ALT: Voices on the right take their ‘Turn’

By John Lyle Belden

What if you were in an echo chamber, and the voice coming back questioned you? Or said something else entirely?

Welcome to the edge of a small town in the west-central part of Wyoming, home of cowboys and a Catholic college. It’s Trump country – especially in August 2017, with conservatives still grateful they narrowly avoided a Hillary Clinton presidency and perhaps realizing that buffoonery was about all they would get from the President they elected.

In the Pulitzer-nominated drama “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” by Will Arbery, presented by American Lives Theatre, you will find no “liberals,” yet these four young men and women gathering seven years after graduation from the college, celebrating their mentor becoming its president, aren’t entirely of the same mind.

The atmosphere is ominous: Could it be that the infamous Charlottesville riot was just days ago? Or that this land where the Plains meets the Rockies will soon be in the totality of a solar eclipse? Or is it something about the deer that Justin (Tyler Lyons) shot, or that unnatural noise in his shed? His guests – Teresa (Morgan Morton), who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and admires then-White House advisor Steve Bannon; Kevin (Taylor Cox), an apparent alcoholic working for a Catholic publisher in Oklahoma; and Emily (Devan Mathias), who lives with chronic pain and in the shadow of her mother, Dr. Gina Presson (Gigi Jennewein), whom they have gathered to honor – start to have what Kevin likes to call “big conversations.”

Teresa is fascinated by the controversial 1997 book, “The Fourth Turning,” by social scientists William Strauss and Neil Howe, and treats it like prophesy, asserting the “Turning,” a time of upheaval, is upon them. She calls it an imminent “war,” and Justin, a Marine veteran, agrees, seeing the conflict not as spiritual, cultural or rhetorical, but armed revolution. Emily, who battles mental and physical torment with an exceptionally upbeat outlook – “pain and grace,” she calls it – doesn’t want to hear any of it. Kevin, feeling uncertain about everything, wants to delve further. To change the topic, Justin tells of a children’s-book story he is working on, “The Grateful Acre,” about the stoic optimism of a plot of land.

Eventually Gina arrives, and when prodded for her thoughts, adds her perspective to the party.

In the words of Arbery, with the guidance of director Andrew Kramer, we get excellent insight on what people on the political right are thinking and why. Any notes from the other side of the spectrum come from experiences with others, as bits of devil’s advocacy, or in warnings from Teresa that “this is what they say about us.” The militant and reactionary perspectives dash against the rocks of Gina’s intellectual conservatism (think Bannon vs. George Will), but even her logic frays at the edges.

Morton and Lyons are solid as characters who stick to their guns (one figuratively, the other literally). Jennewein’s stalwart academic reminds me now much I miss the relatively measured stance of the late Bill Buckley Jr.

Mathias nimbly gives us a necessarily complex character, too often finding herself in the middle of things with no real control. Emily also has a life experience that impacts her conservative Catholic beliefs, a thing that won’t reconcile easily.

“It’s hard to be the ‘Holy Fool,’” Kevin says, but Cox gives us a master class in embodying the archetype. Like the Fool who stood by King Lear in a storm, his Kevin is all over the place both in dialogue and movement, ever probing for the veritas his vino won’t provide. Ridicule, insult or pity him – as others do – but his jagged queries are worthy of answers.

This play was written and first staged in 2019, yet instead of feeling dated its contents become more profound in the light of what would happen in America over the next three years. One can argue if the Pandemic is the Fourth Turning, or if events have damaged the presumptions of Stauss and Howe’s work, but what’s portrayed are what people did (and do) think and feel.

Regardless of your place on the political spectrum, this is a worthy challenge to experience, leavened with a few situational laughs and a curious bit of supernatural edge. Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 27-28, at the Basile IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at AmericanLivesTheatre.org or IndyFringe.org.

IRT: A ‘West’ we don’t often see

By John Lyle Belden

Just northwest of the center of the state of Kansas is a little town called Nicodemus.

Today it is a National Historic Site, and for good reason. This is living proof that it wasn’t just White families who settled the American West. Many Blacks sought true freedom under the Homestead Act, with, in this case, the help of the Nicodemus Town Company. In “Flyin’ West,” by Pearl Cleage, at Indiana Repertory Theatre, we see an imagined family who held their own land there.

