The King turns Queen in Phoenix’s ‘Georgia McBride’

By John Lyle Belden

Phoenix Theatre opens its 2019-20 season with the fabulous Off-Broadway comedy, “The Legend of Georgia McBride” by Matthew Lopez.

Set in the Florida Panhandle, just as Casey (Sam C. Jones), a budding Elvis impersonator with a bit of high school musical experience, is finally getting his act to work, Cleo’s Bar on Panama City Beach decides to change its entertainment. Desperate for a bigger (or any) audience, bar manager Eddie (Ty Stover) takes a chance on his cousin, drag queen Miss Tracy Mills (John Vessels).

Casey is in a bind, as his wife Jo (Bridgette Ludlow) is pregnant, so he stays on as bartender. Then, when Miss Tracy’s fellow entertainer, Anna-Rexia Nervosa (Jonathan Studdard), can’t go on, Casey is pressed into service in dress, wig and makeup, and Georgia McBride is born!

Once our hopelessly hetero hero accepts his new persona, “her” popularity rises on the beach-bar scene, but Casey can’t bring himself to tell Jo what he’s been doing. It’s easy to see that a reckoning is coming for Florida’s newest Queen.

This play is loaded with both humor – in side-splitting comic moments – and heart. In Jones and Ludlow’s performance, you can tell Casey and Jo truly love each other, though he tests her patience with his immaturity, and she his with her bouts of pessimism.

Vessels is amazing, whether playing the confident woman backstage or the hilarious performer in the spotlight. Studdard is excellent in double-duty as Rexy, who informs Casey that the drag life is more than just a lip-synching gig; and as Casey and Jo’s landlord and friend, Jason – his double-take when he find’s out about Casey doing drag is priceless. Stover as Eddie is in his element, as he plays a thin-tempered but lovable Falstaff with bills to pay.

The drag scenes are played to the Phoenix audience as the bar’s audience, so cast members informed us after opening night that people sitting up front could tip them like in a regular drag show. Those scenes include clever musical mash-ups, and wonderful costumes by Stephen Hollenbeck. Suzanne Fleenor directs.

The “Legend” continues through Oct. 6 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois in downtown Indianapolis. Information and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.

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Storefront’s ‘Pilgrims’ carrying some heavy baggage across the stars

By John Lyle Belden

In the future, a ship’s cabin still looks like a comfortable hotel room, it’s just that the ship is sailing through space. A man enters, eyeing the layout and smoothing the bed like one conditioned by military service. Everything is in order for the long journey. Suddenly, an annoyingly perky teen girl bursts in and makes herself at home. Something is amiss here.

“Pilgrims,” the drama by Claire Kiechel, directed by Chelsea Anderson on the new Broad Ripple stage of Storefront Theatre of Indianapolis, is in the tradition of the best science-fiction stories, using a distant fantasy situation to probe questions about our present humanity.

Aboard the aptly named starliner, “Destiny,” Ryan Ruckman portrays a soldier returning as a migrant to the planet where he once fought its natives. Struggling with PTSD, he is haunted by what happened there, but feels compelled to return. Ruckman often gets cast in this kind of rugged role, so is a natural fit, and has honed the skill of showing the human under the he-man facade.

Kelsey Leigh Miller, as the teen roommate, puts her inner child on full display to excellent effect, then lets the girl’s more mature aspects creep in as their journey continues. We easily see her as whatever she presents herself to be at every moment.

Our other character is Jasmine, a 2600B model AI android and the cabin’s personal valet. She appears when called upon to dispense food or supplies — but not much in the way of news, except to say that a quarantine remains in effect, keeping our two humans in close quarters for possibly the entire three-month voyage. Carrie Schlatter is excellent in this difficult role, managing speech that is artificially friendly without robotic cliché flatness, and economy of movement that reflects someone who is programmed rather than engaging in natural human action.

We are along for the long ride, as the play is a single movie-length act. Numerous scenes and little revelations track the passing of time, as the couple’s interactions – and perhaps something else – slowly change them, drawing them closer in unexpected yet inevitable ways.

Apparently among the beings of the “new world” (which the girl naively calls “aliens”) there is no word for the concept of “regret;” yet that is the biggest thing our Pilgrims bring with them. See how they unpack it in the play’s remaining weekend, Thursday through Sunday evenings (Sept. 19-22) at 717 Broad Ripple Ave. Get information and tickets at storefrontindy.com.

IRT opens ‘Angry’

By John Lyle Belden

It’s a hot summer night, and what will happen in this room will have life and death consequences for someone you’ve never met.

Welcome to “Twelve Angry Men,” the classic American drama by Reginald Rose opening the 2019-2020 season at Indiana Repertory Theatre. Set in 1957, this play is both very much of its time, and timeless. The struggles and society these dozen characters deal with are every bit as real today as they were then.

Our 12-man jury is tasked with deciding the fate of a young man accused of murder. If the verdict is guilty, the death penalty will be applied. The men are all from different backgrounds, working class to rich. Though all white, they have roots in different ethnicities. 

