ALT: Intense drama includes talkback after every show

By John Lyle Belden

American Lives Theatre, the latest new company to the Indianapolis stage scene, makes a bold and provocative debut with its production of Pulitzer finalist “Gloria” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.

In the offices of a New York-based magazine, aspiring writers, stuck as assistants to faceless editors, snipe at each other as they lament their lack of opportunity, discuss their exit strategies, and seek to take advantage of the breaking story of a celebrity death. Dean (Joe Barsanti) is facing his 30th birthday with the vain hope that his memoir on his struggles in a dying industry will make all this worth it. Ali (Morgan Morton) is very go-along-get-along, which infuriates super-ambitious Kendra (Kim Egan). It’s the last day for intern Miles (Joshua Short), who is questioning his career path, now that he has seen the beast from the inside. The general commotion in this room infuriates Lorin (Tom Weingartner), trying to keep up with the demands of being chief fact-checker down the hall. Meanwhile, Gloria (Bridget Haight) — generally quiet and kinda weird, but a constant presence for the past 15 years — keeps dropping by, appearing anxious. Could this have something to do with the housewarming she hosted the night before, to which only Dean showed up?

This is about all I dare reveal of the plot. Director (and ALT founder) Chris Saunders notes that the content of this play includes a “trigger warning” due to a very specific trauma at the heart of the story. But I won’t spill, as the shock is an essential part of the drama. 

Fortunately, there is plenty of satirical and workplace humor, even as the characters become haunted by their circumstances. Haight also plays Nan, an editor with her own perspective that receives attention. Most of the cast also have additional roles, notably Short as a rather in-charge Starbucks barista. All have talents well up to their task.

“Gloria” is not so much about what happens, but rather how we deal with it. As each person comes to terms with their role and reactions, it becomes a question, as Saunders asks in the post-show discussion, “who owns the rights to trauma?”

Yes, there’s a talk-back — after every performance. Saunders hosts, and the actors may also get involved. Given what happens in the play, this can be a very important part of the overall experience.

Performances are Friday, Saturday (Jan. 17-18) and the next Friday through Sunday (Jan. 24-26) at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair. Get info and tickets at americanlivestheatre.org or indyfringe.org.

Civic goes Wilde

By John Lyle Belden

If you think Victorian English manners and society were stuffy and insufferable, imagine how it was for someone living through it. Fortunately, Oscar Wilde had his rapier wit to help him skewer those pretensions in his masterpiece farce, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre presents in the cozy confines of the Studio Theater through April 6.

In 1890s London, among polite folks for whom ignorance is a virtue and honesty a vice, John (Ethan Mathias) and Algernon (Bradford Reilly) have been undertaking some “Bunburying” – that’s not code for something obscene; it’s just the simple practice of being one person in town, and another in the country. John is in love with Gwendolen (Carrie Schlatter), while Algernon has fallen in love with John’s ward, Cecily (Sabrina Duprey). But both ladies insist on marrying a man named Earnest. So both our heroes oblige, and hilarious confusion follows.

Gwendolen’s aunt, Lady Bracknell (Vickie Cornelius Phipps), is very particular about who the girl marries. Meanwhile, Cecily’s governess Miss Prism (Miki Mathioudakis) is trying to get the attention of the Reverend Chasuble (Craig Kemp), but she is also hiding an important secret.

The incomparable Matt Anderson completes the ensemble as the butler at each house. Performances are top-notch, and even the scene changes are entertaining — executed by the actors under Anderson’s watchful eye.

When the world is full of absurdity, nonsense starts to make its own sort of sense. That was Wilde’s world then, and some could argue that reflects our world now. So, enjoy this Earnest effort at classic comedy.

The Studio Theater is at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. For tickets and information, call 317-843-3800 or visit civictheatre.org.

ATI: Ruth sure is missing out on a great show

By Wendy Carson

Ambition. It’s all that drives some people. Even though they have talent and skills, they strive to be recognized and adored for it. How far will a person go to get what they want?

This question is the main premise of the show, “Ruthless: The Musical,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana. It is a musical parody of classic noir “The Bad Seed” and “All About Eve,” with a whole lot of campy fun thrown in.

Judy Fitzgerald nimbly portrays Judy Denmark, a doting mother who, while abundantly proud of her daughter Tina, possesses a fierce drive of her own. John Vessels delivers with all of his vamping glory as Sylvia St. Croix, who will do anything to be part of show biz – again.

Suzanne Stark’s portrayal of viciously bitter reviewer Lita Encore channels Madeline Kahn and Megan Mullally in evoking the requisite Evil Wielder of the Poisonous Pen (we’ll try not to take it personally).

