Orange is the new Bard

This is part of Indy Bard Fest 2022, the annual Indianapolis area Shakespeare Festival. For information and tickets, visit indybardfest.com.

By John Lyle Belden

Welcome to a secure common room at a local women’s prison. The ladies of D Block present for the visitors (us) the fruits of their fine arts program, a staging of William Shakespeare’s “Richard II,” adapted by the company with director Glenn Dobbs.

For those like me who sometimes struggle to keep all the Histories straight, Richard II (1377-1399) rules England over 150 years after the fall of King John – who was brother to Richard I (Lionheart), among the first Plantagenet Kings, and the unfortunate subject of another Bard Fest offering this year. Richard will end his reign childless (no obvious heir) as the Plantagenets fracture into the Houses of Lancaster and York in the Wars of the Roses. Also, like John, he is not regarded well by history and lore, considered a tyrant especially as he was a big believer in a king’s absolute power by Divine Right.

As presented by these orange-clad thespians, we easily accept that the mostly-male characters will all have feminine voices. This cast of local actors (not real felons, but play along) get to engage in two levels of character work. Aside from portraying the machinations of the 14th Century English Court, they are also women forged in difficult circumstance, feeling a familiarity to this treacherous culture. At any moment, your blood could be on the floor. To emphasize a challenge, a pack of premium smokes cast down is your gauntlet. Which boss inmate you follow can be a matter of life or death, and that crown – whether metal or bandana – is never fully secure.

Outstanding talents take the lead: Afton Shepard as Richard and Rayanna Bibbs as cousin/rival/successor Bolingbroke; with Damick Lalioff as the Duke of York, Evangeline Bouw as Richard’s faithful noble Aumerle, Savannah Scarborough as Bolingbroke’s right hand Northumberland, Nan Macy as John of Gaunt and the Duchess of York, and Sofy Vida as the banished Mowbray and secretive Bishop of Carlisle. Great contributions as well by Missy Rump, Genna Sever, Gracie Streib, Rachel Kelso, Jamie Devine, Gillian Bennett, Gillian Lintz, and a special shout-out to young Ellie Richart as Richard at coronation.

Shepard gives the kind of strong performance we’ve come to expect from her, showing all the various infamous aspects of the King, delivered with an instability that flows from the madness of power to the wilder madness of being without it. Bibbs gives a commanding performance like someone who somehow knows he will be the title character of the next two plays in the series. Bouw gives us a tragic character we can feel for, a young Duke sure he is on the right side – until he isn’t – then all too desperate to redeem himself. Lalioff smartly plays York as shrewd and decisive (things Richard is not), enabling him to ride the changing tides. Macy is again a marvel in her paternal and maternal roles.

It is from this play we get the line, “let us… tell sad stories of the death of kings,” and what a story we are delivered here! Three performances remain, Friday through Sunday, Oct. 28-30, in the Indy Eleven Theatre at the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair, Indianapolis.  

Bard Fest: ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ a noble find

By John Lyle Belden

Did William Shakespeare invent the sitcom?

In a wacky set-up worthy of a TV yuk-fest, or even an old Abbot and Costello romp, a group of proud manly-men determine they are so serious to improve their minds that they pledge to ignore the urges of other, more primal, body parts for three whole years. But within minutes, they are visited by beautiful women – one for each of them – and, suddenly, “What oath?! I don’t remember promising anything!”

That, loosely, is the plot of “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” one of the Bard’s early comedies, but a play he took great pains to craft, as it was performed for Queen Elizabeth herself. Thus we deal in the realms of nobility and courtly love. The master of our men is the King of Navarre (little kingdom between Spain and France) and his three nobles were named after popular figures of the era. The visiting party is led by the Princess of France, to discuss a deal for the lands of Aquitaine (a highly valued southern French region), but once she learns of the men’s allegedly binding oath, she puts up with being camped outside the Navarre court with her ladies as an opportunity to indulge in some fun. To please its sophisticated audience, the dialogue is woven with all manner of clever and complex speech – even when topics get a bit bawdy.

