Bard Fest play catches the conscience of the Queen

By John Lyle Belden

One interesting thing I find in TV talk shows is the stories of celebrities who meet other celebrities, not as coworkers or equals, but as mutual fans, starstruck at each other. Imagine if the most powerful woman in the world were to meet an actor whose performance she found to be exceptional. It happened, and William Shakespeare was there to see it.

“Elizabeth Rex” is perhaps the greatest play Shakespeare could not have made, as the title character could easily have had his head removed to decorate the Tower of London. So it was left to acclaimed playwright Timothy Findley in 2000 to speculate and dramatize what happened on a fateful night in 1601 following a command performance – by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth I – of the Bard’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” 

You don’t have to know anything about that comedy to enjoy the Bard Fest adaptation of “Elizabeth Rex,” just know that in Shakespeare’s day, all women’s roles were played by male actors, and the rest of this drama’s set-up you can get from context. The setting is a barn at the estate where the play’s after-party (for aristocrats, not lowly actors) is being held, with everyone being stuck indoors as a curfew was declared by the Queen to maintain the peace before the Ash Wednesday execution at dawn of Robert, Earl of Essex – believed to be Elizabeth’s lover, but convicted of treason. 

The Lord Chamberlain’s Men grumble about their surroundings as they remove their makeup and tap a keg of warm ale, but the mood totally changes when their Royal visitor arrives. She is regal, the others reverent, but eventually all relax. “I shall require distraction,” Elizabeth declares.

The Queen (Holly Hathaway Thmpson) is quite impressed with the men who played female leads, especially Ned Lowenscroft (Jay C. Hemphill), the play’s Beatrice, and Harry Pearle (Scott Fleshood), who played Hero. She even remembers when Percy Gower (Alan Cloe) would show some leg in his skirts in years past (the old actor loves to reminisce, a recurring comic point). To Jack Edmond (Matthew Walls) who played Benedick (who verbally sparred with/wooed Beatrice in “Much Ado”), Elizabeth shows disdain, perhaps conflating the actor with the role, resenting his being Irish, or both. She also isn’t thrilled with big-mouthed Luddy (Matthew Socey) who she sees as little more than a living version of Falstaff (a great Bard Fest in-joke for those who have seen Socey in that role). Also on hand is Matt Welles (Anthony Logan), who is handy with a guitar; nearly blind seamstress Tardy (Susan Yeaw), always losing her glasses to comic effect; and a bear, which Lowenscroft had rescued.

Quite literally above it all, at his desk in the loft, is Shakespeare (Eric Bryant), working on his next play, “Antony and Cleopatra.” He feels at a loss for what words to put in legendary rulers’ mouths, so makes notes of things the Queen says. This proves problematic when she insists on seeing the script.

Attending Her Majesty are Lady Mary Stanley (Nikki Lynch) and Lord Robert Cecil (Abdul Hakim Shabazz). An attentive soldier enforcing the curfew (Andy Burnett) also appears, as well as, briefly, Countess Henslow (Afton Shepard) to plead in vain for the condemned’s life.

Much of this drama comes down to the interplay between Elizabeth and Lowenscroft, who, because he is dying, exercises a bit of license with the Queen. For her part, resolved to spend the night on the level of her subjects in the barn, she accepts being chided and contradicted – even touched – as the gay actor teaches the monarch, ever required to show a manly demeanor, to get in touch with her woman within. Thus, even in a very talented cast, Hemphill and Thompson stand out with extraordinary performances. 

Glenn L. Dobbs, a Bard Fest producer, directs from a script he adapted with Barbara Willis Sweete and Kate Miles. 

As has been noted, this at times intense drama is peppered with some great laugh-out-loud moments. It also gives a sense of what an important time this was in Elizabeth’s reign. The hour chimes periodically, bringing our players closer to the dawn, when our fantasia ends and true history resumes.

Remaining dates are Friday through Sunday, Nov. 12-14, at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., in Lawrence. Get info and tickets at www.indybardfest.com and www.artsforlawrence.org

Bard Fest: Tragic Egyptian queen still fascinating

By John Lyle Belden

Indy Bard Fest presents the Improbable Fiction Theatre Company production of “Antony and Cleopatra” – which, though I know that’s the way Shakespeare titled it, should give the doomed last Queen of Egypt first billing.