Laura Sportiello brilliantly pulls off the gawkiness and questionable talent of Tina’s rival, Louise Lehrman, while also proving she is not one to be underestimated. Meanwhile, Cynthia Collins is fun as the put-upon Miss Thorn, a third-grade teacher whose own showbiz aspirations were crushed by stark reality. Her self-written musical about Pippi Longstocking and questionable casting choices provide the fodder to set this chaos in motion.

Finally, we turn to Nya Skye Beck’s performance as Tina Denmark, the talented and seemingly perfect child whom we all wish we had. Only a fourth-grader, Beck’s level of talent at acting, singing and dance is amazing. During the show, my partner John said, “She is the real deal,” and I heartily agree. I hope to see her in many more productions in the coming years, before the call of Broadway whisks her away.

The first act more reflects “Seed,” with Act Two taking aspects of “Eve” with Sportiello in an alternate role. Satire abounds – there’s a big musical number called “I Hate Musicals” – secrets are exposed, and it all comes down to an ending to die for. On the whole, this show is hilarious and highly entertaining.

“Ruthless” runs through Feb. 17 at the Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. ATI notes the content is relative to a PG-13 rating. For info and tickets, visit atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

IndyFringe: ‘Cindy/Ella’

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

This silly satire answers the question: What would happen if the producers of the “Kardashians” and other “E!” network shows made a traditional fairy tale?

Cindy, who chafes at being married to the Prince of Malibu (with his odd shoe fetish), is fed up with royal life and runs away to (gasp!) The Valley, where she meets a Fairy Godmother minding an adult novelties store, and finally disguises herself as a mai- I mean personal assistant to a wick- I mean drunken woman (think stepmom) and her ug- I man vapid (and pretty tbh) twin daughters. See? Just like the Grimms wrote it.

It all works in its own wild way, complete with breaking “Extra!” style news bulletins by Michael Cleaver. And it benefits from the superb-as-usual acting of Abby Gilster as Cindy, and the phenomenon that is Josiah McCruiston as our godmother Dontrell. Kudos also to Amity Aschilman for her deadpan counterpoint as Dontrell’s best friend/coworker/roommate Kendra.

We also get Melissa Cleaver as Cindy’s PA/friend Deidre, Scott Prill as a steadfast detective, Amanda Bell and Ashley Duprey each in dual roles, and Jason Plake as our Prince with far more substance in his Speedos than his brain.

“Cindy/Ella” is presented by playwright Elizabeth Griffin Speckman at the IndyFringe Basile (main) Theatre, 719 St. Clair St., just off Mass Ave.

Phoenix blesses us with ‘Rosewater’

By John Lyle Belden

The Phoenix Theatre, at its new home at 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indy, is off to a great start with the musical of “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” – by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (one of their first collaborations) from the novel by Indiana’s own Kurt Vonnegut – playing through June 3.

The title refers to Eliot Rosewater, son of a millionaire U.S. Senator, who manages the family foundation which gives money to practically everyone who asks. But being generous is not enough to soothe his conscience, bothered by his actions in World War II that resulted in the death of German volunteer firemen. So he disappears from his New York office and pops up at volunteer firehouses across America, seeking his purpose until he finds it – at the family home in Rosewater County, Indiana.

Aside from the significance of telling an Indiana story by a Hoosier author, performing a satire about greed in today’s political climate, and having a show with science-fiction elements (the Phoenix’s very first show years ago, “Warp,” was sci-fi themed), it is notable that this musical is playing during May, Mental Health Awareness Month.

Psychological well-being is at the heart of the Rosewater story, from Eliot’s serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder, to the Senator insisting that no son of his would be “nuts,” to the plot hanging on our hero being insane because he actually considers those “beneath” him to be worthy of dignity – even equals. This latter disorder is too much for his wife to bear, driving her mad to the other extreme: only able to function among the very rich. Even Eliot’s well-meaning signs, saying, “DON’T KILL YOURSELF; CALL THE ROSEWATER FOUNDATION,” point to the need to encourage people to seek necessary help.

Patrick Goss wins our heart as Eliot, surrounded by a top-notch cast that includes Emily Ristine as his wife, Sylvia, and Phoenix founding member Charles Goad as Sen. Rosewater. Isaac Wellhauen is nicely conniving as financial advisor Norman Mushari, who finds a way to divert the Rosewater millions to long-ignored members of the family (for a hefty fee, of course). Suzanne Fleenor, another Phoenix founder and “Warp” veteran, plays Eliot’s psychiatrist. Other parts are also taken by familiar faces: Jean Childers Arnold, Scot Greenwell, Rob Johansen, Devan Mathias, Josiah McCruiston, Deb Sargent, Peter Scharbrough, Diane Boehm Tsao, and Mark Goetzinger as McCallister, the family banker.

