‘Big Day’ for little guy at Phoenix

By John Lyle Belden

Phoenix Theatre’s holiday tradition continues with “Winston’s Big Day: A Very Phoenix Xmas 14.”

(Note the originator of the series, Bryan Fonseca, also has a holiday variety show at the new Fonseca Theatre Company, but think of them not so much as competitors as companion pieces — each with its own nice yet mildly naughty take on the winter holidays.)

The Phoenix production works on a theme developed by director Chelsea Anderson over the course of the year. It’s Christmas Eve, and elf Winston (Dave Pelsue) — who had been planning to leave the North Pole to pursue a music career, with Rudolph (Ramon Hutchins) as his manager — is tapped to be co-pilot of the Sleigh. But Santa is missing! That means it’s up to the reluctant elf and his bright-nosed companion to make the deliveries and save Christmas. 

During the night, Winston looks in on several scenes, performed by the cast of Nathalie Cruz, Andrea Heiden, Jan Lucas, Pearl Scott, John Vessels, and Justin Sears-Watson. Scenes and songs are by a diverse lot including Anderson, Pelsue, Paige Scott, J. Julian Christopher, Jen Blackmer, Riti Sachdeva, Zach Neiditch, and Phoenix playwright-in-residence Tom Horan.

There is an abundance of wonderful performances, including Lucas and Heiden as ghosts of Charles Dickens; Vessels at his manic best; and dancer Sears-Watson’s smooth moves, as well as showing his singing and acting chops. 

Perhaps one of the best scenes, showing off all the talents on hand, is Blackmer’s “The Twelve Theatrical Genres of the Totally Non-Denominational, Absolutely Inclusive Holidays…” This gentle jab at both political correctness and community theatre, when its reach goes way beyond its grasp, results in a hilarious holiday scene so “inclusive” it hardly appeals to anyone: The Misguided Mechanicals present something like, “Stella and the Zombie Cats of Thebes” (that’s my best-guess title for it; you’re welcome, Chelsea). 

And, of course, there’s Pelsue and Hutchens, doing a great job of tying this whole silly and sweet mess together, as they struggle to rush through their duties, hoping to make their stage time at Fa-La-La-La-La-Palooza. 

Also impressive is Zac Hunter’s stage design, including a turntable with pop-up-book effects, and frequent clever use of the trapdoors.

Yet another holiday tradition to add to your schedule, performances run through Dec. 22 at the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois, downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Review: Civil War comedy works

By John Lyle Belden

NOTE: Review also appears online with The Word (www.theygayword.com).

The most entertaining lesson this Black History Month only has one February weekend of performances, the comic drama “Butler” at Indy’s Phoenix Theatre through Sunday. It is also an important insight into the struggle to bring about the end of slavery, or to at least give African Americans some long-denied dignity.

Lawyer turned Union Army General Benjamin Franklin Butler (played by Stephen Hunt, who perfectly resembles historical photos of Butler), takes command of a fortress that by a fluke of geography is the only piece of Virginia still belonging to the North during the Civil War. As he’s settling in, he receives word of escaped slaves, led by Shepard Malloy (Ramon Hutchins), who insists on speaking to the General.

The opening scene, mainly a conversation between Butler and one of his junior officers (Brandon Alstott), helps set the tone for this play. We get a feel for Butler’s gruff personality and though his agitation over seemingly small details seems eccentric, we find ourselves “astonished” at how well it sets up the dry but sharp comedy of later scenes.

Hutchins is exceptional in a very complex role. His Malloy yearns for freedom, yet his intellect and impulsiveness make him his own worst enemy in a world where people like him aren’t allowed to get in the last word. Yet in one-on-one conversations with Butler, their verbal sparring challenges each other as well as the audience, even while extracting welcome yet un-guilty laughter.

Doug Powers appears as a Confederate Major sent to fetch the escaped slaves, ironically citing the laws of the Union his state was seceding from to compel Butler to return them to his custody. It is in this situation that the Union General reverts to lawyer mode and comes up with a loophole to keep Malloy and his companions in the fort. Note this is based on true events, including the legal means by which Butler manages to hold on to the “property” of a Southern slaveowner.

If an uplifting Civil War comedy can happen, anything is possible. See for yourself Feb. 4-7. Call 317-635-7529 or see phoenixtheatre.org.