Indy Bard Fest’s Band of Sisters

By John Lyle Belden

During World War II, Fort Benjamin Harrison had America’s largest Reception Center for soldiers joining the Allied effort. Meanwhile, the civilians in Lawrence, Ind., adapted to life in wartime. Things were going to be different, but it helps to have something familiar.

This sets the scene for Indy Bard Fest’s production of “Into the Breeches!” by George Brant, at, appropriately, Theater at the Fort through Sunday. 

The Shakespeare-focused Oberon Theater has gone dark as the male actors and crew have gone off to fight, but Maggie Dalton (Madeline Dulabaum) honors her husband’s wish to keep the stage alive by producing the Henriad (Shakespeare’s Henry IV and V plays) with a small cast of women – a thing no one would even imagine trying before 1942. But these are highly unusual times, and Maggie has convinced the Oberon’s legendary Celeste Fielding (Susan Hill) to take a lead role. Still, board chairman Ellsworth Snow (Kelly Keller) isn’t on board until his wife, Winnifred (Tracy Herring), expresses interest in taking a part. 

With the help of stage manager Stuart (Kaya Dorsch) and costumer Ida (Anja Willis), Maggie auditions and casts servicemen’s wives June (Michelle Wafford), who is heavily involved in homefront resource drives, and Grace (Dani Gibbs), who sees this as a way not to dwell on the dangers her husband must be facing.

“We happy few”? Not entirely. For diva Celeste, it’s Prince Hal or nothing; and the company risks it all by the necessity of casting Ida, who is Black, and Stuart coming out of the closet to take the female roles. Mr. Snow is again concerned, to say the least.

This is a wonderful production, with bright optimism tempered by the shadows of war, an excellent snapshot of life on the Homefront, with its own distinct stresses. Performances are heroic, starting with Dulabaum’s portrayal of how stage director is such a varied rank – from the leadership of a field officer to the cunning of that enlisted hand who always comes up with just what the company needs. 

Hill makes Celeste both adorable and unbearable, impossible and essential – her method for helping fellow actors “man up” is a comic high point. Wafford is a “Do your part!” poster at full volume, but also unwavering in her love of the stage. Gibbs is a stellar talent playing one realizing her own potential, and the strength necessary to endure a lack of news from the front. 

Willis gives insight on facing inequality at home in a land fighting for freedom overseas. Dorsch gives us Stuart’s personal dedication and bravery in what was a dangerous time on all fronts. Herring is a delight, especially as Winnifred discovers her inner Falstaff. As for Keller as the frustrated husband, how he has Ellsworth come around is too adorable to spoil here. 

A big salute to director Max Andrew McCreary for putting this together, including stage design, with the help of Natalie Fischer and stage manager Case Jacobus.

For information on this and future Bard Fest productions, visit indybardfest.com.

Bard Fest: Merrily we ROFL along

This is part of Indy Bard Fest 2022, the annual Indianapolis area Shakespeare Festival. For information and tickets, visit indybardfest.com.

By John Lyle Belden

It is said that Queen Elizabeth I was quite taken with the character of Sir John Falstaff in William Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” (Parts I and II). This merry prankster would end up as much the butt of the joke as the instigator, and helps humanize Prince Hal, the eventual King Henry V. So, legend goes, Her Majesty ordered Shakespeare to whip up a play featuring the bawdy knight in love.

The result, by whatever origin, is “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” now presented at the IndyFringe Theatre, directed by Jeff Bick. The comedy is presented in an over-the-top style that common folk who paid a penny to see a show around the year 1600 would have loved. Sir John (Thomas Sebald), who appears to have a beach ball for a belly, is less interested in “sack” wine and more contemplating what middle-aged women he can get in the sack, so to speak.

This production focuses on two comic plotlines. True to the Bard’s penchant for including a wedding in his comedies, young beauty Anne Page (Sophie Peirce) is being wooed by three men: Slender (Ben Elliot), the doltish son of Justice Swallow (Michael Bick), who in turn is friends with Anne’s dad, Master Page (Tom Smith); the very French doctor Caius (Rian Capshew), who has the approval of Mistress Page (Dana Lesh); and young gentleman Fenton (Connor Phelan), whom Anne comes to prefer despite his having the lightest purse.

The other source of drama and mirth is, of course, Falstaff. He covets not one man’s wife, but two, and sends his squire Robin (Lyndsi Wood) with identical letters to Mistress Page and Mistress Ford (Kelly BeDell). The women being best friends, this attempted courtship will backfire in spectacular fashion. Master Page has no doubt his headstrong wife can take care of herself, but Master Ford (John Johnson) is more wary, and goes to Falstaff disguised as fellow lothario “Brook” to get in on the plot.

