program and with talking to others who have seen it at previous Fringes, this is just a portion of the full show. Knowing that, I really hope that Shannon will return to us in the future and present the entire show. The taste I was provided has me hungry for more.

John’s thoughts: I was really struck by the lack-of-control feeling illustrated at first by Shannon, a true reflection of grief. Krueger (a St. Paul, Minn., based dancer and actor) was a wonderful addition, her sparkling talent making us see and feel the love between Asher and Hope. The innovation of having the distant and departed partner on the screen communicated their separation in an impactful way. At points, he was there with her in the video, but she is never with us here.

Hawkes ties it all together nicely, portraying “hope” in a more tangible way. Her dance reflects the support of true friends, as well as that small voice that tells you to look up from your sadness and see what more the world has to show.

We “Hope” you experience this performance as well, at the IndyFringe Theatre, 9 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 25 (today, as we post this); 1:45 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 28; 7:15 p.m. Friday, Sept. 2; and 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 4. 

IndyFringe: Love OverDose

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

React theatre for children and teens (formerly Young Actors Theatre) has created an exceptional topical performance piece in “Love OverDose.” Developed by students with the help of adult mentors and experts, this play with movement and monologues addresses the current opioid crisis from the kids’ perspective, serving as a wake-up call to us all.

Students at Bridgeport High School, U.S.A., Riley Hembry (Hannah Schultz) and sister Alex (Sadie Sheets) are smart, successful, and popular. That means they get invited to all the good parties (“good” defined by the presence of drugs and alcohol). They might drink a bit, or have a pill or two, but it’s not like they’re addicted or anything.

As Riley’s best friend Blake (Regina Jones) says when asked if she does drugs, “No – just sometimes.” Their pal Benny (Bryan McElroy) goes along, though he would rather just chill with classmates at home with a movie. Emma (Katya Bain) knows to take it easy, remembering the embarrassment of her addict father. Jesse (Will Harris) is a freshman in accelerated classes who tutors (or does their homework) to get in with the cool kids. This gets him into the party, but he doesn’t feel like staying.

Still, life can get really intense when you’re a teen, especially when the Hembrys’ parents start to divorce. Riley has some pills. Alex grabs the pill bottle. Before they realize it, they are making life-and-death decisions.

Scenes are punctuated with individual fourth-wall speeches given literally standing on a box, movement interludes that accentuate the feelings of adolescence and projected pharmaceutical-style commercials for “Opioids!” complete with “side effects may include…” that range from feeling invincible, to death.

Aimed squarely at teens and their parents with blunt honesty – without being cheesy, naïve, melodramatic, or overwrought like an “afterschool special” – this also measures up as an excellent theatre piece with gripping drama.

Fringe-goers should see this: 7:15 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 25; 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27; 8:45 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 3; 5:15 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 4. Those interested in having this presented at a school or other organization can get information at reactkids.org/projects/loveoverdose.