IndyFringe: Leland Loves Bigfoot

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

Last year, standup comic and Kentucky hippie Stewart Huff asked: Do jokes still work? Well, his do.

In this year’s one-man show, “Leland Loves Bigfoot,” he revisits some of that material, but has a new central anecdote, his night with a stranger waiting for a cryptid to show up.

As he looks for that sweet spot “between chaos and capitalism,” he recommends going to a snake-handling church for entertainment rather than a major theme park. He disagrees with fellow liberals saying we can’t fix what’s wrong with America, “but WILL we fix things?” he shrugs. And he decries insults taking the place of debate, “I dream of the day we have an (actual) argument.”

And he relates his visit to the little town of Mays Lick, Ky. While drinking at the local redneck bar, he is approached by a man who asks if Huff would like to go with him to his farm and look for Bigfoot.

Against his better judgement, he goes.

While they sat outdoors in lawn chairs drinking moonshine, Huff realized, “I love Leland. But I’m afraid of Leland, because he votes.” As they discuss vaccines, Scooby-doo, condemned statues, and nude driving, he maintains a brotherly affection for the man despite not agreeing with anything he says.

And that’s the main point, if there must be a moral to an incredibly funny show, that we can disagree with someone without hating them.

His energetically delivered observations elicited constant laughter and some devious thoughts, such as, “if you see someone in old-time aviator goggles, follow him” because something crazy is about to happen.

“You don’t goggle-up in the planning stages.”

Plan to see Huff at the Athenaeum, 8:45 p.m. Saturday and 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 27-28.

Examining our Hoosier President

By John Lyle Belden

History’s judgement of President Benjamin Harrison, Ohio-born but spent most of his public life in and in service to Indiana, is sort of a mixed bag. During his one term, 1889-1893, he championed progressive policies and admitted a half-dozen states to the Union, but then there was the protectionist tariff and economic troubles, rocky relations within his own party, and, in hindsight, the opportunities lost. Scholars rank him middling to lower-half on the list of best-to-worst Presidents, while Hoosiers like to celebrate their only Chief Executive (aside from his grandfather, territorial governor and “Tippecanoe”).

In “Benjamin Harrison Chased a Goat,” a new play by Hank Greene finally getting its premiere at Theater at the Fort (former U.S. Army post Fort Benjamin Harrison), the policy and politics are background to an examination of Harrison the man. In addition, we are reminded of important women in his life: Caroline Harrison, his wife, and Alice Sanger, the first woman stenographer in the White House.

And then, of course, there’s Old Whiskers, which would be referred to as the First Pet by today’s news media.

We meet the President (Steve Kruze) in the Oval Office as just a few hours remain before returning it to Grover Cleveland. He works on his Farewell Address, stuck for an ending, when he is surprised by the arrival of Sanger (Morgan Morton) – the only staffer left working in the White House, as all the men have exited for new positions. He is reluctant, but she persuades him to let her “polish up” his scattered notes. As he goes out to ruminate on the speech’s closing, Harrison is distracted by the wandering ruminant.

Much of the story follows in flashback. Harrison, flanked by trusted advisors Caroline (Carrie Schlatter) and longtime aide James Noble (Alex Oberheide), greet inauguration with optimism, despite not winning the popular vote in the 1888 election. Haunted by his famous name – and the soured legacy of John Quincy Adams not living up to his own Founding Father – Harrison is determined to accomplish great things in his own right. Seeds of doubt from this are nourished by Republican Party operative Edward Proctor (Joshua Ramsey), who blunts the President’s bold moves by advising the GOP’s cautious approach.

We also get glimpses of the relationship between Benjamin and Caroline, from the first dance to the last chimes of the music box. Her importance becomes clear, despite the mostly ceremonial position of First Lady. She chafes at being only known as the woman who brought electricity to the White House, and who rid it of (four-legged) rats. Trouble stirs at both the speech Mrs. Harrison gives to the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the speech she opts not to give.

What happened to that electrifying speaker who helped elect an Indiana governor? What will his last words as U.S. President be, and will they be remembered? And where is that goat, anyway?