Little bits of sci-fi poke in from time to time in true Vonnegut fashion, as the show is also a tribute to the greatest SF writer who never lived, Kilgore Trout. Like the best of the misunderstood genre, the otherworldy perspective allows us to get a fresh perspective on our very human behavior (and gives the props and costumes folks something to have fun with).

The songs and script show the spark of the genius that gave us “Little Shop of Horrors” and those Disney classics. The look and performances are well worthy of the beautiful new space, another triumph for director Bryan Fonseca.

The new theatre has plenty of room, and plenty of free parking, so go check it out. Info and tickets at www.phoenixtheatre.org or call 317-635-7529.

OMGWTFBBQ — Phoenix cooks up another masterpiece

By John Lyle Belden

If you’ve ever joked about being the “white sheep” of the family, then “Barbecue,” the comedy presented through Nov. 19 at the Phoenix Theatre, will stir up some memories.

Family members gather at a park for what looks like a cookout, but is actually an intervention for the sister affectionately known as “Zippity Boom.” But, you know the Bible saying that one shouldn’t try to take the speck out of another’s eye before removing the stick out of their own? With this bunch, there’s lumber everywhere.

This play is about more than addiction and the comedy inherent in family dysfunction. It also delves into the fickle issue of honesty vs. “truth,” as well as a critique of today’s pop culture. Most importantly, as director Bryan Fonseca says in a note tucked into the program: “We present a play about race in America where none of the characters are racist.”

Chelsey Stauffer is fabulous as Zippity Boom, a force to be reckoned with. Likewise, LaKesha Lorene shines as the kind of driven diva you might be familiar with if you watch “Extra!” or “Entertainment Tonight.” As for the rest, Dena Toler is in top form, and we also get excellent work from Joanna Bennett, Jeffery Martin, Brianna Milan, Abdul-Khaliq Murtadha, Angela Plank, Beverly Roche and Jenni White.

The play’s structure hooks you in with hilarity, then takes a curious twist that becomes clear in Act 2 (so no leaving at intermission!). By the end, the full depth of the satire is revealed in entertaining fashion. Theatre-in-the-round staging helps draw the audience in, and ensures there is no bad seat (though sitting on the side by the entrance ensures the best view of the Epilogue scene). Bernie Killian’s set design is a perfect recreation of a park shelter, providing a realistic environment for the absurdity that ensues.

Like all Phoenix shows, this play – by celebrated writer Robert O’Hara – is thought-provoking, but it’s also side-splittingly funny. Even if, to some degree, we’re laughing at ourselves.

The Phoenix is at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) in downtown Indy. For info and tickets call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

TOTS hosts a play for the masses (literally)

By John Lyle Belden

“Well, of all things!” A 1959 French play by a celebrated Romanian absurdist about the destructive but seductive effects of mass conformity finds resonance in Indianapolis, U.S.A., in 2017.

No Holds Bard and Catalyst Repertory present Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” on the Second Stage of Theatre on the Square through Aug. 13. The play is set in a near future in which most animals are extinct and most color is gone – frowned upon, even – but the people deal with it in a very orderly black-and-white world in which logic can be argued to the point that facts can mean anything.

Slovenly, drunken Berenger (Zachariah Stonerock) doesn’t fit in. And worse, he has gotten into an argument with his only friend, proud, self-sure Jean (Tristan Ross). But suddenly, a rhinoceros comes charging up the street. Did everyone see what they just saw? Of course not. There are no zoos, there are no circuses, there are no rhinoceroses. Then, a rhinoceros comes charging down the street in the other direction. Thus the question becomes: Is it the same rhinoceros? And are one or both African or Asian? This latter point, and the counting of horns, naturally becomes the most vital issue.

The next day, Berenger comes in late to work, but Daisy (Abbie Wright), who he is sweet on, covers for him with the boss, Mr. Papillon (Josh Ramsey), who, in turn, is upset with Duduard (Tim Fox) and Botard (John Mortell) not getting to work as they argue whether the rhinoceros sighting was real. Duduard has seen the beasts and is more accepting of events; while Botard did not, assumes its a hoax, and if anything did happen, it was part of a grand conspiracy by dark forces. Then Mrs. Beof (Denise Jaeckel) arrives, saying she can’t find her husband, and she’s being pursued by a rhino – when the animal destroys part of the building, she discovers the beast is her husband, somehow transformed.

After this, nearly everyone starts changing into rhinoceroses. As you do.

Stonerock garners our sympathies as the individualist everyman – misunderstood, put down and unsure of what he wants and how to get it. He, and we through him, are never on solid ground as the more sober he gets, the more mad the world becomes.