Circumstances including escaping racially-motivated riots in Memphis brought three sisters – Sophie (Lakesha Lorene), Fannie (L’Oreal Lampley), and Minnie (Kayla Mary Jane) – to claim their own stake. On neighboring acres, elderly Miss Leah (Dwandra Nickole Lampkin) kept the farm after her husband passed.

Sophie, gun on her hip to fend off pests in both animal and human form, prepares for winter and to pass a resolution in town to fend off (White) land speculators.  She is persuading Miss Leah to stay on at their homestead, while Fannie is about to be swept off her feet by neighbor Will Parish (Enoch King) if he can sum up the gumption to court her properly. Minnie has recently arrived with her husband Frank Charles (Allen Tedder), whose pale skin masks his slave upbringing. The couple had been living in London, England, where social acceptance came easier, but they hardly saw another with African skin. Frank, eager to get back there, awaits word on a possible inheritance from his father’s estate in New Orleans. Somehow, Minnie also arrived with a bruise around her eye.

Cleage’s compelling drama combines timeless themes of family, dealing with the effects of violence and slavery, and the power of sisterhood in even the most challenging environment. The women’s  performances embody many forms of tested strength, which work together to do what must be done. King plays Will as a rock-solid support without being controlling – in contrast to Tedder’s turn as despicable Frank.

Stories and situations of family drama played out often in these times and places; there’s more to the West than the OK Corral, with a lot more diversity among those involved than our histories and media suggest.

Directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, this production includes a deceptively simple-looking turntable set by Junghyun Georgia Lee that suggests a cozy cabin without the obstruction of outer walls, as well as an excellent hand-painted background by Claire Dana, also masterful in its simplicity.

Performances run through Feb. 4 on the IRT Mainstage at 140 W. Washington in downtown Indianapolis. Tickets and information at irtlive.com.

Storefront: A comedy of the corrupt

By John Lyle Belden

The title, “Post-Democracy,” is a little misleading. This short darkly comic drama by Hannah Moscovitch, presented in its U.S. premiere by Storefront Theatre of Indianapolis, is less about the halls of government power than it is the ivory towers of corporate privilege where the truism, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” rings as true as your recently-signed non-disclosure agreement will allow.

Bill (Ronan Marra Sr.) has serious business on his mind. His health is forcing his hand in picking his successor as CEO. That would be distant cousin Lee (Alex Oberheide), the COO who just swung an acquisition deal for a manufacturing plant in Latin America, however the young man can’t stop acting like a misogynist jerk (complete with tics like a slimy Jim Carrey), enraging Bill’s daughter, Justine (Tracy Herring), the CFO.

Meanwhile, Shannon (Carly Wagers), the executive working on preserving the company’s public image, is scrambling to contain the damage of Gary the Brand Manager’s flagrant sexual harassment. She seeks escape in the arms of Lee, who blurts a drunken confession that adds another layer of issues to an already deep mess.

How would you handle this? Or, to be more realistic, how would people with massive wealth and a lot more money and power at stake handle this? Does being in a third-world country make things more permissible? Does buying and nurturing an entire village of “those people” give you the moral high ground? Is the NDA binding?

While it would be easy to write off these characters as just four sleazy people, Moscovitch’s script, and these performances, directed by Ronan Marra (Jr.), won’t let it be that simple. Marra Sr. keeps Bill’s focus on his suddenly-fragile legacy. Herring’s Justine is holier-than-thou and privilege-blind, but means well, and perhaps sees herself (an adopted orphan) in a likely victim. Wagers shows how the demands of Shannon’s job eat at a soul she thought healed long ago. And Oberheide’s Lee, especially in a vino veritas moment, lets slip there might be some conscience beneath that frat-bro persona.

Plenty of food for thought here, entertainingly prepared. Bring your corporate boss (or their overworked assistant) to see “Post-Democracy,” through Jan. 29 at Storefront’s new home, 2416 E. 55th Place (near the Subway on N. Keystone, across from the Meier), Indianapolis. Tickets and info at storefrontindy.com.

