Touching treatment of Steinbeck classic in Westfield

By Wendy Carson

There was a comedian who once said he doesn’t like “Star Wars” because growing up he saw the movie “Spaceballs” first and was disappointed by the lack of comedy. Growing up with numerous Looney Tunes cartoon shorts parodying various high-minded subjects, I feel the same way about “Of Mice and Men.” I liked the comedic versions I grew up watching. However, I have learned that with local theater offerings, a great production can change your opinion of a show — and that is the case here.

Main Street Productions in Westfield has on stage a remarkable version of the John Steinbeck novel. George Milton (Brian Coon) and Lennie Small (Joe Wagner) are two drifters in search of a small stake they can use to purchase a small house and farm in order to “live off the fat of the land.” This brings them to the barley farm that proves to be their salvation and undoing.

Once they arrive in the farm bunkhouse, they meet our somewhat usual assortment of characters: the gruff, no-nonsense Boss (A. Mikel Allan) and his hot-headed son Curley (Jake Hobbs), who recently married and seems to always be searching for his flirty wife (Audrey Duprey). For the actual working members of the crew, we have Slim (Robert Webster Jr.), the mule driver and de facto supervisor; Candy (Chris Otterman) a crippled, aging farmhand with a dog (Meeko) about as broken as he is; Crooks (Austin Hookfin), the black stable-hand who gets his name from his injured back (NOTE: As the script was written in 1937 and takes place during the Great Depression, certain racist terms are used, in context); as well as the other farm hands Carlson (Logan Browning) and Whit (Nathaniel Taff).

Coon does a great job of balancing George’s ambitious dream of the future with his concerns for Lennie’s actions erasing all hope of it. While Wagner seemed to take a little bit to fully get into character, once he settled in, his Lennie emulates all of the sweet naivete and simplicity of purpose that the character struggles with in his desire to just hold and enjoy the feel of something soft in his hands.

Otterman’s performance is perhaps my favorite. He manages to keep Candy upbeat while embracing the character’s desolate vision of his pathetically painful demise on the farm. He takes on the hopefulness of joining George and Lennie on their farm, trusting them to “take him out back and shoot him” when he is no longer viable. He even manages to upstage Meeko, whose debut turn as Candy’s Dog makes him a rising star to watch for in future roles.

Chris Otterman aptly brings out Curley’s obsessively neurotic desires to keep his wife happy, yet under control, at any cost. As Curley’s wife, Duprey delicately treads the line between the lonely woman who just wants companionship and the “tart” out to make trouble among the menfolk for her own pleasure. Webster does an admirable job of subtly showing Slim as a man just wanting to keep peace throughout the workforce without encouraging any of them to fall for the “honey trap.”

Hookfin gives us a window to the struggles people in his skin had in that era, even in the otherwise egalitarian world of the farm worker or ranch hand.

James H. Williams directs, and Ian Marshall-Fisher provides an excellent bunkhouse/barn design for the stage. Coon also created the lighting design.

While the show is a heady mixture of the stark realities of life, it does manage to portray the human struggle for hope and happiness throughout. Whether you liked the novel or not, you should certainly give the play a viewing. It will help open dialogues regarding its message and why it remains a classic of literature that should continue to be taught in our schools.

One weekend of “Of Mice and Men” remains, though Sunday, Feb. 20, at the relatively new Basile Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St., Westfield. Info and tickets at www.westfieldplayhouse.org.

Brave men step out from anonymity to share AA’s story

By John Lyle Belden

“My name is Bill, and I’m an alcoholic.”

This opening would be rather routine — for certain well-known but private meetings, or in shows and films about them — except that this is Bill W., a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, relating his story not only for mutual support, but also so we can understand the struggle that brought about the whole program.

In “Bill W. and Dr. Bob,” by Janet Surrey and Samuel Shem, presented by Stage Door Productions at the District Theatre, Bill (played by Kevin Caraher) is joined by Bob (Dan Flahive) as they each relate the paths their lives took them down, leading to their fateful 1935 meeting in Akron, Ohio.

Bill didn’t suddenly decide not to drink anymore, then sit down and create a 12-step system all on his own. It was a messy evolution, during which he started out feeling he didn’t need help, or didn’t deserve it. But eventually he was persuaded by an on-the-wagon friend, Ebby (Robert Webster Jr., who plays all other male roles), to get involved in the Oxford Group, a sobriety program that introduced him to reliance on a “higher power” (which doesn’t have to be the Christian God). Bill becomes an evangelist for the Oxford Group, but can’t get the drunks he rounds up for it to stay. When it’s pointed out to him that the only person he seems to be keeping sober is himself, he comes up with a radical idea. 

This play is not just about the men who started a movement; it is about the women in their lives, and their struggles, too. Bill’s wife, Lois (Afton Shepard), deals not only with being married to a drunkard, but also with financial burdens intensified by the Great Depression (Bill was a stock-market wizard, directly affected by the crash) and made no better by his sobriety as he spends all his time in unpaid charity work. Bob’s wife, Anne (Adrienne Reiswerg), is too devoted to leave him, but still driven to the edge of her tolerance by his refusal to accept help. Once the two men find each other — with the help of Akron socialite Henrietta (Karen Webster, playing all other female roles) — Anne wisely asks for Lois to join them so that the women can find support in each other as well. 

