Mud Creek: Where ‘Almost’ seems exactly right

By Wendy Carson

On the heels of their hilarious Christmas show, (“Inlaws, Outlaws, and Other People Who Should Be Shot”) Mud Creek Players give us another sweet laugh-fest with their latest production, “Almost Maine.”

The title comes from the “not-quite” town in extreme northern Maine, small in population, but overflowing with quirkiness.

There are two people who are either close together or vastly far apart; a woman whose defenses keep her from seeing what’s right in front of her; a misspelling possibly leading to love; the answer to a question asked a very long time ago. Plus, you have two people literally falling in love, the other shoe literally dropping, a couple literally returning their love for each other, a man who literally feels no pain, and an actual broken heart.

All this happens on a cold, wintry Friday night. Those of us of a certain age will feel like we are watching a romantic update of “Northern Exposure,” with all the whimsy on display under the Northern Lights.

This series of scenes is brought to life by Matt Harzburg, Kyrsten Lyster, Lexi Odle, Mason Odle, Jennifer Poynter and Jackson Stollings in multiple roles, directed by Andrea Odle with Amanda Armstrong. They all embrace the charm, wonder and weirdness of the stories, aptly acting as though these odd northwoods happenings occur every day. Thus they make the accompanying feelings seem natural – and somehow relatable to us, watching from a “barn” in the woods near Geist.

While this is a perfect show to bring a date, singles and families will find it just as enchanting. Also, each lady in attendance was given a long-stemmed rose. So brave the cold, and warm up to the sweet charm of “Almost, Maine.”

Performances run through March 2 at 9740 E. 86th St.; call 317290-5343 or visit www.mudcreekplayers.com.

BCP musical a story of love and letters

By Wendy Carson

Buck Creek Players’ latest offering, “After the Fair,” brings us a feminine twist of the traditional Cyrano tale.

In a country town in Victorian England, Edith Harnham is a well-to-do woman of a certain age who finds herself stuck in a rut. Her love for her husband, Arthur, is fading, and she feels trapped by her station and circumstances. However, her young maid, Anna, provides her with an escape of sorts. The girl falls in love with a gentleman she meets at the fair, and the two set upon a romantic correspondence. Since Anna can barely read or write, Edith serves as her go-between, penning her letters, and a web of love and deceit is cast.

Lori Ecker shows Edith to be a very passionate woman who has just lost touch with that side of herself, and blossoms once it is recaptured. Scott S. Semester as Arthur blusters his way through most of the show ignoring all but his own business until something reminds him of why he fell in love with his wife in the first place.

Tara Sorg is a delight to behold as Anna, the simple country girl who falls hard for a man she knows nothing about. Her wide-eyed optimism is refreshing even though her naïveté could ultimately be her downfall.

Rounding out the cast is Zachary Hoover as the dashing yet churlish Charles. While he knows his time with Anna was just some wild oats being youthfully sown, her letters touch his heart and sway him to consider her to be more than a mere dalliance.

How will this play out, and will there be a happily ever after? This Off-Broadway musical based on a Thomas Hardy short story doesn’t give our characters an easy out as tension and complications mount. Though enmeshed in the strict class structure of the time, we can still relate to the characters’ yearnings – falling in love, with its joys and pains, happens in every era.

Performances of “After the Fair” run through Feb. 10 at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road Exit off I-74). Call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.

 

IndyFringe: ‘Failure: A Love Story’

This show is part of the 14th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 16-26, 2018 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

“Of course I’ll die, and so will you… In the meantime, I’m going to do something outrageous!”

That line by Jenny June, the second of the three doomed Fail sisters, captures the spirit of this wonderful play by Philip Dawkins — told in a style reminiscent of Roald Dahl with maybe a bit of Neil Gaiman or Terry Gilliam.

We start with the deaths of Chicago clockmakers Henry and Marrietta Fail, and are informed that their three daughters will be dead as well within a year. They will pass in reverse order of their births — by blunt object, disappearance and consumption. With this knowledge in hand, we proceed with a surprisingly uplifting, whimsical and life-affirming story.

If it weren’t for the youthful faces, and the words “Carmel High School” on the program, one would swear this is a full-Equity professional production. The casting, delivery, movement, and performance — even when playing a carefree bird or ticking clock — are as flawless as the Fails’ timepieces and their daughters’ boundless optimism. If I were part of a Best of Fringe voting, this would be my nominee.

Cast standouts include Morgan Goodrich as tomboy swimming enthusiast Jenny June, Mady Phillips as beautiful younger sister Nellie, Allie Crawford as stoic older sister Gerty, Austin Audia as adopted brother John N., Ayden Stewart as Mortimer Mortimer, the young man who would love them all, and Jenna McNulty as a cheeky cuckoo and flighty parakeet.

The play carries a bit of philosophical heft, as well, with themes of time, and the river flowing into the nearby lake, as well as mortality. It also makes 1928, the last year the Twenties roared, feel like a magical time, or at least a moment — as the nation would discover — just before the magic runs out. But these elements work with the story rather than weigh it down.