Kruze and Schlatter make a dynamic First Couple, devoted though their love gets tested to the breaking point. Their then-controversial “progressive” views sound more like conventional wisdom now (and the gold vs. silver standard debate, rather quaint) so we mainly see committed public servants working with the noblest intentions. Morton helps put a spotlight on another real historical figure, as Sanger speaks for the common person wanting to know why all this politics and policy matter.

Oberheide delivers an excellent performance of the right-hand man who becomes taken for granted, Noble’s disillusionment the indicator that our leader’s path has gone astray. As Proctor, Ramsey’s delivery is as perfect as his impeccable facial hair. He doesn’t twirl that curled mustache, though, as he is not a villain but more representing the way party politics have been conducted throughout American history. His arguments for inaction and vague promises can be heard on Capitol Hill today.

Directed by Christine Kruze, this play, like many historical dramas, is an enlightening look at the past with some lessons for our present. Best of all, it’s a nice insight into a man whom history largely overlooks. Circumstances limited the run to the current weekend, Aug. 12-14. If you are reading this in time, find tickets at ArtsForLawrence.org.

Story of doomed campaign a winner for Storefront

By Wendy Carson and John Lyle Belden

Storefront Theatre of Indianapolis presents its first live production in exactly two years, the comic drama “1980 (Or, why I’m voting for John Anderson),” by Patricia Cotter, directed by Ronan Marra.

As you would surmise from the title, the year is 1980 and Kathleen (Carly Wagers) is a wide-eyed innocent come to make a difference, and earn some college credit, by working for John Anderson’s presidential campaign in Boston. At 19, she has led a sheltered life and is about to have her preconceptions – about life, politics, even herself – shattered.

Brenda (Bridget Haight), the campaign office manager (when she’s not tending bar next door), tries to teach her to face her fears and follow her passions but actually shows her how messy a blue-collar worker’s life can get when one tries to do just that.

Will (Jamaal McCray), who recently arrived from the campaign’s Chicago office, makes her aware of the racism inherent even in a city historically known as the cradle of liberty. His experiences echo incidents that we are currently facing. He also gives Kathleen a glimpse into office politics, not just the kind that involves elections.

Robin (Chelsea Anderson), however, is like the professor emeritus of the group, a blue-blood who has not only worked on past campaigns, but also knows various politicians from social events. Her jaded world outlook, psychological manipulation (masking her own mental issues), and pure ambitious nature are a force beyond anything Kathleen has ever experienced.

Also part of this play are two faces only seen on a TV that was crappy by that era’s standards. One is John B. Anderson (you need to include the middle initial when Googling, or the unrelated country music star comes up first), a moderate Republican from Illinois serving in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was highly intelligent, capable, and popular among fellow lawmakers, but in the 1980 Presidential primaries was quickly overshadowed by eventual nominee (and President) Ronald Reagan – the other face we see on the screen. Anderson managed the near-impossible feat of running as an Independent, getting on the ballot in every state. Still, even in badly-tinted color, Reagan’s charisma shined through to the voters.

Musing on Anderson’s long-shot chances, Brenda says, “If he can win, what’s that say about the rest of us?” In rock-solid performances, all four of our characters confront questions of what it means to “win,” and what is worth the risk. Also, reflecting what’s sometimes called politics’ “silly season,” this show is leavened with plenty of laugh-out-loud humor.

We know how the story turns out for the men on the TV debate stage (even Anderson, who passed away in 2017 after a long career in politics and public service). But this play focuses on the ones, like us, watching it all unfold, doing our small part – how does our “campaign” turn out? That’s what’s important, no matter what year it is.

Storefront Theatre is at 717 Broad Ripple Ave., Indianapolis. Performances of “1980” run though Oct. 3. Get info and tickets at storefrontindy.com.

IndyFringe: Jeannette Rankin: Champion of Persistence

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 John Lyle Belden

You might not have heard of her, but after you see this one-woman show you won’t forget her. Jeannette Rankin campaigned nationwide for women’s suffrage, helping to bring it about in her native Montana. She was also elected twice to the U.S. House of Representatives, where she pushed for peace and various reforms.

At times she seemed on the wrong side of history — she could not bring herself to vote for America’s entry into World War II — but especially with her resistance to war in Vietnam, she mainly proved to be a woman ahead of her time.

Written and performed by J. Emily Peabody for Thorn Productions, she puts an irresistible energy into her portrayal of Rankin. What could have been a dry recitation of history comes across more like a rally.

