Phoenix drama where steel of resolve reaches its breaking point

By John Lyle Belden

“Sweat,” the Pulitzer-winning drama making its Indy premiere at the Phoenix Theatre, is a riveting mystery wrapped in a stark examination of recent events.

Set in a Pennsylvania Rust-Belt town, we first meet Jason (Nathan Robbins) and Chris (Ramon Hutchens) as they talk to their probation officer (Josiah McCruiston). The former best friends are released from prison in 2008, having served time for what they did eight years earlier. Neither has come to terms with their act; Jason literally wears the shame on his face.

Much of the rest of the play takes place in the year 2000, in a bar near a local factory where generations of men and women have worked good Union jobs. But the changing times, aided by economic factors such as NAFTA and the decline of labor unions, have cast an air of uncertainty over the town. One plant, where Chris’s father Brucie (Dwuan Watson) worked, shut out its workers and may never reopen. But his mother, Cynthia (Dena Toler), is doing fine at her workplace, where she and her friends Jessie (Angela Plank) and Jason’s mom, Tracey (Diane Kondrat), even consider going for a recently-opened management position.

Bartender Stan (Rob Johansen) used to work at the factory, but thanks to an on-the-job injury he settles for just selling his old friends drinks. He is helped by good-hearted Oscar (Ian Cruz), who patiently puts up with the patrons assuming he’s Mexican (his family’s Columbian) and that he’s an immigrant (he was born in the town, like everyone else).

As for individual performances, director Bryan Fonseca has once again brought out the best in a very solid ensemble, familiar to Phoenix audiences.

As we see the social and economic darkness descend upon these characters, and we get to know their feelings and fears as we watch the inevitable from our perspective of over a decade later, one haunting truth lingers in the background: Something very bad is going to happen to one of them. We never really know until the moment it happens, and at that point, we truly feel the dark side of 21st-century America.

For a look at the hot human aspects of cold economic realities, experience “Sweat,” through March 4 at 749 N. Park Ave. (the last mainstage show at this address before the Phoenix’s big move). Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

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Catalyst raises ‘Hell’ again

By John Lyle Belden

*What if the term “soul-sucking job” could be taken literally?

* What if the dying American institution of the shopping mall resorted to desperate measures to keep itself alive?

* What if a couple of highly talented but potty-mouthed theatre people decided to make a twisted comedy musical about this?

Welcome to “Hell’s 4th Ring: The Mall Musical,” presented by Catalyst Repertory at the IndyFringe building through Feb. 25.

This is not our first visit to Hell’s Gate Mall. A 50-minute version premiered as part of the 2015 Fringe Festival. A lot of people loved it; Wendy even noted (in her review) that the show should be expanded into a full-length musical. Now at last, creators Casey Ross and Davey Pelsue bring us a full two-act version, expanded but not padded-out.

According to Dante, the Fourth Ring of Hell is occupied by sinners damned by greed. So, what better place to erect a temple to consumerism? Whether this Twilight Zone-ish place is in this world or the next is never clear, but this is the place to pick up some great bargains, and where job security takes on new meaning. Just obey the rules: No running; No leaning on the railing; and, No intimate “mingling” between employees.

Brian (Christian Condra), who is this close to selling the massaging chair, wants desperately to mingle with Sofie (Afton Shepard), who refolds clothes far more than she sells them. She believes she is only there for the summer, but Brian knows better; she will soon be full-time, forever. Meanwhile, Eric (Pelsue) doesn’t care as much for working at his Goth-accessories shop as he does trying to hook up with bodacious curvaceous Chelsea (Hannah Elizabeth Boswell). Then there’s Lee (Pat Mullen), who used to work at a computer game store but now offers bourbon chicken samples in the food court. The mall’s denizens also include a trio of Mall Rats (Jim Banta, Donovan Whitney and Sara Gable) who follow/idolize Eric and never seem to buy anything over a dollar. And then there’s Bart (David Molloy) the security guy, a cross between Doctor Strangelove and the Terminator.

Though Ross directs, the musical shows its flexibility in that the only actors from the Fringe version are Pelsue, Molloy, and Zoe Molloy as the mall’s public address voice. Yet the cast seems right at home, giving this tragic farce their all. Condra handsomely perseveres like Brad from “Rocky Horror.” Shepard smiles through the confusion like a Disney princess trapped in the wrong movie. Pelsue is the perfect mix of charm and attitude, while looking like the opening act for Spinal Tap. And as she did in Bardfest’s “Taming of the Shrew,” Boswell’s moxie and vocal skill blew. me. away. As for Mullen, let’s just say he wields a mean sample tray. The cast also includes Preston Dildine as the ghost of “terminated” coworker Dylan.

