Don’t ‘fiddle’ and miss this one

By John Lyle Belden

“Seneca and the Soul of Nero” is a new play by Southbank Theatre Company artistic director Marcia Eppich-Harris, but stands well in style and content with other great historical tragedies. I sense it could have been written at any time between now and the 900s, when the myth that Emperor Nero “fiddled while Rome burned” became popular. 

The premiere Southbank production of the play, at the IndyFringe Basile stage through Oct. 2, resembles a Bardfest event in its excellent handling by director Doug Powers and a cast that includes David Mosedale as Stoic philosopher Seneca and Evren Wilder Elliott as teenage “Princeps” Nero. 

Despite the abundance of written material in the First Century, much of it surviving to today, the true history of Nero is anything but clear, with contemporary accounts often written by those who didn’t like the young tyrant and centuries passing to add myth and legend to his story. The fiddle didn’t even exist at the time, but it was possible to draw a bow across a lyre, an instrument that Nero did enjoy playing — and he embraced music and theatre at a time when its practitioners were in lower regard than prostitutes (never mind an alleged god-king). Just as we don’t mind the words that Shakespeare put into the ancients’ mouths, Eppich-Harris is perfectly entitled to her well-researched dramatic license, especially as she captured the spirit of the era and its abundant lessons for today’s social and political climate. 

Seneca was Nero’s tutor when he ascended to the throne, and the boy, feeling immediately in over his head, smartly kept the philosopher on as principal advisor and speechwriter, as well as trusted military leader Afranius Burrus (David Molloy) to head his guard. Also on the scene were his ever-hovering mother Agrippina (Rachel Snyder), naive half-brother Britannicus (Brant Hughes), and dutiful but suspicious stepsister/wife Octavia (Bra’Jae’ Allen) whom he would ignore in favor of the beautiful and ambitious Sabina (Trick Blanchfield). At Seneca’s side were faithful wife Pompeia Paulina (Jenni White) and his nephew, the famous poet Lucan (Noah Winston).

Elliott brilliantly brings us along on the emperor’s journey, as he grows older and more at ease with power, but no more mature. At first troubled by signing off on the deaths of the justly condemned, Nero comes to find a quick murder is an easy solution to an immediate problem — but then more issues pop up in its place. Each death takes a little more of his soul, power-madness devolving to madness, reducing him until nearly no one is left, and the knife is in his hand.

Mosedale stands ever solid, defending his young charge as long as he can while defending himself against the hypocrisy of living large yet espousing Stoic principles. In the end, he must choose between Nero and Rome. White’s Pompeia leads the greater example, steadfast to her husband but never wavering on their moral stand. 

Snyder embodies the complex Agrippina without slipping into villainous caricature, perhaps even engendering some sympathy as the evil she sows grows out of her control. Molloy exemplifies the “good soldier” completely, bearing his orders until his sense of justice can do no more.

An exceptional look at history and the dynamics and hazards of unfettered power, “Seneca and the Soul of Nero” is worthy to stand among the Classics. We encourage all who can to see it, and to those reading this in the future to consider bringing to your own stages.

Find information at southbanktheatre.org and tickets at indyfringe.org. Note that COVID-19 vaccination and masking are required of all audience members. Home viewing via “on-demand” streaming available Oct. 15-Nov. 14 (see Southbank site for details).

Comedy classic comes to Epilogue

By Wendy Carson

Epilogue Players presents the popular comedy, “Arsenic and Old Lace,” by Joseph Kesselring, directed by Brent Wooldridge.

If you have not seen the amazing 1944 Frank Capra film of this show, starring Cary Grant, we are doing our level best to keep as many plot spoilers out of this review as we can. Also, find it and watch it now! It is a true classic and you will be better for seeing it. However, don’t you dare let that deter you from seeing this delightful version of the darkly hilarious show.

Our story is set in 1941 Brooklyn at the home of Abby (Serita Borgeas) and Martha (Hazel Gillaspy) Brewster, two darling older women who think of nothing more than bringing joy to all of those around them in any way possible. They share their home with their dear nephew Teddy (Scott Prill) who is convinced he is Teddy Roosevelt.

While their nephew Mortimer (Jaime Johnson) is a big-time theater reviewer living in downtown New York, he frequently visits his Aunts because he is dating Elaine Harper (Caity Withers), the daughter of their neighbor Reverend Dr. Harper (Ron Pittman).

Since Teddy’s affinity for blowing his bugle at all hours is a bother to their other neighbors, there are regular visitations by an assortment of policemen throughout the show. This presence makes for great tension when their villainous third nephew, Jonathan (Daniel Scott Watson) shows up with his hesitant partner Dr. Einstein (Mike Harold).

And apparently there are bodies, lots of them. Mortimer is faced with a dilemma, with the best resolution being Happydale Sanitarium. With lots of farcical ins and outs, misunderstandings and plot twists, and a fair amount of physical humor, we find entertaining insanity running through this fun production, “It practically gallops!”

