Experience Venice through the eyes of its visitors in IRT’s ‘Appoggiatura’

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Repertory Theatre play “Appoggiatura,” by IRT playwright-in-residence James Still, is a “Venecia story:” A story of Venice, Italy.

Venice, the centuries-old artistically and architecturally rich city of gondola-filled canals, is a unique place, and it can’t help but become a character in any story set there. I understand this, because I once spent the day there; so I, too, have a Venecia story – but that’s not what we’re here to discuss.

This play is also the third in Still’s loose “trilogy” involving characters related to a man named Jack, who died on 9/11. But this is not about him, except that relatives give brief mention in the way you can’t help but talk of someone you loved so dearly and lost so tragically. And it is not at all in the same style as the two previous plays: “The House That Jack Built” (premiered by IRT in 2012), a family drama set around a New England Thanksgiving table; or “Miranda” (on the IRT upperstage last year), a spy thriller set in Yemen. This play truly is, you must understand, a Venecia story.

Venice is not only rich in art, architecture and history, but also in music. The strains of violin and operatic voices are performed throughout this show, framing and accentuating scenes (yet this is not a musical) with a masqued man who might even be the spirit of Venice-born composer Vivaldi. Venice is a city of patient natives and multitudes of tourists, which our characters can’t help but bump into. It is a city of labyrinthine narrow streets between the canals, so that the directions of “go right, go left, go straight, go straight” will take you virtually anywhere, especially to the centrally-located world-famous Piazza San Marco.

In this setting, we meet Helen (Susan Pellegrino) and her grown granddaughter (and Jack’s daughter), Sylvie (Andrea San Miguel), who arrive in Venice on a rainy night with luggage missing and their rooms not ready. They are accompanied by Aunt Chuck (Tom Aulino), who is definitely not happy with the way things are turning out. But he also still feels the loss of his husband, Gordon, who had previously been Helen’s husband.

The next morning, they are greeted by their “tour-guider,” Marco (Casey Hoekstra), who reassures them that they and their luggage being lost is only part of their Venecia story, which they will eventually come to treasure. As it turns out, Marco isn’t much of a “guider,” but still a good man to have around.

As she wanders the city, Helen is reminded of her own previous Venecia story, crossing a bridge into the past and encounters with a young Helen and Gordon (San Miguel and Hoekstra) on their honeymoon. Chuck also finds echoes of the man he loved at a Venecian fountain. The blending of time and space, especially when 21st-century technology gets mixed in, would be concerning to a hard-core sci-fi fan, but this is a romantic tale – and no dangerous side effects of paradox seem to take place.

Still’s characters are charming and likeable, even the extras (performed by wandering musicians Andrew Mayer, Paul Deboy and Katrina Yaukey) such as a man (Deboy) walking and singing to his two (puppet) dogs – based on a memory from Still’s own personal Venecia story. San Miguel plays her Millennial character as impatient, searching and a bit cynical, but not whiny; a measure of how much we care for Sylvie is that we understand her perspective during a heated Skype conversation with her fiance (Yaukey) in the States. Pellegrino and Aulino touch our hearts as two people united by their longing for the same man, each taking an opposite approach: she always sunny, he ever under a cloud. Hoekstra’s Marco is eager and a bit of a hustler, but with an easily detected good heart.

As Venice is a literal maze of history and blended eras, I can forgive fantasy elements that wouldn’t work as well in other settings. And, while I know a trilogy is supposed to be just three stories, I feel that there should be a follow-up with what happens between Sylvia and her beloved in Vermont. It is refreshing to see a story with elements of same-sex love that never dwells on it; it’s just a part of normal relationships. And it is notable that in the 20-teens, references to 9/11 no longer shock, yet retain their sting. I must also note how truly funny this play is at various points, but it’s not a full-on “comedy,” just a lifelike reflection of both the comic/drama masks we all wear.

Otherwise, this is a hard show to critique, as its blend of music, drama, love, and comic moments stands alone and could only be categorized as – dare I say it again: A Venecia story.

Save the cost of airfare to Italy and head downtown to 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis. Performances are through March 31. Call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.

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Footlite brings simple complexity of ‘Bridges’

By John Lyle Belden

“The Bridges of Madison County” is an unusual love story, its surprising depth reaching beyond the plot of a lonely housewife having an affair with a traveling photographer. That made it successful as a novel, movie, and finally as “The Bridges of Madison County: The Broadway Musical,” presented by Footlite Musicals through March 18.