Footlite: New take on ‘New World’

By John Lyle Belden

“Songs For a New World,” the first show by Jason Robert Brown (“Parade,” “The Last Five Years,” “13,” “Bridges of Madison County,” “Mr. Saturday Night”) is hard to describe, existing in an undefined middle ground between musical, song-cycle, and cabaret. Critics haven’t been kind, but many adore it, including local performer Jerry Beasley, who directs the current production of “Songs” at Footlite Musicals.

“It’s a concert,” he said, desiring it to be something more. “I wanted to tell 14 little stories.”

Perhaps bringing it closer to Brown’s original concept of various narratives all linked by a common theme – a person’s profound moment of decision – Beasley enriches the musical without altering its content. The cast is expanded from four to eight main singers plus two soloists, and he adds little touches to bring more context. The classic “Stars and the Moon” becomes a lesson shared among more than one singer, and thus us watching. “Christmas Lullaby” shows how an expecting mother truly feels she is giving hope to others. The youth in “The Steam Train” returns to a later song, giving it a today’s-news edge. There is humor in “The River Won’t Flow” and heartache in “The Flagmaker, 1775” – there is something for everyone throughout.

Wonderful performances by Ryan Bridges, Cameron Callan, Erin Emtiaz, Dylan Kelly, Maggie Meier, Abigail Miller, Keziah Muthama, and Kendrell Stiff, with Kayvon Emtiaz as “King of the World” and the incomparable Kevin Bell in “Surabaya-Santa.” Kelsey McDaniel stands by as swing; the on-stage orchestra is led by Jeremy Kaylor.

Appropriately, this is Footlite’s January “cabaret” production, with the audience seated on the stage in close proximity to the actors. While the chairs are in rows rather than at tables, there are still only so many of them, so act quick for tickets to remaining performances, Thursday through Sunday, Jan. 19-22. Contact Footlite.org or call 317-926-6630.

Healthy dose of love and laughter in Lawrence

By John Lyle Belden

Could love be considered a disorder? Think about it: The irrational behavior, the mood swings, the heart racing, the feeling in the pit of your stomach – nothing about being in love seems healthy!

Consider our case study of several infected individuals in and around the SuperCenter shopping experience in the comedy “Love/Sick,” by John Cariani, presented by Theatre Unchained at Theater at the Fort in Lawrence, directed by Kaya Dorsch.

The highly talented cast of Lucy Fields, Aaron Henze, Kyrsten Lyster, Brittany Magee, and Joe Wagner bring these afflicted souls to life as various characters in nine scenes in this charming hour-plus one-act.

The performance bar is set high by the first scene, in which – due to their disorder – Fields and Wagner have to deliver their exact same lines, with the same energy, at the exact same time. Add in a bit of intimate physical comedy, and they succeed to hilarious effect.

Fields then takes on the role of delivering a most awkward message to Lyster. We also have, among other bits, Henze discovering how literal “deadly boredom” can be, and Magee on a search to “find herself” that many of us can relate to.

The result is a mix of laughter and heartache that any physician would agree are a sure sign of a love outbreak, and for us in the audience the feelings are contagious.

Dorsch took a lot of TLC in growing this specimen, and if it leads to a pandemic of uncertain joy – know there’s no cure.

Remaining performances are Thursday through Saturday, Jan. 19-21, at 8920 Otis Ave. Get info at TheatreUnchained.org and tickets at ArtsForLawrence.org.

Time tick, tick, ticking forward

By John Lyle Belden

As I post this, 2022 has recently come to a close. And you might wonder, what were our favorite shows of this last year? Well, I just did a rough count of more than 150 reviews we posted, so – yeah, hard question.

Like an actor who never forgets that line he stumbled on at opening night, I can’t help but think about the reviews we didn’t do. Aside from scheduling and illness having us miss shows outright, there were a couple of performances that we caught at the ends of their run and didn’t get around to the writeup.

And like Jon in “Tick, Tick… Boom!” I feel the march of time.

There were actually two productions of that Jonathan Larson musical in central Indiana this last year – running practically simultaneously. We managed to get a review in of the well-done Phoenix Theatre production, but circumstances had us nearly miss the Carmel Community Players edition, which had its differences and was excellent in its own way.