From the rockin’ tunes to the odd plot, the show balances suspense and romance with a healthy dose of silly for an entertaining experience. The mature content is mainly multiple F-bombs and some rude gestures in the choreography, so this show is for teens and up (eventually, this will only be for adults, as we’d have to explain to kids what a mall was).

Find Hell’s Gate at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 East St. Clair St. (just east of the College/Mass Ave./St. Clair intersection). Get tickets at www.indyfringe.org and info from Catalyst’s website or Facebook.

Rumor has it: Civic makes ‘Sense’

By John Lyle Belden

If you wonder at the possible appeal of a play based on a Jane Austen novel, consider the number of people, from all backgrounds, now hooked on Downton Abbey. And it’s not just the accents, the fine clothes, or even the tea – but a good well-told story that sustains such period tales’ popularity. And we all feel for those living mired in an environment of strict rules of conduct and etiquette.

“Sense and Sensibility,” a light drama based on Austen’s 1811 novel at Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre through Feb. 17, also emphasizes a public scourge with which we can all identify: Constant gossip and rumors, frequently spoken to set up and frame the scenes, sound all too familiar in our Twitter and TMZ world.

Weathering this social storm are the Dashwood family. The widow Mrs. Dashwood (Carrie Neal) and her daughters – sensible Elinor (Emily Bohn), romantic Marianne (Morgan Morton) and young Margaret (Elisabeth Giffen Speckman) – are forced to live on their own in a humble cottage, as their former estate had gone to a son from Mr. Dashwood’s prior marriage (women weren’t allowed to inherit). Despite being dropped to the lower rungs of the almost caste-like society of 1790s England, Elinor and especially Marianne receive the attentions of very promising single men, including shy Robert Ferrars (Joshua Ramsey), rakish John Willoughby (Justin Klein) and steady Colonel Brandon (Bradford Reilly).

In addition to these men, the cast also includes scene-stealer extraordinaire Matt Anderson as the Dashwoods’ cousin Sir John, whose generosity helps the women stay on their feet. In exchange, he – and nearly anyone else around – only want the latest juicy news from around the countryside.

This recent adaptation of Austen’s story by Kate Hamill, directed for the Civic by John Michael Goodson, is marked by its reliance on swirling rumor to drive the plot, as well as its minimalist staging. Little more than chairs and a few props are used, putting the focus squarely on the actors. Aside from Bohn and Morton, whose characters are the focal point of the book and play, all other cast members play multiple roles, and even the occasional dog or horse. This adds to the show’s sense of humor – enough to entertain, but never overreaching into farce. For instance, at one point Abby Gilster frequently enters and exits a scene as two different characters, making it an inevitable laugh line when one has to remark about the other.

High marks to all the cast, with clear characterizations despite a fairly high-energy pace (no dreary corset drama, this!). And as a woman’s novel adapted by another woman, it’s easy to see the story as a celebration of women working to live as much as possible on their own terms.

A review of the original New York production of this version calls it “Jane Austen for those who don’t usually like Jane Austen,” but that sells the source material short. This “Sense and Sensibility” looks through the old story through a more contemporary lens, while leaving Miss Austen’s intentions intact. It only makes “sense” that you should check this out.

Performances are on the Tarkington stage at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800 or visit www.civictheatre.org, or thecenterpresents.org for tickets.

Take a spin with Buck Creek Players

By John Lyle Belden

Times change in every era. Recent years have washed away most of the video stores and game arcades of the 1980s, and that decade, in turn, tore down some old diversions to make room for the new. That’s where we find “The Rink,” the musical running through Feb. 11 at Buck Creek Players.

On a run-down seaside boardwalk, Antonelli’s Roller Rink – once bustling but now in decay, its pipe organ long silent – is closed and due for demolition. The building contains the residence of owner (and “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer”) Anna Antonelli. But as she moves the last of her possessions out, in comes her daughter, Angel, who had left home over a decade before in order to “find herself.” The reunion becomes tense as Angel discovers not only is her childhood home being destroyed, but also her mother forged her signature to sell it. Is this relationship, like the building, now damaged beyond repair?

Typically, I’d mention the creators of the musical up front; but though they personally loved it, it is not the best work by Broadway legends John Kander and Fred Ebb. And fortunately, book-writer Terrance McNally would go on to write a number of legendary Tony-winning musicals and plays. But in this, overall the script is weak, the songs ranging from mildly catchy to cringe-worthy.