To further spice the plot, visiting Spanish noble Armado (not bound by a chaste oath) fancies the love of commoner Jaquenetta. This story crosses streams with the main one when simpleton Costard switches a love letter to her with one intended for a lady of the Princess’s company.

So much going on, and fortunately Bard Fest provides plenty of talent to pull it off. Aaron Jones is noble, in charge, and a little lonely as our King, tutor to Chris Bell as Longaville, Colby Rison as Dumaine, and Matt Hartzburg as Berowne, who resists taking the oath, but reluctantly signs. John Mortell is wonderfully blustery as smitten Armado, attended faithfully by page boy Mote (a sly yet exceptional performance by Justina Savage). Gorgi Parks Fulper charms as Jaquenetta. JB Scoble is scene-stealing Costard, playing the goof to the hilt. Connor Phelan is Dull – that’s the constable’s name and the man’s personality, which Phelan hilariously commits to. We also have Dan Flahive as schoolmaster Holofernes and Thom Johnson as Sir Nathanial, who organize an entertainment for the royal visitors.

Attending the Princess (Jennifer Kaufmann) are Maria (Brittany Davis), who is sweet on Longaville; Katherine (Abigail Simmon), who thinks Dumaine is kinda cute; and Rosaline (Rachel Kelso), who has her eye on Berowne. Kaufmann maintains royal bearing throughout, but with Kelso, in her exchanges with Hartzburg, we see an early version of Shakespeare’s trope of the smart-alec man verbally sparring with the clever woman, sparks of which kindle romance. Director John Johnson takes a hands-on approach by taking the role of the ladies’ escort, Lord Boyet.

In all, this is a fun entertainment full of clever wit and colorful characters, with little in the way of big lessons other than the Princess learning that the time for fun inevitably ends, and our gentlemen exchanging an oath made lightly for a more serious pledge. Being a less-familiar play, I’ll spoil this no further.

Performances are Friday through Sunday, Oct. 29-31, at The Cat Theater, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Get info and tickets at indybardfest.com.

Bizarre courtship for ‘Sara’ at Epilogue

By John Lyle Belden

“Getting Sara Married” plays out like a rom-com by way of the Twilight Zone, but if you roll with the absurdity, it’s a lot of fun.

In this comedy by Sam Bobrick, directed by Veronique Duprey at Epilogue Players, Sara (Monya Wolf) is a busy New York defense attorney and, as the title hints, single. She enjoys her solitary lifestyle and has no interest in marriage whatsoever.

Thus her Aunt Martha (Molly Kraus) takes it upon herself to engage in some unusual matchmaking. She has Brandon (Vince Pratt), the handsome professional she has selected for Sara, bonked on the head by “jack of all trades” Noogie (Brian Nichols) and delivered, unconscious, to Sara’s apartment. Need we mention Martha might not be entirely sane?

Shocked, Sara scrambles to prevent needing a defense lawyer herself. Brandon awakes, and after an amusing bout of amnesia, sorts out who he is, but not why he’s in a strange woman’s home — which he is impressed with, by the way. He grabs a quick bite before leaving, but is taken down by a just-remembered food allergy.

How is Brandon going to explain all this to his fiance, Heather (Rachel Kelso)?

Set just before smartphones took over the world, we only see Martha at the stage edge, on the other end of her landline — sometimes getting work from her favorite chiropractor (Alex Dantin) — presented charmingly by Kraus with unflagging confidence. 

Wolf ably takes us along on Sara’s emotional roller-coaster. Pratt plays a bit of a confused goof, but not dumb, so we can see the qualities that got Brandon chosen for this odd adventure. Nichols as eager-to-please Noogie is a likable mook, and I’m not just saying that so I don’t have to keep looking over my shoulder. Kelso has an interesting arc with Heather, a woman who — though initially infuriated — comes to understand the situation. Dantin seems to enjoy being the strong, silent type.

Hilarious with an odd charm, the show has four more performances, Thursday through Sunday, Feb. 20-23, at Hedback Corner, 1849 N. Alabama St. near downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-926-3139 or visit www.epilogueplayers.com.