IRT’s Christie mystery an exciting ride

By Wendy Carson

In whodunits, the locked-door mystery is one of the cornerstones and most compelling of all scenarios in the genre. Someone had to have done it, but who, and how? Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” is one of the most original versions of the mystery in existence – not only because of the lavish setting, but also the revolutionary solution to the puzzle. Famed playwright Ken Ludwig has adapted this intriguing story for the stage, now playing at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

Legendary detective Hercule Poirot (Andrew May) has to cut his vacation in Istanbul short to take a case in England. In need of quick travel arrangements, he accepts an offer from his dear friend, Monsieur Bouc (Gavin Lawrence), of transport on his company’s train, the luxurious and now-legendary Orient Express. These two are joined by a quirky array of travelers.

British Colonel Arbuthnot (Ryan Artzberger) and Mary Debenham (Nastacia Guimont) are scheming about something in secret, yet not too covertly.

Samuel Ratchett (Ryan Artzberger in a second role) is a loud, rude American “businessman” who feels money can buy anyone or anything. Hector MacQueen (Aaron Kirby) is his overworked and oft-abused secretary.

Princess Dragomiroff (Dale Hodges), one of a number of exiled Russian royalty roaming about Europe, is traveling with a new companion, Greta Ohlsson (Callie Johnson) who has been serving as a missionary in Africa and is very unsure of anything.

The beautiful Countess Andrenyi (Katie Bradley) is traveling on her own. With her storied past, including a stint as a medical doctor, she intrigues everyone, including the elusive Poirot.

Also traveling on her own is the obnoxiously abrasive Helen Hubbard (Jennifer Joplin), an American who quickly gets herself on everyone’s “hit list.” Attempting to oversee all of this is Michel (Rob Johansen), the train’s French conductor.

Add to this a snowstorm that stops the train – right before a murder occurs – and you have a wonderful setting for a grand mystery. All passengers are accounted for at the time of the killing, or are they?

Anyone familiar with the character of Poirot knows that he is a quirky and particular personality. May adeptly explores as many facets as he can without frolicking into the territory of camp. His performance alone is worth the price of admission.

Artzberger does an exceptional job of playing vastly different characters with great aplomb. Guimont keeps her character a frigid distance from all but Arbuthnot, seemingly as a protective guise.

Joplin submerges herself into the typical “ugly American” so well, it is surprising that she is not the one who meets with the knife.

Hodges keeps the Princess as mysterious as her peculiar wardrobe. Johnson’s take on Ohlsson, the missionary, is wacky and almost overdone, but it does lend some lightness to the dark tale.

Kirby does an exceptional job of keeping his character sympathetic rather than just shady. Lawrence deftly keeps his frantic businessman persona from being entirely heartless, worrying equally about the safety of his passengers and the bad press a murder would bring to his luxury rail service.

Johansen shines both as the Conductor – not quite as minor a role as you’d first think – and his hilarious turn as the Head Waiter of Bouc’s restaurant in the show’s opening scene.

Bradley as the Countess enthralls us all, characters and audience alike, daintily dancing her way through the story never demanding but certainly drawing all attention available to her.

Christie’s story is a tale for the ages, especially with a twist ending that anyone unfamiliar with the book or movies will never see coming. Director Risa Brainin does a remarkable job keeping the soberness of the entire drama while allowing for its sharp wit, no doubt aided by Ludwig (known for farces like “Lend Me a Tenor”), to shine through.

The stage is a visual spectacle worthy of the legendary train, with designer Robert M. Koharchik placing elements of the sleeping and dining cars on an inventive rotating stage. This and projected elements by L.B. Morse give the proper sense of motion and help the scenes flow when the Express is stopped, maintaining the necessary tension. Even if you already know how it will eventually play out, it’s one exciting ride.

“Murder on the Orient Express” runs through March 29 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis (near Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

IRT reminds us of the very human cost of the Holocaust

By John Lyle Belden

A recent survey reported that an alarming percentage of people don’t believe the Holocaust happened, or that as many were killed as history attests (six million Jews, perhaps 17 million overall).

This makes productions such as the drama “The Diary of Anne Frank” — which opened the weekend before Holocaust Remembrance Day at Indiana Repertory Theatre — so vital to public conversation.