To help spread knowledge of this persistent American hero, Peabody offers copies of her script, with details beyond what she presents in the Fringe-length show, for sale after each performance. She will be at the District Theater (former TOTS location), 627 Massachusetts Ave. on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday (Aug. 22, 24 & 25).

IndyFringe: Pretty Face – An American Dream

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

You know this is going to be a wry, political show when you first see the open suitcase onstage with a sticker blacked out to now say, “Make ME Great Again”.

Amanda Huotari begins the show by emulating a chicken who begins to orgasmically hatch an egg but then swiftly switches to her Miss America persona that will woo the audience and then tell us the fateful tale of one Miss Tiffany Trump.

You know her, right? Ivanka’s sister; Trump’s “love child” with Marla Maples; the one child who most people can’t name; and is not currently in the White House constantly making the news for following Dad’s directives.

Her story, while mostly forgotten by the public (often due to Daddy’s other outrageousness) is shown here to remind you of Trump’s true colors towards one of his brood that he felt was not up to his standards.

Peppered with actual quotes and vignettes from the past, we are privy to the real workings of Trump’s mind and shown that his current disregard for the country was already telegraphed in his treatment of Tiffany and her mother. Remember, he actually said that when he ran for President, “He didn’t want to win, he just wanted to make money.”

Is there a way to re-embrace the American Dream? Is it possible to eschew the current atmosphere of tyranny and become more civilized and cooperative in our efforts both personal and political? Can we once again be truly free?

As you only have two more opportunities — 9 p.m. today and 4:30 p.m. tomorrow (Aug. 17-18) at the Indy Eleven (719 E. St. Clair) — I suggest you make it a priority to find out.

Fonseca’s debut drama shows what we are capable of building

By Wendy Carson*

I honestly don’t know what is more horrifying about Robert Shenkkan’s play, “Building the Wall,” the details of atrocities committed or the sheer fact that I can see all of it happening in the real world, pretty much the exact way it does in the script.

The story revolves around a college professor conducting an interview with a reluctant prison inmate. Throughout their dialogue, you discover why Rick has been incarcerated – and his truth of the situation that led him here.

Clay Mabbitt does an amazing job at weaving Rick’s story without forcing a biased slant on the situation. This is a man who sees himself as inherently good but also acknowledges he allowed much of the inhumane treatment to continue, climaxing with their inevitable final solution to the situation.

Millicent Wright as the academic, Gloria, deftly leads him through his tale. Since his lawyer prevented him from defending himself or even speaking at his trial, she wants to help him get his story out in his own words so that he can finally be heard.

Again, the story presented here is fictional, but it contains so many references to actual historical events and situations that it feels just a bit too real. In fact, we found it hard to believe it was written in 2016, and not this year.

This is the first play for the newly-founded Fonseca Theatre Company, established by a group of central Indiana artistic people led by the company’s namesake – and this play’s director – Bryan Fonseca. Like his past work establishing the Phoenix Theatre, this is the first of a planned season (and seasons to come) of thought-provoking, important theatre on West Michigan Street.

Aside from helping create an enduring arts scene in the near-westside of Indy, FTC’s mission is to embrace and celebrate diversity in all its diverse forms. As one can guess from the present-day setting and the play’s title, its inspiration comes from the President’s promise, and the continued heated debate, regarding immigration and immigrants. What does a play with a black woman and a white man have to do with this? In “Building the Wall,” it is not Latinx people who have to justify what they’re doing or explain how they got where they are.

In the end, this is everybody’s problem.

Performances are Fridays through Sundays, through Oct. 7, at FTC’s temporary home, Indy Convergence, 2611 W. Michigan. See www.fonsecatheatre.org for details and tickets.

(*John Lyle Belden also contributed to this review.)

IndyFringe: ‘The Truth*’

This show is part of the 14th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 16-26, 2018 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

To tell The Truth: Will the real benevolent dictator please stand up?

The clowns of A Muse Zoo are the kind of red-nose folks who speak, telling their Truth with jesters’ license. One puts on the furrowed brow of a professor, relating the True story of an imaginary land:

You may not know of the country of Kundnanibonbar, as it was just discovered. Four different neighboring tyrants looked over their border with it and each decided to take the land and its resources for his or her own purposes…

But this lecture is often interrupted, as the teacher leaves the room, allowing each ruler in turn to step in and tell us their Truth.