The remaining dates are today (Thursday) through Sunday, Sept. 23-26, at 1849 N. Alabama St. (on the corner). Get info and tickets at epilogueplayers.com.

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.

Hilarious ‘Gentleman’s Guide’ at Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

As Monty Navarro discovers he is related to the noble D’ysquith family, we become fully aware of two things: first, that him having eight people between himself and the wealth and position of being an Earl means we have the idea behind at least half of the title, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder;” and secondly, that we are in for quite the old English style farce with its skewering of Edwardian-era class structure and manners, as well as other kinds of violence happening to numerous D’ysquiths, all played by the same game actor.

This Broadway hit by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak, on stage at Footlite Musicals, stars handsome devil Troy Bridges as Monty. He is our narrator (this play is his confession) and exudes enough charm to somehow seem the story’s hero – especially considering how boorish and slimy that Daniel Draves portrays each D’ysquith whom our aspiring gentleman has to dispatch.

As for the “love,” Ellen Vander Missen plays Sibella, with whom Monty is smitten, with an interesting mix of sweet and shallow. A girl can’t marry below her station, after all, but who she loves is her business. However, during his ascent, Monty encounters D’ysquith cousin Phoebe (not directly in the succession line, thank goodness) who is a very good girl, and good to marry. Sydney Norwalk plays this role with the right degree of grace – a bit naive, but never the fool.

Our other notable role is the mysterious Miss Shingle, ably portrayed by Claire Slaven. Other parts (aside from nearly half the cast in Draves’s award-worthy effort) are filled by Heather Hansen, Leigh Query, Kelsey McDaniel, Matthew Blandford, Josh Vander Missen, and Footlite favorite Jerry Beasley.

Director Kayvon Emtiaz conducts this macabre mix of music and mayhem as effectively as Jill Stewart leads the orchestra. Each comic beat hits to hilarious effect, making for a surprisingly upbeat dark comedy complete with jaunty tunes like, “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” and “Why Are All the D’ysquiths Dying?”

Avoid all the death and mayhem of the real world at the entertaining mayhem of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” running through Oct. 3 at 1847 N. Alabama in downtown Indy. Get tickets and info at footlite.org.

Star encounter opens ATI return to the stage

By John Lyle Belden

Think of your favorite singer. Imagine that person – someone whose voice spellbound you, someone you could listen to every day for the rest of your life – came to your town. Then, you found yourself talking one-on-one with that person like you’d been friends all your life. And then after joining her on stage, she came home with you for a few hours.

Impossible? For divorced working mom Louise Segar of Houston, Texas, it actually happened.

Quite a character on her own, Louise discovered country music legend Patsy Cline during the singer’s appearances on Arthur Godfrey’s morning television show in the 1950s. She quickly became Patsy’s biggest fan in Houston, constantly pestering the local country radio DJ to spin Cline’s records. When, in 1961, the star was to play a local honky-tonk, Louise made sure to arrive early. Patsy did as well, sent to travel alone by her apathetic record label. Segar’s pushy personality would come to Cline’s rescue, ensuring fair treatment by the venue’s staff and giving her a place to relax (Louise’s kitchen) after the show. She even got Patsy an impromptu interview with the radio station.

This is remembered and relived in the popular Off-Broadway musical, “Always, Patsy Cline,” by Ted Swindley, which opens the 2021-22 season for Actors Theatre of Indiana. ATI co-founders Judy Fitzgerald and Cynthia Collins portray Patsy and Louise, respetively, the former with sweetness and latter with lots of sass.

They are accompanied by an excellent on-stage ensemble of “Bobs,” musicians Nathan Perry, Matt Day, Michael Clark, Greg Gegogeine, Kathy Schilling, and Greg Wolff. The audience also gets involved a bit.

The show is directed by Bill Jenkins, with musical direction by Terry Woods, featuring a wide range of 50s-60s hits including Cline’s chart-toppers (“I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy,” “Walkin’ After Midnight”).

Third ATI co-founder and artistic director Don Farrell announced on opening night, “Intermission is over!” This fun and sentimental production marks a strong return to regular live theatre. Performances of “Always…” run through Oct. 3 at The Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get tickets and info at atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

IndyFringe: Classical Collaborations

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Dance is an interesting art form. While anyone can see it and enjoy its beauty, not everyone can understand the intent or its meaning. Crossroads Dance Indy takes note of this conundrum by placing explanations of their choreographic meanings in their program to assist in the enjoyment of the various numbers.

Two dances, “The Thing with Feathers” and “Forever is Now,” are based upon poems by Emily Dickenson. They are beautifully performed, showing the hopefulness of the former and random but vital interactive influences of the latter (which is different with each performance).

Highlights also include “Mountain Train Jam,” a country hoedown with tap shoes, and “Perspective,” in which the dancers beautifully interpret the spoken word, written and performed by Hanna Verdin.