The jury foreman (Seth Andrew Bridges) calls for a preliminary vote. Since the result seemed so obvious during the trial, all vote “Guilty” — except for one (Chris Amos). Why? He doesn’t want a rush to judgement, he says, and besides, he has some questions.

For the next hour-plus (the play is a single movie-length act) we hear the details of the case, presenting the murder mystery in nearly enough detail to give the audience a vote. 

The men arguing are all sharply acted, under the direction of James Still, giving dimension to their archetypes: Scott Greenwell as mousey, yet wanting to see justice done; Craig Spidle as one easily convinced of the evil “kids these days” can do; Henry Woronicz as a rich broker who wants to see the facts as plain and ordered as the newspaper he reads; Demetrios Troy as a man with more in common with the defendant than he’d like to admit; Casey Hoekstra as a laborer whose work ethic informs his judgement; Michael Stewart Allen as a loud Yankees fan (he wants the deliberations done in time to go to a game) who sounds more certain than he actually is; Mark Goetzinger as an older gentleman struggling to bring perspective to the proceedings; Robert Jerardi as a bigot determined to see “one of them” condemned; Patrick Clear as an immigrant excited to exercise his new citizenship; Charles Goad as an ad man who can’t help playing both sides; Bridges’ foreman, whose skills as a high school coach come into play; and Amos’ holdout, the conscience of the play and principal driver of the “reasonable doubt” that can turn the verdict around. Adam O. Crowe plays the Guard stationed outside the jury room door. 

Most people know, or can easily guess, the outcome of this drama. What is important, and makes this engrossingly entertaining, is how they get there. The knife, the steps, the glasses, all the clues and what they suggest, making for an intense 100 minutes. And the title is apt: these men get plenty angry — including at each other.

The stage set, designed by Junghyun Georgia Lee, is a masterwork, including a washroom to the side that can be made to be seen through screens when needed, as some juror discussions take place privately. The custom-made long wooden jurors’ table sits upon a turntable that slowly moves at times to aid our perspective of the deliberations. And at moments an actor might step away from the churning motion to demonstrate his seeking clarity. 

While the idea seemed gimmicky, the turning table is not constant, and thus works to great effect. Still notes this aspect of the stage was discussed early on in the production. “You mostly just have 12 men sitting around a table,” he said. “We needed something dynamic.”

The deliberations continue through Sept. 29 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy, by Circle Centre. Info and tickets at http://www.irtlive.com.

IndyFringe: The Day Penny Drowned

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

A successful playwright, Penny should be on the top of the world. She and Brad are on their way to a romantic getaway to celebrate the success of her Broadway show. However, her family proceeds to force their way into her plans, and she is soon overwhelmed by their presence — as well as their drama.

Ed Faunce is delightful as Brad, Penny’s devoted husband. He does an excellent job of showing us that he will do anything to protect his wife, yet still makes mistakes along the way.

Bridget Schlebecker’s portrayal of Judy, Penny’s overbearingly self-centered sister, gives us some of the much-needed comic relief in the piece. Her character is a force of nature, sweeping in and ensconcing everyone in her own personal drama without a care for anyone else’s feelings, leaving a swath of confused exhaustion in her wake.

Jonathan ‘JB’ Scoble gives a subtle performance as Jeremiah, Judy’s slacker son who has absolutely no clue about anything but eating and getting high.

Kate Hillman does an amazing job with the character of Francis, Penny’s neglectful mom who has just been released from the Fishkill Federal Prison. She brings out all of the redneck trashiness of the character while also sprinkling in some very sharp verbal abuse towards her “neglectful” daughter.

Rounding out the cast is Nancy Picket as Penny. She manages to show us the devotion the character has for all those around her to the detriment of her own self. However, she becomes so overwhelmed by it, she jumps into the lake just to get away from it all.

Can she find a balance between all of the forces demanding her time and energy? Will her family just give her a day or two alone to regain herself and sanity? Is she in over her head and if so, will she sink or swim?

Find out for yourself.

A play by local author Elizabeth Young-Collins, Remaining performances are today and Saturday (Aug. 22&24) at the District Theater (former TOTS location), 627 Massachusetts Ave.

IndyFringe: Phantom of Fountain Square

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Fountain Square, a storied neighborhood by downtown Indianapolis, has always been seen as “up and coming” but not quite the trendy destination it could be. However, this was not always the case. It was once known as the Theater District, with as many as 11 theaters, and the center of fashion and shopping. Those days are behind it now, but there are still people who are doing all they can to bring about a renaissance to the neighborhood.

Enter Samantha, a mother whose dream is to open a restaurant in the Square. She brings along a young daughter and new husband who has embraced her dream as his own. However, they are beset with problems. A valve from her stove goes missing, the place is ransacked, a nearby diner blows up, and her daughter seems to be hallucinating visions of money people.

They are then guided by forces unknown to learn the history of the area and learn of the mysterious legend of the “Phantom of Fountain Square”.