Fortunately, BCP and director D. Scott Robinson elevate the material though brilliant casting. Real-life mother and daughter Georgeanna Tiepen (Anna) and Miranda Nehrig (Angel) also happen to be wildly talented actors and singers. Their natural bond shows through, bringing out the heart of the show. A chorus of men play the crew impatiently waiting to tear the place down, as well as, in flashback, the men in the women’s lives. This includes great peformances by Jake McDuffy as Dino, Angel’s father, and Michael R. Mills as Dino’s father, the original owner of the rink.

Kudos to set designer Aaron B. Bailey for making the stage an authentic-looking piece of the skating rink’s floor – it even gets some use in a fun interlude when the wrecking crew find some skates.

This show does have its merits, and especially if you empathize with the plight of mothers and prodigal daughters, or have your own cherished boardwalk or rollerskating memories, you’ll find yourself liking your time at “The Rink.”

Also, to complete the atmosphere, BCP has started selling popcorn before the show, which you can partake of in the theatre.

Playhouse is at 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.

#Juliet and her #Romeo @ IRT

By John Lyle Belden

A month after giving fresh polish to a well-worn Christmas story, the Indiana Repertory Theatre presents possibly Shakespeare’s most familiar play, “Romeo and Juliet.” Everyone knows this story, or at least assumes they do. My first thoughts regarding the IRT production were: Didn’t they just do this one? (It was 2010.) At least it’s only 90 minutes. (The edits are well crafted, aiding the flow and drama.) And, oh! I see Millicent Wright is the Nurse again. (She is marvelous.)

Fortunately, the IRT and director Henry Woronicz breathed new life into the old pages you read in high school – in a show performed for today’s students through the NEA Shakespeare in American Communities program – by presenting it in a “contemporary” setting. This involves more than putting the cast in today’s clothing, with modern blades taking the place of swords. Most importantly, vocal patterns (while still Shakespeare’s words) are more like familiar American speech. Wright’s delivery, for instance, is more BET than Bard.

Aaron Kirby is our Romeo, the hopeless romantic far more interested in girls than fighting in the ongoing Montague-Capulet feud. Either path to him is more a boy’s game than a man’s quest. As for Sophia Macias as Juliet, I believe this is the first time I’ve seen the character truly look and act 14 years old, complete with naive faith and immature impatience and impetuousness. If it is argued that this couple showed more wisdom than the adult characters, that is only a reflection of how foolish the fighting families are.

Romeo’s cousin, Benvolio (Ashley Dillard) and friend Mercutio (Charles Pasternak), also youths, are caught up in the excitement of the goings-on, the latter so manically Pasternak nearly acts like the Joker from Batman. Lord and Lady Capulet (Robert Neal and Constance Macy) are occupied with ensuring their family stays on top with a lucrative marriage of Juliet to Count Paris (Jeremy Fisher). The most noble characters, Prince Escalus (Pasnernak again) and Friar Lawrence (Ryan Artzberger), only want peace – the former through law and order, the latter through love.

With these, we present the boy-meets-girl story with a unique whirlwind courtship and marriage resulting (spoiler alert) in them both lying dead in a crypt just a few days later. But is there more to this?

Perhaps it was seeing this in today’s context – months into stories and reports of young women taken advantage of (the #metoo and #timesup movements, the USA Gymnastics abuses), reminded of the constant tragedy of youth suicide and self-destruction – that I couldn’t help seeing this story more through Juliet’s point of view. Macias’s scenes with Wright and Macy help bring the feminine struggles of the story (as applicable today as in the 1590s) in sharp relief. We see a girl – not a woman yet, though she desperately wants to be – working her way through impossible choices. Add to this the female casting of Benvolio (pitch-perfect work by Dillard), emphasizing the peacemaker aspects of the character.

“Romeo and Juliet” is said to be timeless, but this show boldly thrusts itself into the 21st century – with only the lack of text-laden cell phones in the kids’ hands separating it from our own world. For #R+J fans old and new, this version is worth checking out. Performances are through March 4 on the IRT Upperstage, 140 W. Washington St., downtown Indy (by Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

CCP drama presents public family’s private truths

By Wendy Carson

In “Other Desert Cities,” presented by Carmel Community Players, the Wyeths aren’t an ordinary family.

The father, Lyman, is a retired Hollywood actor and staunchly Republican former politician and foreign ambassador. The mother, Polly, also a past actor, is a devoted political wife. Her sister, Silda Grauman, was writer and costar of their forgettable series of movies – their Tinseltown legacy. Silda is also a resentful recovering alcoholic whose circumstances force her to endure living with her sister’s family.