His castmates deal well with the play’s broadly-drawn characters. Wright embodies the contradicting impulses of dependence and independence women have dealt with in the nearly 50 years of this play’s existence, showing her own strength regardless. Fox is appropriately glib, Mortell brightly brusque. Jaeckel throws herself into her role. Ross, who also directs, takes charge on stage as well; and Ramsey is sharp as ever, including his turn as a “professional logician” who tortures language into submission. The cast is ably rounded out by David Mosedale and Sarah Holland Froehlke – who extracts a lot of laughs from a dead cat.

The script’s length, adapted from three acts to two, and pacing can drag at times, but it’s all worth seeing the eventual “rhinoceros parade.” While this a comedy, with plenty of hilarious situations and comic turns of phrase, beneath the mirth is the hint of something strong and violent that can trample to ruin anything in its path.

Good thing it’s only a play, eh?

Join the herd at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave., call 317-685-8687 or get info and tickets at tots.org/rhinoceros/.

The Farce is strong with this one

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is putting his reviews here — for now.

By John Lyle Belden

Today’s political climate has much that is ripe for ridicule, especially Indiana’s present chief executive, who could become America’s Number Two. And if the thought of Gov. Pence as “number two” has you giggling, have I got a theatrical experience for you.

Khaos Company Theatre presents its second play in the “Pence Wars” series, “Mike Pence Strikes Back,” a Star Wars-themed parody in which Indiana Emperor Pence finds himself losing the election for governor of the Hoosier Planet – every ultraconservative ploy to gain favor with the masses seems to backfire. But an unexpected shot at being Vice President of the Galaxy changes everything.

You don’t have to have seen the first play, August’s “Attack of the Homos,” to get into the flow of this one. The story is presented as a play by director Kaylee Spivey Good, with additional scenes by Robert Broemel and Ed Ramthun, and interludes of poetry by Cher Guevara (a/k/a Eagle contributor Walter Beck).

David Malloy is entertaining as Pence, giving the state’s Dark Lord a dastardly cartoon villain voice and posture. Guevara is impressive as Donald Trump – especially as the actor looks nothing like him – but with big hair, big suit and big, boorish attitude, he pulls it off. The supporting cast of Michael Maloney, Lauren McDaniel, Bridget Isakson (who plays Tolkein’s elf Arwen, because, why not?), Heather Bartram, Chloe Farhar, and even Good for a scene, all make multiple contributions to this farce.

The trick to enjoying the show is to keep your expectations as low as your opinion of Trump and Pence, and just go with whatever is happening. Pence Wars has the style and humor of SNL or MadTV with the special effects of a kid’s birthday party. Yet while situations get a tad immature, the content is not for children.

While the scenes are played for laughs, the recited verse is serious and thought-provoking, reminding us that this is the future of our state and country we’re joking about here.

There are just two more dates for this chapter, 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday – note that Friday is pay-what-you-can admission – and the trilogy’s conclusion, “Election 2016, A New Hope,” is scheduled for Oct. 7,8, 14 and 15. For information and tickets, see www.kctindy.com.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Review: “Silence!” raw but raucous

By Wendy Carson

What can you say about a farcical musical based on “Silence of the Lambs” other than: Be prepared to be shocked and surprised.

In “Silence! The Musical,” now at the Phoenix Theatre, from the opening, in which the “Sheep” begin telling Clarice’s backstory, you know that the author of this production had his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.

While the plot of the story remains mostly intact, there are a few changes to mainstream the narrative in favor of song breaks. The aforementioned Sheep portray not only a Greek chorus but also slip into and out of the guises of various supporting characters in the play.

The songs and dialogue in general are not only outlandish but somewhat offensive. The fact that the biggest production number of the show is based on an obscene line should be a warning. However, the cast is thoroughly game for it all and their level of commitment makes it all bearable.

Chelsey Stauffer, as Clarice Starling, highlights the character’s overwhelming drive to prove herself to the FBI and avenge her father, as well as her gentle naivete of what she has to deal with to accomplish this. Of course, her exaggerated accent just adds to the whimsy of her character.

Paul David Nicely showcases his broad range of talent as Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Singing, dancing and threateningly looming over everything, he pulls out all the stops in embracing the character.

Scot Greenwell is sublime in the role of the deranged serial killer, Buffalo Bill, whom the FBI is desperately trying to hunt down and stop. He fully embraces the campiness of the character in every way possible.

While the irreverence of the production has the potential to be a hot mess, under the skillful hands of director Bryan Fonseca and choreographer Kenny Shepard, it transcends into delightful silliness.

Again, I warn you that due to the content and language, this is a show that should be enjoyed by a mature and not-easily-offended audience. However, if you’re up for some laughs and a wonderfully satirical take on the film, get your tickets now. Call 317-635-7529 or see phoenixtheatre.org.