So, whether you’re an aficionado or a novice of the art form, come out and see this show, at the Basile Auditorium at the Athenaeum. Who knows — you, too, may find yourself becoming a dance fan.

IndyFringe: Jordan Allen’s Magic Party

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Magician Jordan Allen loves to throw a party, though the colored stage lights did have him wondering if Aliens were crashing it. But there’s nothing extra-terrestrial here, just good old traditional magic.

Fans of magic will recognize nearly all the tricks, with scarves, books, bags and ropes. Challenged by the “other Jordan” working the Fringe, he even brought back one of the ropes to do a quick escape. Audience members get brought up to join the act, including children – this is an all-ages family show.

From the classic cups-and-balls to a simple napkin, he works his illusions right before your eyes, including doing part of the show at a table by the front-row seats. And despite its cliché nature, he might do a card trick, or two, or three.

For a taste of this fun show, you may see Allen doing pop-up tricks around the Fringe, but be sure to also join his Party, at the Murat Oasis.

IndyFringe: We’ve Come A Long Way, Ladies!

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Audrey Johnson has brought to the Fringe a shortened version of her two-hour production highlighting the history of women’s rights and the Suffrage movement, performing on the Indy Eleven stage.

She uses both traditional songs and innovative costuming to help illustrate the various points shown in the story. Being an operatically trained Mezzo Soprano, Johnson bestows an interesting twist to these common folk songs. She also presents several unique and lesser-known songs and stories of this time, from the early 1800s to 1920.

While the show was written and intended to be toured last year on the hundredth anniversary of the ratification on the 19th Amendment (which granted women the vote), with today’s political climate and controversy over voting rights and disenfranchisement, it is still very topical.

Johnson’s “Of Thee I Sing: American Heritage Through Song” foundation tours the country bringing history through song and performance. This is a good opportunity to get a taste of one of shows. She has a very easy and engaging stage manner, and even during a momentary pause for a technical issue, took questions from the audience.

IndyFringe: Shopping Network!

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Whether it’s the middle of the afternoon and the middle of the night, we can turn on our TV friends with big smiles, big hair, and eager voices, recommending us the most wonderful things to buy for only three low payments of $29.99 (plus shipping and handling).

It’s “Shopping Network!” presented by Betty Rage Productions at the District Theater. Celebrating the network’s 20th Anniversary, in memory of founder Q.V. Coolidge and his wife, their adult children, Ross and MarySueBeth (Kait Burch and Brandon Russell) host a special sale — which must generate a million dollars or the net goes under — with the help of producer Ellen (director Callie Burk-Hartz) and stagehand L. N. (Audrey Stonerock). 

Wouldn’t you love the Gregorian Calendar Birthstone Necklace, or a selection of American Hero Plates with faces with notables including Dale Earnhardt Jr. (just don’t eat off them, OK)? The lady calling in from Bismarck, North Dakota, will take twenty. 

Burch and Russell have excellent chemistry, even when sparks fly between the siblings. And the overall atmosphere is over-the-top fun. Even technical glitches (which hopefully won’t happen again, and Callie might not forgive me bringing them up) worked into the frantic seat-of-pants nature of this production.  

The audience for this show is also the Studio Audience for the Show, responding to cue cards to applaud, or say “WOW!” 

And you’ll want to cheer for their special guest, the hosts’ aunt, Jennifer Coolidge (Kelsey Van Voorst doing a spot-on impression of the comic actress as one of the New-Agey Hollywood celebrities often spotted on shopping shows). The highlight is the Jennifer Coolidge Candle, with which our star says “I can smell colors,” that lucky audience members get to take home.

This could be the last time you see Ross and MarySueBeth on screen (the big one projected at the back of the theater), so have your credit card ready (for Fringe tickets, I mean).

IndyFringe: Oak Island, in Concert

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Joe Barsanti was so inspired by the documentary series, “The Curse of Oak Island,” that he decided to write a show around it. With fellow Marian University graduate Brandi Underwood filling in the book to complement his music and lyrics, the two created a two-hour musical dedicated to telling the story of one family’s deep connection to the island and its legendary treasures.

What they are providing here with American Lives Theatre (at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre) is a mere taste of the full show, which will be produced locally next spring. Performed as a concert without costumes, blocking or a full cast, just the four main characters are represented in this version.

Jeanne Bawling is the put-up mother who is trying to bering her two sons back together after her husband’s death. Joseph Massingale plays Will, the son who shared his father’s obsession with finding the treasure buried on the island. Zachary Hoover is Drake, the other brother who escaped the madness of the Island’s call and made a life for himself elsewhere. John Brennan Hayes portrays Frank, the father of the family who’s curiosity turned to a mania as he cannot break the Isand’s pull to finally be the one to solve the mystery of exactly what lies beneath.

This offering is an excellent peek at what promises to be an engaging show.