Already an incredible talent, Afton Shepard throws herself fully into her title role, portraying Cleopatra’s “infinite variety” of moods and mental states. But under her demeanor, ranging from stormy to sultry, burns a fierce intelligence. All this and more Mark Antony, well-portrayed by Darin Richart, sees, and dedicates himself to as they rule the Eastern third of the Roman Empire. But confict with fellow triumvir Caesar (the eventual Augustus, played by Thomas Sebald) is inevetable.

This production, directed by Ryan T. Shelton, pares down the cast and puts the focus more squarely on Cleopatra. Having ruled since she was a teen – and still showing fits of immaturity – she is also well traveled and educated. She knows a woman’s typical place in this world (much like ours, in a way) and is not afraid to use seductive charms to camoflauge her true wisdom.

Many characters are placed on the weary shoulders of Craig Kemp, who enters as the Soothsayer and appears as various messengers and soldiers as the story demands. The excellent cast includes Bobbi Bye as Caesar’s advisor Agrippa, Dana Lesh and Barb Weaver as Cleopatra’s servants Charmian and Iras, Duane Leatherman as third triumvir Lepidus, Jamie Devine as Caesar’s sister Octavia, Becca Bartley as Cleopatra’s guard Alexas, and Jet Terry as Antony’s faithful soldier Scarus. Kevin Caraher gets a meaty role in Enorbarbus, steadfast for Antony up to the point that he sees history turning and fearing himself on the wrong side, “when valor preys on reason.”

Gender-blind casting is nothing new in today’s theatre, but I liked that Caesar’s soldier Dolabella, played by Evangeline Bouw, seems to lend an element of feminine empathy in being the last Roman to guard Cleopatra at the end.

Scholars debate the fine points of even the original historical sources, but this powerful play gives a good sense of the era and the essence of the larger than life persons in it. We feel we have met Cleopatra and Antony, and it’s an honor.

Performances are Thursday, Saturday and Sunday (Oct. 28, 30, 31) at The Cat Theater, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Get info and tickets at indybardfest.com.

Bard Fest: ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ a noble find

By John Lyle Belden

Did William Shakespeare invent the sitcom?

In a wacky set-up worthy of a TV yuk-fest, or even an old Abbot and Costello romp, a group of proud manly-men determine they are so serious to improve their minds that they pledge to ignore the urges of other, more primal, body parts for three whole years. But within minutes, they are visited by beautiful women – one for each of them – and, suddenly, “What oath?! I don’t remember promising anything!”

That, loosely, is the plot of “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” one of the Bard’s early comedies, but a play he took great pains to craft, as it was performed for Queen Elizabeth herself. Thus we deal in the realms of nobility and courtly love. The master of our men is the King of Navarre (little kingdom between Spain and France) and his three nobles were named after popular figures of the era. The visiting party is led by the Princess of France, to discuss a deal for the lands of Aquitaine (a highly valued southern French region), but once she learns of the men’s allegedly binding oath, she puts up with being camped outside the Navarre court with her ladies as an opportunity to indulge in some fun. To please its sophisticated audience, the dialogue is woven with all manner of clever and complex speech – even when topics get a bit bawdy.

To further spice the plot, visiting Spanish noble Armado (not bound by a chaste oath) fancies the love of commoner Jaquenetta. This story crosses streams with the main one when simpleton Costard switches a love letter to her with one intended for a lady of the Princess’s company.

So much going on, and fortunately Bard Fest provides plenty of talent to pull it off. Aaron Jones is noble, in charge, and a little lonely as our King, tutor to Chris Bell as Longaville, Colby Rison as Dumaine, and Matt Hartzburg as Berowne, who resists taking the oath, but reluctantly signs. John Mortell is wonderfully blustery as smitten Armado, attended faithfully by page boy Mote (a sly yet exceptional performance by Justina Savage). Gorgi Parks Fulper charms as Jaquenetta. JB Scoble is scene-stealing Costard, playing the goof to the hilt. Connor Phelan is Dull – that’s the constable’s name and the man’s personality, which Phelan hilariously commits to. We also have Dan Flahive as schoolmaster Holofernes and Thom Johnson as Sir Nathanial, who organize an entertainment for the royal visitors.

Attending the Princess (Jennifer Kaufmann) are Maria (Brittany Davis), who is sweet on Longaville; Katherine (Abigail Simmon), who thinks Dumaine is kinda cute; and Rosaline (Rachel Kelso), who has her eye on Berowne. Kaufmann maintains royal bearing throughout, but with Kelso, in her exchanges with Hartzburg, we see an early version of Shakespeare’s trope of the smart-alec man verbally sparring with the clever woman, sparks of which kindle romance. Director John Johnson takes a hands-on approach by taking the role of the ladies’ escort, Lord Boyet.