Wendy and I would like to go on the record as saying we also enjoyed the CCP “TTB,” directed by Kathleen Horrigan, performed at the Switch Theatre in Fishers.

As is easier to do in volunteer community theatre, there was, in addition to Dominic Piedmonte as Jon, Ervin Gainer as his roommate Michael, and Margaret Smith as his girlfriend Susan, an ensemble of B.K. Bady-Kaye, Onis Dean, Abby Morris, and Ryley Trottier to portray other roles. This also helped distinguish the production from the stripped-down Phoenix show.

Piedmonte was great as Larson’s stand-in character, and Gainer is frankly one of those actors I can’t get enough of. Smith also did well as a character that is tricky as you don’t want to find yourself disliking Susan or Jon too much as their relationship falters. Having the full cast helped in letting Trottier play “Superbia” star (and potential “other woman”) Karessa, leading to a brilliant moment with both women singing “Come to Your Senses.”

Wendy found this version of the show really gave the feel of Larson’s dilemma of the world changing around him – not all for the better – as he turned 30 years old. And as he somehow feared and we have come to know, his life would end a few short years later.

A big thanks again to Carmel Community Players (hat tip to Lori Raffel), and all the local stages who let us come in and see what they have to show us. We look forward to another big year of theatre in 2023.

Fulgham ‘Christmas’ comes to Carmel

By John Lyle Belden

Poinsettias are immortal.

Also, treasures and saints come in unexpected forms; cherished traditions can include a bad pageant or enthusiastic bell-ringer; there’s nothing like a well-stocked fridge; and love can bring anyone together. These lessons and more are brought to us by Robert Fulgham, author of the best-seller about life-lessons from kindergarten, in “Uh-Oh, Here Comes Christmas!” presented by Carmel Community Players, directed by Kate Hinman.

Aptly-named Joy Ried joins new and familiar faces Tonya Rave, Tom Riddle, Kevin Shadle, and Matt Trgovac as they work through 14 scenes and skits – including a recurring bit about a certain red-leafed plant. The audience, in turn, gets a full-body workout, focused on both the heartstrings and funny bone.

Fulghum’s simple yet deep essays come alive in able hands – with an extra shout-out to assistant stagehand Mitchell Ried – for a must-see holiday treat.

The crew also includes stage manager and assistant director Jeremy Ried, stagehand Chrysa Keenon, and Lori Raffel on lights and sound.

Four performances remain: Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m. (Dec. 15-18) at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel (just south of the Main Street arts district). Get info and tickets at CarmelPlayers.org.

‘Carol’ gets musical comedy treatment

By John Lyle Belden

Marley was dead to begin with…” truly is a downer opening, but things can only go up from there, especially when Charles Dickens gets the once-over by local theatrical genius Ben Asaykwee, who wrote and directed the musical “A Christmas Carol Comedy,” playing through this weekend at the District Theatre.

Asaykwee has another show (“ProZack” at the Phoenix) so entrusts a cast of young and old, veterans and newcomers, led by the versatile Matt Anderson as Ebenezer Scrooge (and the assistant director).

To set the irreverent tone, we have a batch of young urchins (Quincy Carman, Ellie Cooper, Zara Heck, Ethan Lee, Sam Lee, Judah Livingston, Esmond Livingston, and Calvin Meschi) providing narration and appearing as needed. Others play various roles, notably Jared Lee at Bob Cratchit, Emerson Black as Jacob Marley, Amanda Hummer as Christmas Past, Tiff Bridges as Christmas Present, Shelbi Barry as Christmas Future, and Maria Meschi as ol’ Fezziwig. In addition, we have the talents of Lisa Anderson, Jenni Carman, Reilly Crouse, Jessica Dickson, Austin Helm, Emily Jorgenson, Anna Lee, Noah Lee, Adriana Menefee, Kallen Ruston, Michelle Wafford, and Charlotte Wagner.

Drop all expectations of a faithful rendition of the holiday classic (we all know it already) and revel in the silliness as this gang has a ball bringing more joy to the season. The revelation of Tiny Tim must be seen to be believed. There are also song-and-dance numbers, as Dickens no doubt never intended – watch out for flying cast members.

Our evening’s viewing at the District (627 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis) was a sell-out; it will likely happen again. See indydistricttheatre.org.

