GHDT: Ancient yet familiar story of power, plague, and redemption

By John Lyle Belden

I am the most casual fan of dance programs there is. I appreciate it in a general sense, but have not studied or participated intensively. Still, I continue to be amazed and delighted by the visual storytelling skills of Gregory Glade Hancock.

On April 7-9, a week before Passover, Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre presented its “Exodus,” a modern story in movement inspired by the ancient story of Moses. It premiered in 2019, with plans to perform again the next year, but our modern plagues pushed the date back to this month.

The themes include freedom from oppression, as well as sacrificial love. In consideration of this, as well as Hancock dedicating this – like much of his work – to the memory of his mother, he chose to have the central figure, the Chosen One, performed by a woman. Entrusted with this role is Olivia Payton, full of passion and sacred sense of duty. In place of the Biblical Pharoah, we have The Prosecutor; Thomas Mason struts the stage, projecting authority while at times struggling with it.

Other individual roles, as well as the Slaves and Plagues, are performed by Abigail Lessaris, Hannah Brown, Chloe Holzman, Zoe Maish, Josie Moody, Audrey Springer, and Rebecca Zigmond.

The Persecutor’s army of Oppressors are danced by Ellen Burks, Grace Burks, Taylor Colter, Adrian Dominquez, Zoe Hacker, Allie Hanning, Kloie Hargrove, Audrey Holloway, Molly Kinkade, Moriah Knuth, Kallie Leib, Grace Mazurek, Evangeline Meadows, Rachel Morrow, Leah Pitman, Maria Porter, Sophia Rice, Hillary Riley, Alexia Rumrill, Rachel VonDommelen, and Elissa Weisz.

The Chosen as a young prince was Leighton Metcalfe; other children were Fiadh Flynn, Poppy Lomax, Vincent Kitchen, Violet Kitchen, Elli Thacker, and Megan Webb.

Aside from the Academy of GHDT, the company included dancers from Anderson University; The Conservatory of Dance, Granger, Ind.; and Ballet Arts of Peru, Ind.

Choreography and Costumes were by Hancock, who also credits much of the look and feel to the show to Ryan Koharchik’s lighting and set design. Dance styles vary from boldly modern to living animations of hieroglyphics, exciting and always clear in their intent.

We are presented with the plight of the oppressed from the opening moments, confined by a curtain of chain-link fence. As slave children are rounded up, a desperate Mother (Lessaris) leaves her infant in a basket for the Persecutor’s Daughter (Brown) to find. In time this Child grows (Metcalfe, Payton), knowing privilege but feeling for those in shackles. A moment of compassion leads to violence, and exile. The Chosen encounters a sacred Burning Bush (an expertly flowing grouping of about a dozen dancers, pulsing with life like a landbound sea anemone) and she understands what she must do.

The Persecutor has no interest in freeing the Slaves. He is surrounded by an army, members uniformly unisex and masked, a familiar emblem on their hoodies showing they have the “power.”

The oppressed now appear as pale avenging angels, bringing forth plagues that speak to us in the audience: Desecration (pollution) of the Earth, Gun Violence, Racism, War, Poverty, Crime, Social Media (apathy), uncaring Government, and Selfishness. To drive the point home, like in the source book, finally the First Born are struck down.

In Act Two, we get parting of the Red Sea, the giving of Commandments, and the people’s disobedience. We also get a joyous reunion, saddened by the story coming full circle. As in the scriptural Exodus, we conclude with our formerly oppressed people in the wilderness, but bold and ready for whatever comes next.

The overall program is thrilling, stunning, and inspiring – the effective telling of an epic story without a single word. Let this be an encouragement to see whatever you can attend by GHDT (next up is an adaptation of “Antony and Cleopatra” in June) and insistence to experience “Exodus” the next time it is revived.

Performances are in downtown Carmel, get information and tickets at GregoryHancockDanceTheatre.org.