Kerra D Wagener brings a bright spunkiness to her portrayal of Samantha and keeps the story going. Thom Johnson gives her husband Danny the subtle juxtaposition of a man overwhelmed by his thankless efforts yet still lovingly devoted to his wife and doing whatever will make her happy. Jacquiline Rae brings forth the sweet innocence yet sage wisdom that is part of being a child keeping the show light and hopeful. Jeff Maess is great as Frank Wertheimer, but his role is so much lesser than his talent should warrant. Then we have Owen Harp as the titular character, chewing up the scenery like this was a buffet.

I’m not going to say that the show is perfect. I haven’t even noted that it is sort of a musical. I will say that it does show promise. The Fringe is a place where many great artists have presented works that have gone on to greatness. I feel that with some workshopping, this could be fleshed out into a full-length show that could be a perennial tradition.

So take a chance on seeing the first iteration of a show that, like its setting, is loaded with potential. Penned by local speculative fiction writer Matthew Barron, and presented by Submatter Press, “Phantom of Fountain Square” has performances Saturday and Sunday at The Oasis, (Shriners’ entrance of the Murat, on the north side), 502 N. New Jersey St.

IndyFringe: Game of Crows — Winter’s Coming, Father Ned!

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

The wacky gang from Perpendicular island is back again with a new adventure and some new cast members as well. There is also a Bingo card on the back of your program that can win you a prize after the show.

We start with tales of the dreaded Bog Walker and a discovery of treasures possibly left by Leif Erikson. Soon visitors arrive with some exciting news, the field being the Priory has been chosen for filming the dramatic final battle of Winterbeard on the massively popular show, “Game of Crows.”

The zaniness escalates from there as everyone on the island gets into the spirit and the homages emerge faster than the puffin eggs from Father Flannagan (David Whicker) — he was apparently a prime nesting spot during the “Great Puffin Migration”. Pop culture references from all over fly fast and furiously throughout.

David Molloy steps up to the new role of Father Ned Tully wholeheartedly and plays it very well. Blake Mellencamp’s turn as the dim-witted Father Dermott McDermott brings all the silliness necessary to highlight the character. While Kyrsten Lyster and Jim Lucas do an excellent job of portraying the wily grifters, Bridget Robertson & Hugh O’Toole. As is tradition in their shows, local rap artist Nate Burner as Squashy Nate, acts as our guide through this farcical tale.

Kate Duffy Sim is delightful as the dotty housekeeper, Mrs. O’Boyle, who cheerfully serves up the puffin eggs in everything possible. However, it is her version of the smugly condescending version of Olenna Tyrell that is worth the ticket price alone.

So sit back and enjoy some laughs as well as a nice cup of puffin tea with Clerical Error Productions. Remaining performances are Friday and Saturday (Aug. 23-24) at The Oasis (Shriners’ entrance of the Murat, on the north side), 502 N. New Jersey St.

IndyFringe: Not Dead Yet

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Dana Dunn is a retired actress. She gave up Hollywood while her star was on the rise and relocated back to middle-America to live a more normal life. She is quite happy not acting again for the rest of her days, living with her sister, Lana, who was her hair and makeup stylist. The two are lovingly close.

Dana’s devoted nephew, Shawn, is trying to bring her into the modern world by giving her an iPad fully loaded with all of the websites she would need, as well as links to accounts devoted to her and her career. He also has a tip that Ron Howard (a huge fan of Dana’s work) is casting a new movie and would be thrilled if she would consider joining the cast. Needless to say, Auntie Dana is having none of it.

After returning from a dear friend’s funeral, they are joined by Tom and his sister Sandy, who grew up next door. While Tom is sincere and level-headed, Sandy is a whiny, self-centered bitch on wheels. It is obvious that while they have both gotten older, neither of them has ever grown up.

At Dana’s birthday party — given by Grayson, her biggest fan and dear friend — we meet Sam Snyder, an aspiring actor who can only get a job spinning a “Cash 4 Gold” sign. Afterward, Dana and Lana pick up the iPad and start playing around on it. After many drinks, Lana takes a picture of Dana laid out on the couch and posts it to Twitter noting #DanaDunnIsDone. The next morning, everyone is convinced she is dead and, of course, hilarity ensues.

Miki Mathioudakis brings Dana to life with a perfect combination of spunkiness and willfulness. Forba Shepherd crafts Lana as a devoted sister but also highlights the character’s sly, manipulative side.

John Joyner does an understated job portraying Tom as the dependable rock that is always there for everyone. Tina Nehrling plays every neurotic affectation that combines to create the psycho powerhouse that is Sandy. Sean Q does a great job of playing the loving yet driven Nephew, Sean.

Lance Gray as Sam and John B Hays as Grayson spend so much time chewing scenery and just being overall fabulous, you can tell they are loving every second that they are embodying their characters.

Still, it’s very nice to see a show in which “ladies of a certain age” are written with dignity and respect, and are more than just caricatures themselves.

This comedy by Jan White has performances Friday and Saturday (Aug. 23-24) at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair.