Life lessons continue for aging friends in IRT comedy

By John Lyle Belden

Even after we’ve been around for decades, life can surprise or even shock us, and as long as we’re alive, we have to work out what’s next. In this spirit, “Morning After Grace,” by Carey Crim, a comedy with all the dramatic feels, appears on the Indiana Repertory Theatre stage. 

As the play opens, Abigail (Laura T. Fisher) and Angus (Henry Woronicz) experience a “morning after” following meeting at a funeral. Since they live in a retirement village in Florida, it’s not as unusual as you’d think. And while they are sorting things out, neighbor Ollie (Joseph Primes) pays a visit. From the beginning, misunderstandings and miscommunications bring about hilariously comic moments. 

Through the actors’ skill, and direction by IRT Artistic Director Janet Allen, this trio develop a wild, quirky chemistry that you get with people with so little in common thrust together. What they do share is a need to deal with loss, and with conflicts with those they now find it difficult to love. 

But another facet is how all three look forward — while acknowledging it being “of a certain age,” they each see a future: Abigail has a career as a counselor; Angus has a beautiful house and an opportunity to start over; and soon Ollie will put aside that cane he walks with and embrace life with his beloved. 

With all this depth, I must reiterate that this is a comedy; at times I nearly laughed myself blind. The trio execute the comic beats perfectly — for Woronicz especially refreshing to see the flip side of his dramatic acting in “12 Angry Men” last year.

The end result is like your favorite episode of a classic sitcom with serious undertones, like “MASH,” “Seinfeld,” “Mom,” or the similar “Cool Kids” — but with one well-placed F-bomb.

Escape the cold for this warm-hearted delight, through Feb. 9 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington in downtown Indy (near Circle Center). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

And congratulations to Janet Allen for being named the Margot Lacy Eccles Artistic Director with the endowment of a $2 million gift to the IRT by the Eccles charitable fund. The late Ms. Eccles was an avid supporter and board member of the theatre.

Changes around us come into focus on Fonseca stage

By John Lyle Belden

Gentrification is a word and concept that gets brought up a lot — how it’s bad, how it has benefits, how it is inevitable. Indianapolis has seen aspects of it in play in neighborhoods such as Broad Ripple, Mass Ave./Chatham Arch, Irvington, and Fountain Square.

This phenomenon is at the heart of “Salt Pepper Ketchup,” a drama by Josh Wilder now on stage at Fonseca Theatre Company in Indy’s near-westside — an area starting to see the effects of redevelopment.

The play is inspired by the recent real-world transformation of Point Breeze community in Philadelphia’s infamous South Side. “Salt, Pepper, Ketchup” is how longtime local residents, mostly African-American, order the popular fried chicken wings at Superstar Chinese Restaurant, and owners John and Linda Wu (Ian Cruz and Tracy Herring) are happy to fill the orders as they save up for their American Dream. They had just been granted citizenship, and with improving credit, hope to buy their building.

But changes are already under way. New apartments sprang up, occupied by young white people seeking affordable rent. There is a coffee shop, and at the center of it all, the Co-Op grocery. 

Paul (Robert Negron), a leader at the Co-Op, is trying to sign up new members among the locals. John Wu, reflecting the worries of his regulars, suspects some sort of scam. Paul’s heavy-handed and tone-deaf manner isn’t helping. Still, Linda sees hope for life beyond their “Chinese joint.” Tommy (Chinyelu Mwaafrika) and Raheem (Aaron “Gritty” Grinter) see the Co-Op as a threat, a danger to the ‘hood they grew up in, and they are prepared to take drastic action. CeCe (Chandra Lynch) is trying to see all sides of this, as she works at a daycare and wants the area to get better. She even likes the idea of the Co-Op, until she discovers that a single apple costs $2.50.

We also meet the enigmatic Boodah (Dwuan Watson Jr.) who is street-smart, emphasis on both. A little older and wiser than Tommy and Raheem, he avoids conflict and criminal solutions, but when he senses injustice, he takes action.

Finally, Megan (Lexy Weixel) is a perky Co-Op worker who finds herself thrust into an unfamiliar world, struggling to make the best of it.

Seeing the events play out, I couldn’t help but feel a bit ashamed for being white. Paul is such an overbearing caricature, reeking of privilege even as he remarks on it dismissively, that it is easy to understand the backlash that overwhelms him midway through the show. Eventually he takes a more corporate attitude — or was that behind his facade all along? While this can be difficult to watch from my seat, and generating nods of agreement from minorities around me, this portrayed example of how not to gentrify can help start the conversation of how best to positively deal with the changes coming to our own streets. It helps that this important drama brings out the best in all its players.

The play is directed by Tom Evans, with a set designed by Daniel Uhde including a clever way of changing between acts. Founder Bryan Fonseca designed the lighting and Tim Brickley the soundscape, which includes hip-hop by Gritty from his upcoming EP.

As an epilogue, the play program includes a recent article on the real Point Breeze, providing more food for thought. 

“Salt Pepper Ketchup” is served up through Feb. 2 at the FTC Basile Building, 2508 W. Michigan Street. Get info and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

‘First Date’ jitters take form of advice-giving friends in Footlite musical

By Wendy Carson

Dating — the stress, vulnerability, tension, sheer terror, and coping with it all. Is all of this worth it, to possibly find “the One”? This is the subject the Broadway musical, appropriately titled “First Date,” playing at Footlite Musicals.

The show focuses on Aaron (Zach Hoover) and Casey (Halle Catlow) as they undergo a blind date, and we experience it with them, while seeing their inner thoughts portrayed by others in the cast.

Starting with drinks at the bar, it is obvious that these two have nothing in common except shared geography and a couple of friends who feel they might be a good fit for each other. Still, they are curious enough to overlook their first impressions — and Casey ignores the “bailout calls” of Reggie (Austin Stodgill), her gay bestie — to get to know each other more.

Religious differences, past relationship horrors, and even the embarrassment of their internet history are broached, yet they keep feeling out the possibility of their compatibility. Each constantly teeters on the verge of leaving, yet in their minds, Casey’s sister Lauren (Hannah Janowicz) and Aaron’s best friend Gabe (Ben Fraley) keep showing up to convince them to stick it out.

So, will these two make it to dinner — or maybe breakfast? Will Casey actually let Reggie’s calls give her an out? Will Aaron overcome his feelings for ex-fiance Allison (DonaMarie Kelley)? Can the head Waiter (Darrin Gowan) inspire them to actually fall in love? Honestly, is any of this actually worth it?

Margaret Smith and Adam Gardner complete the cast as waitstaff and part of the mental chorus.

This being Footlite’s annual “cabaret” production, audience seating is on the stage at tables of Darrin’s Restaurant, adding an appropriate intimate feel. The show — book by Austin Winsberg, music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner — is laugh-out-loud funny, with memorable tunes including “First Impression,” “The Girl For You,” and “I’d Order Love.” (We’ve heard them occasionally on SiriusXM’s “On Broadway” channel.) Direction is by Kathleen Clarke Horrigan, with choreography by Trish Roberts and music directed by Linda Parr.

So good, you might want to take a date of your own, “First Date” runs through Jan. 19 at 1847 N. Alabama St., near downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-926-6630 or visit http://www.footlite.org.

Summit: Finding life’s meaning in unlikely ways

By John Lyle Belden

Summit Performance explores connections, being in the moment, and the fears that affect both, in the comic drama “Be Here Now,” by Deborah Zoe Laufer, directed by Amy Lynn Budd.

Bari (Carrie Ann Schlatter) is an aspiring professor of philosophy, specializing in nihilism, who needs to finish her dissertation. Being in a process that requires a lot of work to argue that nothing at all matters, she’s stuck. Also, her headaches aren’t helping.

Patty (Cynthia Collins) and Luanne (Zariya Butler), coworkers at her other job, a distribution center for knicknacks of various faiths, dislike Bari’s “smug gloom” and seek to somehow make her happy. Desperate, Patty sets up a date with her cousin Mike (Ryan Ruckman), who has issues of his own.

Suddenly, Bari collapses. After a brief seizure, she awakens to unheard music, experiencing fantastic visions — and the realization that absolutely everything is awesome.

While this play is Bari’s story, Mike is a complex presence as well, with a tragic past and an eccentric present life of gathering cast-off items and building them into little houses. And he has a pet crow. Ruckman is solid, maintaining an easy charm that makes his oddities quaint rather than disturbing.

The setting, a little town just a couple of hours away from New York City, is sort of a metaphorical character of its own: Cooperville, where nearly everyone has the last name of Cooper, including Patty. She believes in astrology and fate, and easily justifies her fear of ever leaving town by citing the dangers of the Big City. Collins plays her a little curmudgeonly, but with a big heart. By contrast, her niece Louanne blithely walks the thin line between optimistic and naive. Butler serves up a perfect dose of sweetness.

As for Bari, Schlatter expertly carries her philosophical load, expounding on questions that would give Hamlet a stroke, at times seeming to babble like one who is high (which technically the character is “tripping” at times) yet thanks to Laufer’s script, giving profound insights. This being modern times in enlightened society, she (and the others) understand there is likely a serious medical explanation for what is happening to her. But realizing that even if it’s endangering her life, it does seem to make her feel happy for perhaps the first time, does she really want to give that up?

When all is said and done, you might find yourself looking for the “garbage house” in your own backyard. See for yourself to understand what I mean. “Be Here Now” runs through Feb. 2 on the Basile Stage at the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Wacky wizard world, from a different perspective

By John Lyle Belden

The goofballs of LAFF (Loud and Fast Funny Shows) are back, and they’ve brought some friends.

In “Puffs,” an Off-Broadway show by Matt Cox, this time the parody target is the “Harry Potter” novels. However, the seven-year epic (presented in 100 minutes) is told from the perspective of what trademarked materials would call House Hufflepuff. It should be noted that the more you know about the Potter books and films, the more you will get all the jokes and references. But for fans, no matter what your House, this fun and touching take on the stories is a must-see.

The LAFF regulars — Matt Mullen, Jim Banta, and Olivia Schaperjohn — are our central trio of students, finding themselves sorted into the Puffs (rather than the Braves, Smarts, or Snakes) only to find that it is apparently a House of losers. The one exception is handsome prefect Cedric (Christian Condra), who is a shining leader up until the climax of Book 4. Afterward, Condra portrays He-whose-name-we-shouldn’t-be-talking-about (never mind the irony), with taped-down nose and hilariously dramatic flair. 

Dave Ruark rejoins the company as our Narrator, keeping this complex plot moving along. 

Various roles are ably filled by Mark Cashwell, who plays a lot of the faculty; Gorgi Parks Fulper, parts include Professor Sprouty, and an evil Puff escaped from Wizard Prison; Chelsea Leis Mullen, notably as charming and cheerful Leanne, as well as the Puffs founder; Tyler Lyons; Maddie Deeke; Kayla Lee; Anthony Nathan; Justina Savage; and Frankie Bolda, whose roles include Harry. 

While this is a very funny parody, what might be surprising is the amount of emotional heft this underdog (under-badger?) story carries, as the group that would be happy to rank third out of the four Houses grows to prove they are just as important as any other aspect of the Wizarding world. Since a lot of Potter fans grow up nerdy outsiders, they feel an affinity for the Puffs; this show allows them to not only laugh at themselves and other odd aspects of the epic, but also to affirm their steadfast gold-and-black badger pride.

Performances of “Puffs” are Fridays through Sundays through Jan. 4 on the main stage at the District Theatre, 627 Massachusetts Ave., managed by IndyFringe. Get info and tickets at www.indyfringe.org.

Silly Santa shenanigans in Greenfield

By John Lyle Belden

You don’t have to have children to get a little silly around Christmas. In fact, allegedly normal adults can find themselves in the goofiest situations, especially when you throw in a couple of Santa suits and some festive pajamas.