It’s Christmas time, and Lyman and Polly’s grown children have come home to Palm Springs, Calif., for the holidays. The son, Trip, lives nearby and works in the entertainment industry, producing a trashy, exploitative reality show. The daughter, Brooke, is a troubled novelist residing in New York. After a broken marriage, mental breakdown and institutionalization, a combination of effective therapy and completing another book has brought her out of her darkness and back to the desert.

The family has lived in the public eye, yet hides dark secrets. It turns out that Brooke’s book is a memoir focused on her older brother Henry, who committed suicide years ago after being implicated in a deadly bombing. Considering Henry a free-spirited hero and best friend, Brooke blames their conservative parents for his fate.

The resulting conflict drives the plot of this acclaimed drama by Jon Robin Baitz. Brooke (Shannon Samson in top form) wants her parents’ blessing before the book publishes, but their pushback, especially from Polly (Vickie Cornelius Phipps, a sharp performance with cutting edges) pushes everyone to the brink. Lyman (Ronn Johnstone, giving the impression this role was written for him) struggles to avoid the growing conflict, but secrets have their own inevitable weight. Trip (Jeremy Tuterow, delivering a lighter counterpoint) also wants to avoid drama, and doesn’t recognize the apparent monsters in Brooke’s book as their parents. Meanwhile, Silda (Miki Mathioudakis, excellent as usual) gives full reign to her bitterness in entertaining fashion.

To discover these fascinating secrets and lies, take the Clay Terrace exit to visit “Other Desert Cities,” through Feb. 11. Call 317-815-9687 or visit carmelplayers.org.

IRT presents sweet ‘Raisin’

By John Lyle Belden

“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?”
— From “Harlem” by Langston Hughes

It is the end of the 1950s, and postwar prosperity hasn’t quite reached the Black neighborhoods of Chicago. But for the Younger family, a windfall in the form of a life insurance check – a sad compensation for dreams deferred – brings hope of better times, better things. And every member of the family has ideas for how to invest or spend that money.

This sets up the plot of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic drama, “Raisin in the Sun,” on stage through Feb. 3 at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. The IRT’s high professional standards are reflected throughout this production, including director Timothy Douglas and his cast.

Chike Johnson is solid as Walter Lee Younger, who struggles with his need and expectation to be the man of the house. But it’s hard to stay a proud black man when your only way to make money is to drive white men around the city, at their beck and call. His frustration makes communication difficult with wife Ruth (Dorcas Sowunmi), who feels the strain of working as a cleaning woman on top of starting an unplanned pregnancy. She is also wary of Walter’s dreams of business schemes he works up with his drinking buddies. The latest, for which he wants the insurance money, is to start a liquor store.

But matriarch, and widow whose name is on the check, Lena Younger (played with sweet strength by Kim Staunton), doesn’t want her Christian witness tainted by financing such a business. She would rather see the money go towards putting daughter Beneatha (Stori Ayers) through medical school, as well as a down payment on a house for the whole family, especially Walter’s son (and Lena’s grandson) Travis (Lex Lumpkin).

Meanwhile, Beneatha’s college studies are opening her to the swiftly changing world of the era, and the overtures of two very different suitors. George (Jordan Bellow) is from a wealthy family, and sees keeping status as a black man of means through a rather conservative lens. But through Joseph (Elisha Lawson), a Nigerian student, Beneatha sees Africa and becomes fascinated with their ancestral culture. Ayers takes on her interesting and complex character with gusto, adding to the play’s sometimes dark humor. And she provides a great model for costumer Kara Harmon’s designs.

Supporting characters are played by D. Alexander, Dameon Cooper, and Paul Tavianini as the lone white role – a man with a rather interesting offer when the Youngers seek to move into an all-white neighborhood.

The struggle of people of color in America is an ever-present backdrop, even before the family comes face to face with thinly-veneered bigotry. We would like to argue that it’s a different country today – and to a fair degree, it is – but the attitudes in this drama do feel too familiar. And consider that Travis would be in his 60s today; this is not ancient history.

Scenic designer Tony Cisek’s stage emphasizes the oppressively crowded feel of the setting with stacks of old furniture for walls, a decaying ceiling overhead, and an endless maze of balconies and stairs surrounding the Youngers’ one-bedroom apartment, which doesn’t even have its own bathroom.

In all, IRT provides an excellent opportunity to revisit or discover this brilliant work. Don’t defer your chance to experience it. Performances are on the main stage at 140 W. Washington St., downtown Indy (by Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.