So, whose Truth will prevail: the flower girl, the cheese smuggler, the mole-person, or the boy prince?

(Aside: In an appropriately bizarre coincidence, during the weekend we are presented with this comic allegory of how history is written by the victors, there are reports that the President’s lawyer is declaring that every person has their own Truth, so what is The Truth anyway?)

In the Fringe show, “The Truth*,” aside from all the thinky content, we get very funny and entertaining performances, with all manner of silliness from whimsy to slapstick to melodrama. Note the bees are not real, but there is use of a strobe light. – So, that’s my Truth.

Therefore be careful with your soup, and listen to the turtle on your shoulder when he tells you to see A Muse Zoo at 9 p.m. tonight (Monday, Aug. 20) at the IndyFringe Indy Eleven Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, just off Mass Ave. and College, in their last show before returning to Oregon.

And that’s The Truth.

The Farce is strong with this one

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is putting his reviews here — for now.

By John Lyle Belden

Today’s political climate has much that is ripe for ridicule, especially Indiana’s present chief executive, who could become America’s Number Two. And if the thought of Gov. Pence as “number two” has you giggling, have I got a theatrical experience for you.

Khaos Company Theatre presents its second play in the “Pence Wars” series, “Mike Pence Strikes Back,” a Star Wars-themed parody in which Indiana Emperor Pence finds himself losing the election for governor of the Hoosier Planet – every ultraconservative ploy to gain favor with the masses seems to backfire. But an unexpected shot at being Vice President of the Galaxy changes everything.

You don’t have to have seen the first play, August’s “Attack of the Homos,” to get into the flow of this one. The story is presented as a play by director Kaylee Spivey Good, with additional scenes by Robert Broemel and Ed Ramthun, and interludes of poetry by Cher Guevara (a/k/a Eagle contributor Walter Beck).

David Malloy is entertaining as Pence, giving the state’s Dark Lord a dastardly cartoon villain voice and posture. Guevara is impressive as Donald Trump – especially as the actor looks nothing like him – but with big hair, big suit and big, boorish attitude, he pulls it off. The supporting cast of Michael Maloney, Lauren McDaniel, Bridget Isakson (who plays Tolkein’s elf Arwen, because, why not?), Heather Bartram, Chloe Farhar, and even Good for a scene, all make multiple contributions to this farce.

The trick to enjoying the show is to keep your expectations as low as your opinion of Trump and Pence, and just go with whatever is happening. Pence Wars has the style and humor of SNL or MadTV with the special effects of a kid’s birthday party. Yet while situations get a tad immature, the content is not for children.

While the scenes are played for laughs, the recited verse is serious and thought-provoking, reminding us that this is the future of our state and country we’re joking about here.

There are just two more dates for this chapter, 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday – note that Friday is pay-what-you-can admission – and the trilogy’s conclusion, “Election 2016, A New Hope,” is scheduled for Oct. 7,8, 14 and 15. For information and tickets, see www.kctindy.com.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Fringe review: I’m Not Gay

By John Lyle Belden

Senator Bobby insists, “I’m Not Gay,” but in this comic drama by Matthew Barron, presented by Submatter Press at the Marrott Center, no one believes it. The press seems to prefer taking the word of the man he was sleeping with.

Russell Lee Watson plays the Indiana Senator, who doesn’t understand why no one believes him. He’s sure that all men have his urges, but since being gay is wrong, they just suppress them better than he does. This is frustrating to his wife Margaret (Kerra D. Wagener), who accepts him regardless, and his closest advisor George (Aaron Cleveland), who has been in love with him for years.

These characters struggle to sort out how they feel and what they mean to each other, generating quite a few laughs on the way. Daniel Klingler rounds out the cast as gay bar worker Billie Joe, who dispenses much-needed wisdom as only a way-out-of-the-closet bartender can.

The play doesn’t come down too hard on hypocrisy or the state of politics today, focusing on the very human struggles of three personalities stuck in a world where appearances are everything and you are only as good or relevant as your last soundbite or headline. Between these actors’ performance and Barron’s words, they actually make us feel for a conservative blowhard; yet that may not be a bad thing.