After the Nazis came to power in their native Germany (initially via elections, don’t forget), the Frank family moved to The Netherlands, where Otto Frank ran a small factory in Amsterdam. But then Germany started invading its neighbors, with the Dutch quickly succumbing to the blitzkrieg. Letting friends and neighbors assume they had made a run for Switzerland, Otto secreted his family, along with that of his best friends and fellow Jews, the Van Daan’s, in an upstairs “secret annex” to his plant. Non-Jewish allies, Mr. Kraler and Miep Gies, ran the factory and kept their secret, bringing them supplies at night. Along with his wife, Edith, Otto had his daughters — quiet, studious Margot, and energetic Anne, who stilled herself by obsessively writing in her diary. Hermann and Auguste Van Daan were accompanied by their teenage son, Peter. Miep later brought them an eighth refugee, dentist Albert Dussel, who kept to himself and kept sane thinking of his Gentile fiance waiting elsewhere in the city. Thus a group of people lived as best they could for two years, until their nightmares came true.

Those are the facts, the rest we know from the words of a girl growing up while her world crumbles outside. These words — from romantic optimism to despairing angst — come to life on the IRT’s stage, which is skillfully crafted by Bill Clarke to portray its cramped quarters (though more horizontally-arranged than the actual annex for dramatic reasons) with impeccable detail. Inhabiting it are an excellent cast of local and Seattle-area actors (this production will move — sets, actors and all — to Seattle Children’s Theatre later in the year).

Miranda Troutt wins and breaks our hearts as Anne, star and narrator of her story. Her frequent bouts of optimism both uplift and annoy her housemates, but she doesn’t hold back in her writings of her teenage frustrations. Hannah Ruwe portrays Margot, who is stronger in spirit than in body and striving to be more mentor than rival to her sister. Benjamin N.M. Ludiker plays Peter as an introvert gradually coming to terms with the force of nature who is slowly falling in love with him. Ryan Artzberger turns in another powerful IRT performance as Otto, whose bravery is contrasted with Betsy Schwartz’s worrisome Edith. Robert Neal and Constance Macy give layered performances as the Van Daans, his character pragmatic to a fault, hers desperately clinging to artifacts of their past life. Sydney Andrews is a ray of much-needed sunshine as Miep. Mark Goetzinger is solid as Kraler. Rob Johansen is oddly endearing as our feeling-out-of-place dentist.

This play does an excellent job, as director Janet Allen put it, “to put a human face on genocide.” Anne’s face smiles to us through old photographs, but we get a real person’s full spectrum of genuine human emotions and yearnings in her writings, and works like this that they inspired. For a deeper look beyond the dry pages of history texts and by-the-numbers online articles, get to know these very real people whom a regime declared less than human, condemned to extermination. Note that only one of the eight in the annex survives the war (spoiler alert — it’s not Anne).

IRT’s “The Diary of Anne Frank” will be presented to thousands of local students during its run. There are also public performances through Feb. 24 on the mainstage at 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy (near Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

IRT mystery with murder, mayhem and Moriarty

By John Lyle Belden

Would you recognize Sherlock Holmes if you saw him? That question is at the heart of “Holmes and Watson,” a mystery by Jeffrey Hatcher opening the 2018-19 season at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

The play is set on a remote Scottish island, several years after Holmes is believed to have died, gone over a Swiss mountain waterfall with his archrival Moriarty. (Tired of the character, author Arthur Conan Doyle offed the detective in “The Final Problem.” Bowing to public pressure, he brought Holmes back to life 10 years later.) Dr. Watson (played by Torrey Hanson) has been debunking the many impostors claiming to be the miraculously surviving Sherlock Holmes. Now, in an old fortress and lighthouse converted to an asylum, he is confronted with three.

The facility’s head, Dr. Evans (Henry Woronicz) presents a trio of distinctly different men (Michael Brusasco, Nathan Hosner and Rob Johansen), all claiming to be the detective. Having otherwise only seen an orderly (Ryan Artzberger) and the Matron (Jennifer Johansen) in the building, Watson surmises the three men are the only inmates. The mystery deepens as we discover that there has been a murder prior to Watson’s arrival, and a mysterious woman at large.