Civic steps up with Hitchcock comedy

By John Lyle Belden

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most acclaimed films is also one of his earliest successes. “The 39 Steps,” a 1935 spy thriller set in Britain, not only reflected the tensions of inevitable war with Germany, but also set the style and elements of most of his classic movies that followed. They include the innocent man on the run; settings in famous landmarks; the icy, beautiful blonde…

However, when you see “The 39 Steps” as presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, you might think of another famous filmmaker – notably Mel Brooks’ “High Anxiety,” in which the comic genius thoroughly spoofed Hitchcock’s work. Yes, this thriller is a comedy! Adapted from the film (and the 1915 novel by John Buchan) by Patrick Barlow, from a concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, the noir farce involves just four frantic actors and (like “Anxiety”) a few references to other Hitch classics.

Matt Kraft has just one role, but it’s a doozy. His Richard Hannay gets thrown into all manner of unlikely situations, including being set up for murder. To clear his name, he must rush from London to Scotland and back. Along his story, he encounters Haley Glickman as a doomed spy, a starved-for-excitement Scottish wife, and most importantly the woman who is determined to have him arrested, until she realizes the cops aren’t real. All other roles are played by Eric Reiberg and John Walls, in the program as Man #1 and Man #2, though the roles are also referred to as the Clowns. This latter label definitely works, as they slip into various characters and caricatures exhibiting Monty Python-level hilarity. For their part(s), Kraft and Glickman manage an excellent mix of slapstick and leading-couple chemistry.

Sharp direction is provided by John Michael Goodson (if he did a Hitchcock-style cameo, I missed it). Clever stage design by Ryan Koharchik has set elements all on rollers, so scene changes match the manic pace of the show.

No need to go all the way to the Highlands for this adventure, just as far north as Carmel, on the Tarkington stage at the Center for the Performing Arts through Feb. 19. For info and tickets, go to civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Civic: ‘Nothing’ actually a big deal

By John Lyle Belden

For the first time in its long history, the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre takes on Shakespeare with the comedy, “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Directed and adapted to one movie-length act by Emily Rogge Tzucker, the story — traditionally set in medieval Italy — takes place in 1945 as our soldiers come home from the War to an Italian villa in the Hollywood hills. As is usually the case, the character names and Shakespearean dialogue are largely untouched. 

At the fabulous estate of Leonato (Tom Beeler), Don Pedro (Joshua Ramsey) returns with his troops, including Claudio (Nicholas Gibbs), who has fallen for Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Carly Masterson); Benedick (John Kern), who enjoys verbally sparring with Leonato’s shrewish niece, Beatrice (Sara Castillo Dandurand); and Pedro’s surly brother, Don John (Darby Kear), who would rather stir up trouble than celebrate. Events include characters conniving to get Benedick and Beatrice to hook up, as well as the “fatal” wedding ceremony of Claudio and Hero. John’s wicked plot is uncovered by the goofy yet zealous constable Dogberry (Kelsey VanVoorst) and true to the Bard, we’ll get a very happy ending.

The cast also includes Jim Mellowitz as Antonio, Leonato’s brother; Sabrina Duprey and Leah Hodson as Hero’s best friends Margaret and Ursula; Max McCreary and Elisabeth Speckman as Borachio and Conrade, Don John’s devious but careless accomplices; Bill Buchanan and Matt Hartzburg as the Friar and the Sexton; Joe Steiner as Verges, Dogberry’s right-hand man; and Jonathan Doram as Balthazar, the soldier who performs Shakespeare’s song “Sigh No More” (music by Brent Marty), as well as one of Dogberry’s Watchmen, with Buchanan. To complete this list, Hartzburg, Julie Ammons and Stephanie Johnson play house servants.

The convoluted story is easy to follow and the actors do an excellent job of bringing it to life, complete with perfectly overdone comic moments. Master comic VanVoorst is in her element. Kern crisply delivers Benedick’s constant — and eventually contradictory — musings. The look provided by set and lighting designer Ryan Koharchik — with mood-setting skies and interesting circular motifs — and costume designer Adrienne Conces provides the perfect atmosphere for the mischief and merriment, while reflecting the height of the era’s style.

Don’t “let it be marked down that you are an ass” (as Dogberry would say) for missing the opportunity to enjoy Civic’s midwinter romp, through Feb. 22 at the Tarkington stage in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800, or visit civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.