Remaining performances are Friday and Saturday at the Firehouse union hall, third floor, 748 Mass Ave. Don’t let time run out on seeing this one.

IndyFringe: ‘Paper Swords: A Musical’

This show is part of the 14th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 16-26, 2018 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

First, a definition for those of you who do not travel in such circles: “LARP” stands for Live Action Role-Playing. This is very similar to when you played make-believe as a child but in this case, everyone involved is playing a game and they are all using the same rules. Now, to the show —

Our story begins with a bunch of Knights battling it out in the Kingdom of Elerin. They represent two distinct factions, Silvermore (who wear green tabards) and Ferndray (who wear blue tabards).

Our hero, Avery, is of Ferndray and one of the best fighters. A new girl in the kingdom, Elena, catches his eye and, even though she is part of the rival group, he pursues her and they end up dating (out of game, in the real world).

In a secondary plot, Avery’s best friends Will (a clumsy, guy who has more heart than brain) and Liz (his the ever-present best friend who keeps him safe) awkwardly fall in love.

Now that things are going well in the kingdom, enter the King. After his hysterical solo, “I’m the King and You’re Not,” he declares that the kingdom (in real-world terms, land he owns) is too small to support the growing number of LARPers that are playing in it. Therefore, the two groups must oppose each other in a great battle — the champions get to stay, while the losers must find another land. He also decrees that if neither side battles, both groups will be banished from the Kingdom. Needless to say, this puts our hero’s relationship in peril.

In the weeks building up to the battle, both groups train endlessly, straining Avery and Elena’s relationship. Then, when Avery shows up to Elena’s house, he secretly learns the King is her father! Drama naturally ensues.

All are tested in the climactic battle. Will our knights have a place where they can be truly accepted as themselves and that they consider home? Can good will be enough to cover taxes and insurance on the lot? And why are they suddenly looking out from the stage at us?

The actors — including Donovan Whitney (Avery), Alicia Hamaker (Elena), Jordan Brown (Liz), Clarke Remmers (Will), Sarah Tam (Bren, leader of Silvermore), and Ethan Mathias (the King) — do a stellar job portraying their roles in a manner that shows their individual character without slipping into self-parody. The script — book by Kelsey Tharp, songs by Matt Day — respects the hobby as much as the people who enjoy it, keeping the emphasis on the characters and the drama they feel.

My overall thoughts on the show are that with a bit of a rewrite and more polish, this show could be the runaway hit of next year’s GenCon. See it here first, on the third floor of the Firehouse union hall, 748 Mass Ave.

BCP musical ‘Dogfight’ a beautiful story about ugly intentions

By John Lyle Belden

Don’t let the title fool you: “Dogfight,” the musical at Buck Creek Players though June 17, has nothing to do with dogs, or cruelty to animals – just cruelty to humans.

An early collaboration by the composers of “Dear Evan Hansen” that played off-Broadway in 2012, this musical is based on the 1991 film, “Dogfight,” starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor.

In the early 1960s, young Marines in San Francisco – one day before shipping out to be “advisors” in Vietnam – engage in the Corps tradition of a “dogfight.” Each of the men pays into a pot awarded to the one who brings the ugliest girl to a dance party. Eddie Birdlace (Nathan Wilusz) and his fellow “B’s,” Boland (Levi Hoffman) and Bernstein (Scott Fleshood) search the streets for “dates,” but Eddie has no luck, until he stops at a coffeeshop and hears a girl singing as she plays guitar. Rose (Addison R. Koehler) appears plain and a little plump, so Eddie asks her to the party. Happily naive, she looks forward to her first real date, while Eddie starts to feel his conscience give him second thoughts. Suddenly the other B’s meet up with them, and the “fight” is on – “Sempre Fi, do or die.”

Though I risk ruining the premise of the play, or giving away its subtext, I must note that Koehler is beautiful in every way – her voice, her stage presence, her brave portrayal, the way she shines through even the plainer outfits she wears. More amazing, she’s still in high school (making her close to the age of the character she plays), so her potential is just beginning to show.

Wilusz makes a fine Marine, struggling with being a young gentleman in the hours before reverting to the ways of the warrior. Hoffman and Fleshood are also excellent, in their own rough ways. It must be noted that these men all swear like, well, Marines – BCP advises the show should be considered “R” rated. Also notable is Shelbi Berry in roles including Marcy, a girl who sees the event as a way to cash in; Emily Tritle as stoic Ruth Two Bears; and Onis Dean in various roles throughout.

The story goes deeper than the titular contest, of course, though the theme of cruel judgement based on appearance still resonates today. One clue to how much the world is about to change is in the date this takes place, and with little known about what’s happening in Southeast Asia, the men going there are in their own way as naive as the women they had set out to fool. This is also a sweet love story, as Eddie makes a valiant effort to salvage his budding relationship with Rose. The songs are well-written and well-placed, even if they aren’t hit showtunes.

Another great show directed by D. Scott Robinson, “Dogfight” is worth making your way out to the playhouse at 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74 southeast of Indy). Call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.

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.

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.