I dare not say more, so you can unravel this for yourself at the show. We tend to think of Sherlock Holmes as a singular character, but we are presented by three different but familiar archetypes: the classic Holmes of old films, the adventurous Sherlock of Benedict Cumberbatch, and the odd iconoclast reminiscent of Jonny Lee Miller in “Elementary.” We also noticed a clue – never noted by anyone on stage – that could be an insight into what’s really going on.

These amazing actors all put in excellent work. I don’t want to give individual praise for fear of giving away a secret, but suffice to say all are perfectly suited to characters where any of them may not be whom they seem.

The play is directed by former IRT artistic director Risa Brainin, who is familiar with Hatcher’s works, as well as the man himself. Robert Mark Morgan’s brilliant stage design contains sweeping layered curves, suggesting an aperture or the eye’s iris, opening and closing as the focus of the inquiry shifts.

Though not by Doyle, this drama fits right in the world he wrote for Holmes, with a tantalizing mystery worthy of the canon, complete with plot twists you’d see on an episode of “Masterpiece.”

“Holmes and Watson” runs through October 21 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-5252 or visit http://www.irtlive.com.

IRT puts on ‘Noises Off’

By John Lyle Belden

We know how the workplace can be the site of ridiculous interpersonal drama, so imagine how it can get when you have a group of temperamental artistic folks in the same space for hours on end – you get something like “Noises Off,” the Michael Frayn farce on stage through May 20 at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.

On a January day in a forgettable English town, the cast of the comedy “Nothing On” – which explores the humor inherent in multiple platters of sardines – are rehearsing less than 24 hours before the play opens, with director Lloyd Dallas (IRT mainstay Ryan Artzberger) at his wits’ end. Dotty (Hollis Resnik) struggles with where to place the sardines, while Frederick (Robert Neal) struggles with his character’s motivation. Brooke (Ashley Dillard) only seems to have room in her brain for her lines, while Garry (Jerry Richardson) and Belinda (Heidi Kettenring) scramble to be in the right spots for them to make sense. It’s hoped that aging thespian Selsdon (Bob Riley) will be sober and on time, so stage manager Tim (Will Allan) is on standby as understudy. Meanwhile, assistant stage manager Poppy (Mehry Eslaminia) jumps to Dallas’s every demand.

The eventful run-through of the first act gives us an idea of what’s supposed to happen on stage. Next, midway through the tour of “Nothing On,” we see what’s happening backstage. Nerves and relationships are frayed as Brooke threatens to walk out, Selsdon keeps finding the whiskey, and Dallas ends up in a very prickly situation. Finally, the third act brings us to the memorable final performance of the tour, during which some improvisation becomes necessary.

The genius of this play is the perfectly timed “bad” timing, everything going “wrong” in just the right way. As is the standard at IRT, this cast has it down, making slamming doors and slipping on sardines an art and moving props such as a bottle, an axe or a cactus like a ballet. Praise must also go to scenic designer Bill Clarke for the two perfectly arranged coordinated sets, as well as director David Bradley for containing the chaos for a thoroughly entertaining show.

Find the IRT at 140 W. Washington St., near Circle Centre in downtown Indianapolis. Find info and tickets at irtlive.com or call 317-635-5252.

#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.

IRT blesses us, every one

By John Lyle Belden

Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” – you know it; everyone knows it.

The Scrooge-bahhumbug-Crachits-Tiny-Tim-Marley-three-ghosts-Godblessuseveryone story is nearly as familiar as the Nativity. In fact, some of our favorite tellings take great liberties with the story, like the Muppet version or the movie “Scrooged.”

But it is also promoted as a proper holiday tradition, faithfully executed, every year at Indiana Repertory Theatre. So, how do they keep it reliable, yet unique?

Start with the Tom Haas script, which hews fairly closely to the source material. Under director Janet Allen, have the cast tell the story as they portray the events, in a pudding-smooth blend of narration and action.