In all, this is a fun entertainment full of clever wit and colorful characters, with little in the way of big lessons other than the Princess learning that the time for fun inevitably ends, and our gentlemen exchanging an oath made lightly for a more serious pledge. Being a less-familiar play, I’ll spoil this no further.

Performances are Friday through Sunday, Oct. 29-31, at The Cat Theater, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Get info and tickets at indybardfest.com.

Bard Fest: Scott edit does ‘Measure for Measure’ justice

By John Lyle Belden

“Measure for Measure” is classified by Shakespeare scholars as one of the Bard’s “problem plays,” fitting not quite into the comedies (though using many of the familiar devices) yet not quite a tragedy, as it doesn’t end with someone dying on stage. In adapting the drama for Bard Fest, director Paige Scott lets us know the true “problem” is injustice and misogyny.

In a mythically modern Venice, the Duke (David Mosedale) notes that many laws, especially dealing with vices, have gone unenforced for years. In a bizarre experiment, he charges pious Angelo (Zachariah Stonerock) with taking charge of the Duchy and its ordinances while away on a journey. However, he doubles back, and disguised as a priest, observes how justice is meted out. 

Things get serious quickly, as Claudio (Bradford Riley) is arrested for fornication with now-pregnant Juliette (Brittany Magee) and Angelo coldly sentences the man to death. But when the condemned man’s sister, novice nun Isabella (Morgan Morton) goes to plead for his life, Angelo agrees to do so only in exchange for the woman’s virginity. Appalled, but desperate, Isabella finds herself torn between bad options. Fortunately, a kindly priest offers a solution.

We also have a sense of Angelo’s character in the way he treats his loyal assistant Escalus (Miranda Nehrig), who takes her bruises against the glass ceiling with grin-and-bear-it frustration. 

Magee also plays sex-worker Mistress Overdone, as well as Angelo’s nearly-forgotten fiance Marianna. Further good performances from Aaron Henze as Lucio – a good friend to Claudio, but a flair for exaggeration is his undoing – and Daryl Hollonquest Jr. as Pompey, a “bawd” barely a step ahead of dogged constable Elbow (Tracy Herring).

Stonerock plays his calculating villany chillingly straight, his contemporary suit and tie reminding us that not much has changed in the last 400 years with men in charge. Morton bristles as a woman in a conflict she should never have to endure, finding her Churchly authority useless, cheapened to a powerful man’s fetish. 

There is humor and an imperfect happy ending, but Scott’s skillful edit leaves us appropriately unsettled, focused on three women bravely looking for their fair “measure.” 

This stunning, conversation-starting production has performances Friday through Sunday, Oct. 29-31, at IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, Indianapolis. Info and tickets at indybardfest.com.

Bard Fest: Agape gets wyrd with ‘Macbeth’

By John Lyle Belden

Though it is the most familiar Shakespeare work in this year’s Bard Fest, the adaptation of “Macbeth” (“the Scottish Play” to the superstitious) by director Dr. Kathy Phipps for Agape Theater Company makes the famous tragedy fresh and fascinating. 

From the opening moments, we see the production has gone all-in on the “Wyrd Sisters.” Aside from the principal three Witches – Mary Zou, Hailey Ready, Laura Sickmeier – and Queen Hecate (Sylvia Seidle), we have a full coven, with Mia Baillie, Rebekah Barajas, Ashlynn Gilmore, Anastasia Lucia, and Maggie McKinney, as they make full use of song and movement to add atmosphere and propel the plot. They are envisioned as Wood Sprites, which gives them a clever supporting role in the play’s final battle. 

But don’t put the blame for what ensues on the Witches. As always, Agape (a youth theatre program of Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church) delves into human morality and the consequences of men’s – and women’s – actions. Temptation can tell us things, but it is up to us how we use the information. Heroic Macbeth (Aidan Morris) and comrade in arms Banquo (Nathan Foster) are told that the former will become King, while the latter is father to monarchs. Banquo senses something troubling in the sprites’ words. Macbeth, seeing part of the prophecy fulfilled, eagerly embraces the rest. And upon hearing of this, Lady Macbeth (Brynn Hensley) immediately goes into murder-mode.