This is the scene in “Sorry, Wrong Chimney,” a farce by Jack Sharkey and Leo W. Sears presented by CrazyLake Acting Company in Greenfield. Set in a more innocent time — around the 1980s — recently-married Samantha (Alexandra Kern) wants to share a romantic first Christmas with husband David (Luke Agee), but he is always working late. She confides her frustration to neighbor and best friend Natalie (Stephani McDole), who assures her there’s nothing to worry about. But then she overhears something between Natalie and David — could they be having a fling? Sam calls Natalie’s husband, Bill (Corey Yeaman), for advice; he had been napping, so comes over in his pajamas and robe — this will prove problematic.

But the trouble really begins when Bill, a psychiatrist, is talked into using his skill as a hypnotist. But instead of mesmerizing David to reinforce his love of Sam, his charm snares the Santa Claus Burglar! The bad Santa (Trever Brown) actually believes he is Kris Kringle, which his loving fiance Sheila (Chris Vehorn) has learned to live with. 

Oh, and there is also an inquisitive police officer (Coy Hutcherson). What else could go wrong?

The result is one very funny holiday diversion, complete with slapstick, slamming doors, goofy chase scenes, misplaced mesmerism and a little dirty dancing. Directed by Christine Schaefer, this talented cast elevate an okay script with a lot of great physical humor and total dedication to the absurdity in each scene.

Granted, I’ve got a soft spot for Greenfield since I used to work there, but trust me, it is again worth the drive to see “Sorry, Wrong Chimney,” Friday and Saturday, Dec. 13-14, and Dec. 20-22, at the H.J. Ricks Centre for the Arts, 122 W. Main St. (US 40) downtown. Get info and tickets at crazylakeacting.com.  

Magical ‘Elf’ at Civic

By John Lyle Belden

A new Christmas classic was created in 2003 with the film “Elf,” starring Will Ferrell, which has since become an even bigger spectacle as a Broadway musical, now presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre.

The book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, with songs by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, allows Buddy the Elf to escape the shadow of Ferrell’s unique talent to make him his own wonderful character — portrayed happily here by Matt Bays. 

As in the original story, Buddy is a human who, as a baby, crawled into Santa’s sleigh, unseen until the end of the journey. Finding that the boy’s single mother had died, Santa Claus (Parrish Williams) let him be raised by the elves, They let Buddy think he was one of them, even when he grew much taller than his adopted family. 

The truth is inevitably revealed, and Buddy travels to his father — who doesn’t know he exists — in New York City. The dad, Walter (J. Stuart Mill), is a workaholic executive at a publisher of children’s books who is rough on coworkers like good-natured Deb (Mary Margaret Montgomery) and neglectful of wife Emily (Carrie Neal) and son Michael (Ben Boyce). Naturally, Walter doesn’t believe this strange man in elvish tights is his son, so has him sent away. Since Buddy claims to be from the North Pole, he is dropped off at the next-best thing — Macy’s. There he ends up among the store’s Santa’s helpers, where he falls in love with fellow “elf” Jovie (Emily Schaab). 

From there, the story is Buddy’s struggle for acceptance and belonging, along with a chance to save Christmas for his father’s family — and the whole world, when Santa is stranded in Central Park, his sleigh too low on the Christmas Spirit that fuels it. Other notable roles include Jonathan Studdard as the stressed-out Macy’s Manager, and Jeff Angel as Mr. Greenway, owner of the publishing company, who wants a new hit Christmas story from Walter — or else!

The feel of the show throughout is best described by one of its song titles: “Sparklejollytwinklejingley.” The mood is perpetually sweet, even when characters aren’t “Happy All The Time.” And even when they feel that “Nobody Cares,” there’s a fun dance break. 

Directed by Michael J. Lasley with perfect choreography by Anne Beck and musical direction by Brent Marty, this is a magical ensemble effort. And seeing it on a matinee with the audience mostly children, I noticed they were all entranced and swept up in the spirit of it all. 

Just as sweet and special as spaghetti with syrup, “Elf” is yet another holiday must-see in central Indiana, playing through Dec. 28 at the Tarkington theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, right next to the Christkindlmarkt. (Arrive early for hope of parking.) See www.civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org for info and tickets.