The Elf may not enjoy this, but you will

By John Lyle Belden

For an Elf, labor at the Toy Workshop is like a factory job anywhere in the world, with lunch hour your one respite from the constant grind. Being in the desolate dark zone above the Arctic Circle, when one of your workers – who has issues, to say the least – requests to entertain the crew with a “celebration of truth and pure being” during the break, it’s a good idea to let him ramble his weird poetry or whatever.

But as we see reenacted at the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center, when “ProZack the Sad Elf” gets an unused storage room to put on his show, things get weirder than usual. Apparently, this year we get “The ProZack Holiday Musical (No, it’s not!)” starring Ben Asaykwee, Ben Asaykwee, Ben Asaykwee, Ben Asaykwee, Ben Asaykwee, Ben Asaykwee, and a demented Tree.

ProZack provides profound spoken verse with titles like “Nothingness,” and “Untitled.” Tinsel plays and sings holiday songs, even after he’s killed. Videographer Snowflake is up to some visual trickery. Tinkle tries to bring “levity” but has problems with his puppet, Mr. Tree, whose anger is growing, and growing. Meanwhile Glister, the industrial death metal Elf, has caught a worrying case of sentimentality.

With so much going wrong, ProZack has to frequently go backstage, where Snowflake also set up cameras. We see the elves interact and try to find their way through this madness that includes odd holiday movie references and the secret of what’s stored away in that “empty” room.

Not to mention the literal “Star” of the show…

With the help of multimedia and other effects, Asaykwee delivers a fun and surprisingly action-packed one-person show, masterfully juggling the various personae throughout the two-act “lunch hour.” There was much laughter, some finger-snapping (how you applaud poetry), and a bit of innuendo – so this is for humans of double-digit age (or relative equivalent for elves or other mythical beings).

“ProZack The Sad Elf,” also created, written, and directed by Asaykwee, runs through Dec. 23 on the Basile Theatre stage at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.

Ludwig ‘Holmes’ comedy a holiday treat at BCP

By John Lyle Belden

One of the interesting things about Ken Ludwig’s comedy mystery, “The Game’s Afoot, or, Holmes for the Holidays,” on stage at Buck Creek Players, is that the lead role is a fictionalized version of actual early-20th century actor William Gillette, who not only helped set the traditional look for Sherlock Holmes on stage and screen, but also starred in a Holmes play that he wrote with the blessing of Sherlock creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. While, as portrayed here, Gillette did make fame and fortune as the legendary detective, tinkered with inventions to aid his stagecraft, and had a castle built for him on his Connecticut estate, Ludwig also plays up the man’s Holmes obsession to the point that he seeks to solve the mystery of an attempt on his life.

Hilarity, and apparently a murdered body or two, ensues.

Joshua C. Ramsey excels at rock-chinned steadfast leading man, even when played for laughs, and delivers Gillette’s stoic sense of purpose so well that flummoxed moments come off all the funnier. His family and friends (a/k/a, the suspects) are played by Cathie Morgan as Gillette’s mother, Martha; Tony Brazelton as Felix, his past best friend and present on-stage Moriarty; Tiffany Wilson as Marian, Felix’s wife; Hannah Partridge as recently widowed ingenue Aggie; and Josh Rooks as ambitious young actor Simon. They are joined at what they thought was an end-of-the run holiday party by ruthless newspaper columnist Daria Chase (Sarah Powell), and the evening’s activities will bring around an actual detective, Inspector Goring (Renee Lopez Whiten). In addition, Cyrena Knight, Breanna Helms, and Julie Gilpin play the house staff, and can step in as understudies.

Under the direction of Brian Noffke, no stranger to wild comedy, the cast all hit the farcical beats with professional precision. The exquisite stage set, designed by Ed Trout, includes an infamous rotating bookshelf used to full comic effect.

Even though I saw a production of this years back, I had forgotten “who done it” (yes, there is a mystery to solve amidst this madness) but even if you aren’t surprised at the end, you’ll assuredly be delighted by this unconventional “holiday” play.

“The Game’s Afoot” for two more weekends, through Dec. 18 at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74), Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at buckcreekplayers.com.