We get solid work from the mostly high school- and college-age cast, including Jake Hobbs as prince Malcolm; Nathan Ellenberger as Macbeth’s rival, Macduff; Kyle Hensley as Banquo’s son Fleance; and Doug Rollins (an Agape parent usually working behind the scenes) as doomed King Duncan. Sickmeier also plays Lady Macduff. Notable in support are Virginia Sever as Ross, Grant Scott-Miller as Lennox, and Carter Thurnall as Angus. 

Morris takes on the title role with gusto, part of a tradition of Shakespeare leads who charge headlong into action before thinking it through. When he does hesitate, however, his wife is there to remind him to “screw (his) courage to the sticking place.” That brings us to Brynn Hensley; the Lebanon High School senior may have put in the best performance in a festival full of strong women in strong women’s roles. She makes the most of an arc that goes from power-mad to just plain mad, even bringing out in just a word or sharp glance the play’s dark humor. 

Other touches are well-served, like frequent appearances of the unsettled dead, a murder in silhouette (part of the excellent stage design by Ian Phipps), the effective use of banners to quickly change scenes, and even a nice “reenactment” in an early scene. Agape cast and crew have taken great care to give this cursed classic it’s due. A work of “sound and fury,” as always, but with some significance after all.

Remaining performances are Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 28-30, at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., in Lawrence. Get info and tickets at www.indybardfest.com and www.artsforlawrence.org

IndyFringe: Pixel the Cat Does Shakespeare

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

To The Rescue Theater and Monroe County Civic Theater have combined their efforts to bring this charming tale to the Fringe.

Lawrence (Jason Lopez) is a tiger-striped tabby who is the protector of his territory, prowling regularly to keep out danger. Tabitha (Robin Lea Pyle) is a rambunctious kitten who doesn’t understand why her desire to climb the fence makes her a “Bad Kitty”.

Enter a Persian interloper, Pixel (Roy Sillings), who quotes feline-inspired Shakespearean variants expressing his desire to become part of their home.

Because the show is meant to be light and whimsical, it is an excellent choice for families and small children. Note as well that all moneys received from the performances here go to a local Indianapolis feline charity, Cats Haven.

Performances are in the District Theatre.

IndyFringe: Shakespeare’s Histories – Ten Epic Plays at a Breakneck Pace

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Timothy Mooney returns to IndyFringe with the show that started his series of “Breakneck” Shakespeare presentations. He sets up a one-hour timer (also the limit of a Fringe show) and proceeds to get everything said before it hits 60:00:00.

As he had done here with “Julius Caesar,” this is more a historical lecture — giving real-world context in which Shakespeare worked — than just a presentation of a play. This is essential when dealing with 10 dramas, extending through the centuries from the infamous King John all the way to Henry VIII (father of Elizabeth I, ruler in the Bard’s era). But if you are thinking of the dull, dry lessons you had in high school or college, fear not! Mooney makes the history come alive, complete with projected visual aids, and punctuated with the words Shakespeare put in these monarchs’ and nobles’ mouths. 

The keyword to all of this, Mooney explains, is succession, and the more unclear the passing of the throne goes, the more people fight and die, inspiring some great stage drama. We “tell tales of the death of kings” as “we happy few” in the audience actually get a sense of what the Wars of the Roses were, and why poor Richard would give “my kingdom for a horse!”

We even get a few words from Joan of Arc, who doesn’t come off as a saint in Shakespeare’s telling.

Those familiar with Mooney’s work will not be disappointed, and those who aren’t are in for a treat. This rapid-fire jam-packed entertainment is on the main stage of the District Theatre — one of the bigger venues, yet this might still sell out.

Bard Fest presents a ‘First’

By John Lyle Belden

As local theatre struggles to get on stage, the organization Indy Bard Fest (with the help of companies that have presented the annual Shakespeare festival under its banner) is adapting to the times. Its first production is a free outdoor staging of the Bard-inspired “Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged)” by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor (of the infamous Reduced Shakespeare Company).

Bard Fest director Glenn Dobbs has persuaded the trio of Matt Hartzburg, J.B. Scoble, and Kelsey Van Voorst — no strangers to Shakespeare, parody, on-the-spot improv, or even the abridging of Wlm. Shkspr. — to put on silly clothes and risk their lives and dignity at a “Pestilent Pocket Park” in front of a bunch of masked strangers at strategically scattered tables.