It`s 1965, and Francesca (Lori Ecker), an Italian war bride, is alone at her husband`s Iowa farm while he and their children are two states away for a national 4-H livestock show, when a strange but handsome and charming man arrives in the driveway. He is Robert Kinkaid (Rick Barber), a photographer for National Geographic Magazine, sent to get shots of the famous local covered bridges. As the rural roads aren`t clearly marked, he has gotten lost looking for the last bridge on his list.

With Francesca`s help, Robert finds the bridge, but they start to lose their way in a manner that will affect them both for the rest of their lives.

What comes to pass seems as inevitable as it is wrong, so we see this couple in how they help each other more than how they are likely to hurt the others they love. But actions have consequences, and force hard choices.

Ecker is outstanding, and Barber has a voice as strong as his muscular body. Though they are committing the sin, you can`t help but feel for them – maybe even root for them.

Darrin Gowan is rock-steady as Francesca`s husband Bud. He could have been played as a victim, a sucker, or one whose behavior pushed his wife into another man`s arms, but we get no such cliché. Just as Francesca acts of her own free will, Bud is constantly true to his obligations and those he loves, even if there`s something about them he frustratingly can’t control. Their son, Michael (Joseph Massingale), and daughter, Carolyn (Elly Burne), are also interesting three-dimensional characters. In each we see both the practical nature of their father and the free spirit of their mother.

Jeanne Chandler as neighbor Marge is a wonderful surprise, her character a bit nosy but out of honest concern for the family next door she has come to love. And Chandler’s solo song allows her to steal the scene in style. Kudos to Bob Chandler for taking the role of Marge’s husband Charlie on short notice after the injury of original cast member Daniel Scharbrough in a fall (according to Dan’s Facebook posts, he is recovering).

The set, designed by Jerry Beasley, is beautiful in its simplicity – especially the covered bridge – giving just enough pieces to let your imagination complete the scene, while the actors (including a large but well coordinated chorus) are free to move and help the setpieces flow in and out as needed.

If you have any liking for a romantic musical – particularly if you enjoyed the James Waller novel or Clint Eastwood/Meryl Streep film of “Bridges” – this nicely put together community production, under the direction of Tim Spradlin, is well worth your time.

Find this charming little piece of Madison County, Iowa, at the Hedback Theatre, 1847 N. Alabama, Indianapolis; call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

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.

#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.

Paige Scott and EclecticPond boldly bringing Bronte to today’s audience

By John Lyle Belden

EclecticPond Theatre Company brushes off a dusty classic with “J. Eyre,” bringing new life to Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel “Jane Eyre” as a contemporary musical.

The style is modern, but the English countryside setting of this gothic romance remains. The actors’ clothes evoke the period rather than copy it. In fact, the style of this production – through July 30 at Grove Haus near Indy’s Fountain Square – focuses primarily on the story of relationships and the people swept up in them.

The seven actors never leave the stage, with all providing narration, singularly or in harmony, throughout. Two of them each portray a single role, Devan Mathias as Jane and Tim Hunt as Edward Rochester, while the others – Miranda Nehrig, Mary Margaret Montgomery, Abby Gilster, Chelsea Leis and Carrie Neal – chameleon from one supporting character to another.

Written and directed by Paige Scott, the musical’s story largely follows the book: Orphan Jane endures a wretched childhood, including abuse at the hands of her aunt and cousin, and the death of her only school friend (Montgomery) in a typhus outbreak. She then takes a job as governess for a girl in the care of crude, spoiled playboy Rochester. But Jane falls in love with him – realizing her feelings as he prepares to marry gold-digger Blanche (Nehrig) – and when it looks like she will finally find happiness, she finds out his terrible secret. (In case you didn’t read or don’t remember the novel from your literature classes, I’ll leave it there.)

The sung narrative interludes between scenes aid the flow of the story without interrupting it, and relieves one of the need to have read it beforehand to understand its events. Scott’s songs feel like they’ve always been a part of this classic, rather than freshly written. Her captivating adaptation of the novel suggests the script for an autumn Oscar-bait movie. Add in excellent performances by the cast and keyboard accompanist Jacob Stensberg, and this is the kind of show that, if presented Off-Broadway, would soon find itself under the big lights.

You can find “J. Eyre” at 1001 Hosbrook Street; and tickets and info at eclecticpond.org.