Keep the set simple, as scenic designer Russell Metheny has done. The dominant feature is the drifts of snow absolutely everywhere – pure white like holiday magic, yet also a constant desolate reminder of the dangerous cold of a Victorian English winter. Setpieces drift in and out, and a simple large frame sees duty in many ways – a doorway, a mirror, a passage to what comes next.

Cast some of the best talent in Indy, including a number of IRT regulars, starting with the brilliant Ryan Artzberger as Scrooge. Other familiar faces include Charles Goad, Mark Goetzinger and the luminous Millicent Wright. You may also recognize Emily Ristine, Scot Greenwell and Jennifer Johansen. Then there are Jeremy Fisher, Charles Pasternak, Ashley Dillard and Joey Collins. And mix in some great young talent as well, such as Tobin Seiple and Maddie Medley, who take turns as Tiny Tim.

Present it all in a single movie-length performance, submersing the audience into the story until we can’t help but get caught up in it. Of course, we know what’s going to happen next, but with the spirit of live theatre taking us along, we don’t just watch the play, we experience it.

I feel like a bit of a Scrooge sometimes, thinking of things like the Dickens story as stale and overdone; but having seen what IRT does with it, I now see why all those who go back every year enjoy it so much. You, also, might want to consider adding this show to your list of cherished holiday traditions.

Performances continue through Christmas Eve at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St. (near Circle Centre) in downtown Indy. Get information and tickets at www.irtlive.com.

New Phoenix play cuts to the bone

By John Lyle Belden

A simmering stock of ethnic tensions and personal demons, seasoned by today’s political attitudes, steams on the surface of a downtown Manhattan restaurant kitchen. But add an ingredient of the dark side of recent history, and everything could boil over.

That is the recipe for “How To Use A Knife,” the new drama by Will Snider, produced as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere under the direction of Bryan Fonseca at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indianapolis.

Michael (Rob Johansen) is a total euphemism-for-anal-sphincter, but he is true to his friends, especially George (Ryan Artzberger), whose addictions helped destroy his career as a world-class chef. But Michael has a restaurant in New York’s Financial District, and hires George to take charge of its kitchen.

Fortunately, the food preparation already goes smoothly, thanks to a pair of Guatemalan cooks (which Michael blithely calls “Mexicans”), Carlos (Carlos Medina Maldonado) and Miguel (Wheeler Castaneda*). Jack (Tommy Lewey), the “runner” who takes the dishes out to customers, is marginally competent, and dreams of being a writer without having penned a single word. Steve (Ansley Valentine), an African immigrant, quietly mans the dishwashing station.

Of course, things start to change. George berates Jack at first, but then mentors him. We discover Steve speaks English quite well, and he meets with George after hours to learn how to cook. Steve reveals to the chef that he is Rwandan, but his involvement in the 1994 genocide was to help stop it. But soon, an Immigration officer (Chelsea Anderson) visits the restaurant with a disturbing revelation.

While an intense, thought-provoking drama, the show is leavened with workplace humor, especially in interactions with the Guatemalans. Miguel is the type of person who deflects stress with humor, and despite the fact that he speaks almost entirely in Spanish, Castaneda’s expressions and delivery help bring on much-needed levity. Carlos easily weaves from joker to deadpan serious, revealing surprising complexity in a supporting character.

Artzberger and Valentine, being at the center of the story, deliver exceptional performances. Each character embodies deep contradictions: George is barely-contained chaos with a noble, potentially heroic, soul; while Steve has mastered a form of inner peace and is able to share that gift, despite his horrific history. Each has dealt with their past in their own way; they find themselves tested, with consequences that go far beyond themselves.

Don’t be surprised if – as with Phoenix’s previous show, “Dogs of Rwanda” – after seeing this you find yourself thinking more about the pain of people in faraway lands, maybe even Googling what happened, and realizing how that comes home to connect to us as fellow members of the human family. For this reason, it might be good to see “How To Use A Knife” at the Sunday, Jan. 29 performance, which is followed by a talkback discussion with the cast and crew.

The play runs through Feb. 12 at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair near Mass Ave. downtown); call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

The Phoenix is also accepting donations of unopened spices at the box office, which will be given to the Second Helpings anti-hunger organization, during the run of the play.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

*EDIT: Person playing this role was misidentified in earlier version of this story.