Directed by Dan Scharbrough, in this story we see the trial-and-error process, as the establishment of the organization seems to mirror the individual highs and lows of the addict on the way to sustained sobriety. Bill is easily frustrated, but Bob points out that even in the setbacks there is progress. 

The play resonated well with the packed audience at our performance, many indicating by their responses that they are familiar with the program. But this is also enlightening  — as well as entertaining and heart-warming — for those who never had the need to attend a “meeting.”

(And if you feel that something about their stories hits too close to home, you don’t have to look far for help.)

This production of “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” is presented in conjunction with The International Women’s Conference, which will be held Feb. 20-23 in Indianapolis, a four-day AA fellowship for women only. For more information, visit internationalwomensconference.org.  

Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday (Feb. 14-16) at the District, 627 Massachusetts Ave. (former TOTS site, now managed by IndyFringe). For tickets, go to www.indyfringe.org, and for company info visit “stage-door-productions” on Facebook. Out of respect for the subject matter, concessions will not offer beer or wine, but there is plenty of excellent coffee, provided by Sober Joe (www.soberjoe.com) of Bloomington.

Bardfest: The wild woman vs. the wacky womanizer — with music

By Wendy Carson

The biggest complaint I have heard from people, regarding Shakespeare’s plays, is trouble following the plot due to the antiquated language. In her Bardfest production of “Taming of the Shrew,” Catalyst Repertory founder and play director/adapter Casey Ross has tackled this issue with the periodic inclusion of pop songs to assist the viewer in comprehending the message of the narrative. Being that the story is fairly well known, this style just makes a fun show even more enjoyable.

For those of you who don’t know the plot: Younger sister Bianca can’t marry until older sister Katherine does. Katherine has no intention to marry anyone. Their father is wealthy and offers a large dowry to whomever can take Katherine off his hands. Cash-strapped playboy Petruchio takes the challenge and not only ends up changing Katherine’s ways, but they both fall in love in the process. There’s also the sub-plot of various suitors trying to secure Bianca’s love.

The setting of this interpretation is a Vegas-style resort casino in the 1970s, with the daughters being cocktail waitresses, their father the owner, and Petruchio a traveling singer looking for a place to earn some money before his debt collectors catch up with him.

Hannah Elizabeth Boswell as the fiery Katherine (or Kate) is a sassy bundle of empowerment, while Davey Pelsue’s Petruchio boldly becomes every bit the hilariously lusty womanizer that the character suggests.

Abby Gilster’s delicate take on Bianca shows the character’s sly knowledge of her situation that is often overlooked in many productions. Bradford Reilly and Robert Webster Jr. as her two suitors (Lucentio and Hortensio), in disguise as tutors, bring a delightful comic desperation in their attempts to secure time with their desired.

Audrey Stonerock adds to the fun as the hottest “Widow” in the club, and Donovan Whitney is at his scene-stealing best as Tranio, a servant pretending to be the rich man while his master plays a humble tutor (see above). The proud – and relieved, when Kate is wed – papa is a charming Godfather-light performance by Tony Armstrong.

All in all, this is a rollickingly great production of a hilarious show. One note though, as we have mentioned previously, this show is not for all ages. Consider it PG-13 at least, though worldly kids might learn a new appreciation for Shakespeare if they see it. Also, bring a few dollars to tip your waitresses and maybe tuck into the clothes of some of the performers.

Performances are Friday, Saturday and Sunday (Oct. 27-29) at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair. Find more information at www.indyfringe.org.

Review: Corny cornchip mystery by CRP

By John Lyle Belden

Years ago, I worked on a production line of a manufacturer of tortilla products. Though not too bad if you don’t mind smelling like a corn chip after work, the shifts were as long and monotonous as you’d imagine. And I guess that for those working in the executive offices, things were about as dull.

Until they’re not.

Casey Ross’ “Tortillo” imagines such a scenario, in which a corporate drone at a corn chip company could use some excitement in his life – and with a mysterious phone call, he gets it in spades.

Dave (Robert Webster Jr.) could care less about the new ranch flavor of Tortillo stacked chips (like if Pringles made Doritos) but would rather pine for hot co-worker Juniper (Lisa Marie Smith). Steve (Matt Anderson) is all to eager to help Dave score, giving him an excuse to offload all his work on shy but faithful intern Patrick (Davey Pelsue). But during an evening of watching Steve’s 15 seconds of fame on TV, he and Dave get a call from a malevolent voice, telling them to “mind your own masa.”

Naturally, they freak out over the vague threat, but not enough to do anything. The next day, after overeager employee-of-the-month Ted (Tristan Ross) drops off a sample of the new-flavored chips, they make a discovery that will make you think twice before popping open your next can of Tortillos.

What ensues is a bizarre mystery of corruption and revenge with odd and shady characters – and just who is that “John” guy (Brian Kennedy) anyway? He looks familiar – all flavored with dark hilarity like only Casey Ross’ pen can deliver.

Under the expert direction of Tristan Ross (no relation to Casey) this madness flows excellently through two acts. This was originally a 50-minute Fringe show, and hits the same plot beats, but the two Rosses have ensured that it doesn’t feel “padded out.”

The fun and snacks end Sunday at the IndyFringe building’s Indy Eleven stage. See IndyFringe.org or the Casey Ross Productions website or Facebook page for details and tickets.