It seems that some trivial historical bones were not all that were recently found in a Leicester, England, parking lot; there was also an entirely too long and overwrought script by an aspiring young playwright from Stratford-Upon-Avon. It turned out to be much ado over nothing, a winter’s tale for another era, a massive comedy of errors, but measure for measure a potentially great first draft if broken up into thirty-odd comedies, tragedies and histories.

However, Van Voorst (whom I did “mark down as an Ass” in a past review) claims she has gotten the whole monstrosity edited down to a watchable two acts, and Hartzburg and Scoble, having nothing better to do in quarantine, are playing along.

Imagine if the Complete Works of William Shakespeare were tossed into a blender (metaphorically, paper ruins the blades, trust me) and an improv company was ordered to perform it as soon as possible, with whatever was laying around the prop room (or purchased from the local dollar store, judging by at least one price tag we saw hanging). Yes, it’s Just. That. Fun. Perhaps it’s the incredible talent involved; maybe it’s the incredible flexibility of the material of a serious playwright who loved bawdy jokes; and maybe it’s also the fact that under the law, parody is fair game even if you are poking at Disney. Yes, we all know “Lion King” = “Hamlet”, but did Uncle Walt’s company steal other ideas, and characters like Ariel and Iago, from the Immortal Bard?

There’s even an overarching plot to this mess, involving two famed magical beings (from different Shakespeare plays) who don’t get along, and carry out their feud by scrambling characters and plots from various plays into, eventually, a single setting — kinda like “Into the Woods” (does Sondheim know about this?). 

Alas, poor playgoer, I’m committing this to the ether after the opening weekend performances of July 31-Aug. 2 at the IndyFringe Pocket Park are done. But hark! There are more stagings planned for Aug. 7-8 at The Cat performance space in downtown Carmel; Aug. 21 and 23 in Indy’s Garfield Park; Aug. 28-30 in Noblesville; and more locations in September. See indybardfest.com for details. Oh, and mark that admission to all performances is free! (Sack and other accommodations may cost; donations are always welcome.) 

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.

A king’s journey, from fun with Falstaff to hostilities with Hotspur

This Show is part of Bard Fest, central Indiana’s annual Shakespeare festival. Info and tickets at www.indybardfest.com.

By John Lyle Belden

While I can heartily recommend any of this year’s Bard Fest shows, the one that has the most elements of Shakespeare’s storytelling is the oft-overlooked “Henry IV, Part 1,” presented by First Folio and directed by Glenn L. Dobbs. It combines comedy, drama, adventure, and a bit of actual British history in a rather entertaining package.

It is a story of the misspent youth of “Bonny Prince Hal” (Matthew Walls), the man who would eventually become the legendary King Henry V, as well as the struggle by his father, Henry IV (Abdul Hakim-Shabazz), to maintain a united kingdom.

Hal has his fun with best friend Ned Poins (John Mortell) as they jest with famed drunkard Sir John Falstaff (Matthew Socey) and his minions, cowardly Bardolf (Jonathen Scoble) and berserker Peto (Missy Rump). From these scenes we get a lot of laughs, and are treated to some of the Bard’s more colorfully-written insults.

Meanwhile, the King has to deal with a plot led by Henry Percy (Matt Anderson), known as Hotspur for his fiery temper, aided by relatives Worcester (Sara Castillo Dandurand) and Mortimer (Eric Mannweiler), the Scottish Earl of Douglas (Andy Burnett), and Welsh rebel Glendower (David Mosedale). On Henry’s side stand Sir Walter Blunt (Eli Robinson), Lord Westmoreland (Brian Kennedy), and eventually Hal, the Prince of Wales himself, having sworn off his prior foolishness.

The decisive battle that ensues gives the narrative a sense of completion, especially in Hal’s arc from boy to man, but leaves sufficient details to be resolved in the more serious “Henry IV, Part 2.” Still, this play easily stands alone.

Our cast inhabit the roles naturally — perhaps Socey is just an alias for Falstaff? Hakim-Shabazz is appropriately noble, Walls slips easily into Hal’s many modes, and Anderson can play a villain like no other. Also notable are Afton Shepard as Percy’s bitter wife (as well as a sweet “working girl” at the tavern), and Michelle Wafford as a Welsh lady betrothed to a man she loves but whose language she can’t understand, and especially as the in-charge Hostess of the Boar’s Head Tavern.

Remaining performances are 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday (with talkback afterward) and 1 p.m. Sunday at the District Theatre, 627 Massachusetts Ave.