“Hilarity ensues” is putting it mildly. Much boisterous laughter was had throughout the audience. Adding to the fun in supporting roles are Angela Dill as busily devious servant Mistress Quickly and Ryan Shelton as thick-tongued Welsh vicar Sir Hugh Evans. Other servants are portrayed by Colby Rison, Nelani Huntington, Carolyn Jones and Patrick Lines.

Sebald ably plays the buffoon under the delusion of dignity. Lesh and Bedell are the stars here, with Lucy-and-Ethel chemistry as they gain the upper hand on all the men. Johnson is goofy fun, letting himself be the second-biggest fool on the stage.

And the antics of the Falstaff plot eventually work to resolve the romantic storyline. Shakespeare’s clever like that.

For an evening of silly fun – which includes, just in time for Halloween, a spooky Faerie encounter – meet the Merry Wives this Friday through Sunday, Oct. 28-30, at 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis.

Orange is the new Bard

This is part of Indy Bard Fest 2022, the annual Indianapolis area Shakespeare Festival. For information and tickets, visit indybardfest.com.

By John Lyle Belden

Welcome to a secure common room at a local women’s prison. The ladies of D Block present for the visitors (us) the fruits of their fine arts program, a staging of William Shakespeare’s “Richard II,” adapted by the company with director Glenn Dobbs.

For those like me who sometimes struggle to keep all the Histories straight, Richard II (1377-1399) rules England over 150 years after the fall of King John – who was brother to Richard I (Lionheart), among the first Plantagenet Kings, and the unfortunate subject of another Bard Fest offering this year. Richard will end his reign childless (no obvious heir) as the Plantagenets fracture into the Houses of Lancaster and York in the Wars of the Roses. Also, like John, he is not regarded well by history and lore, considered a tyrant especially as he was a big believer in a king’s absolute power by Divine Right.

As presented by these orange-clad thespians, we easily accept that the mostly-male characters will all have feminine voices. This cast of local actors (not real felons, but play along) get to engage in two levels of character work. Aside from portraying the machinations of the 14th Century English Court, they are also women forged in difficult circumstance, feeling a familiarity to this treacherous culture. At any moment, your blood could be on the floor. To emphasize a challenge, a pack of premium smokes cast down is your gauntlet. Which boss inmate you follow can be a matter of life or death, and that crown – whether metal or bandana – is never fully secure.

Outstanding talents take the lead: Afton Shepard as Richard and Rayanna Bibbs as cousin/rival/successor Bolingbroke; with Damick Lalioff as the Duke of York, Evangeline Bouw as Richard’s faithful noble Aumerle, Savannah Scarborough as Bolingbroke’s right hand Northumberland, Nan Macy as John of Gaunt and the Duchess of York, and Sofy Vida as the banished Mowbray and secretive Bishop of Carlisle. Great contributions as well by Missy Rump, Genna Sever, Gracie Streib, Rachel Kelso, Jamie Devine, Gillian Bennett, Gillian Lintz, and a special shout-out to young Ellie Richart as Richard at coronation.

Shepard gives the kind of strong performance we’ve come to expect from her, showing all the various infamous aspects of the King, delivered with an instability that flows from the madness of power to the wilder madness of being without it. Bibbs gives a commanding performance like someone who somehow knows he will be the title character of the next two plays in the series. Bouw gives us a tragic character we can feel for, a young Duke sure he is on the right side – until he isn’t – then all too desperate to redeem himself. Lalioff smartly plays York as shrewd and decisive (things Richard is not), enabling him to ride the changing tides. Macy is again a marvel in her paternal and maternal roles.

It is from this play we get the line, “let us… tell sad stories of the death of kings,” and what a story we are delivered here! Three performances remain, Friday through Sunday, Oct. 28-30, in the Indy Eleven Theatre at the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair, Indianapolis.  

Bard Fest: Humor and History with ‘King John’

This is part of Indy Bard Fest 2022, the annual Indianapolis area Shakespeare Festival. For information and tickets, visit indybardfest.com.

By John Lyle Belden

When most of us last saw or even thought of King John of England, he was still a Prince, frustrated with the antics of Robin Hood.

However, while Robin is legendary, there was a real John. Those taxes the Merry Men resented were a literal king’s ransom to rescue King Richard the Lionheart, his Crusading brother, and once John did ascend to the crown himself, his big achievement was getting badgered by the nobility to sign the Magna Carta. It didn’t help his reputation that he lost most of England’s lands in modern France, and that with historians he is overshadowed by one of the most awesome women of Medieval Europe, his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Can even William Shakespeare rehabilitate the image of this man? His “The Life and Death of King John” reads more like a complex cautionary tale with its twists of fate, as well as digs at the expense of France and the Catholic Church to keep Elizabethan audiences happy.

Now it is in the gentle hands of local director Doug Powers, who brings the Indy Bard Fest production of “King John” to The Shelton Auditorium at Butler University. His handling of the text brings out the humor in this history play, borne of the constant shifts between belligerence and brokered peace. The flow of the plot goes like: We’re at war! Now we’re not! We’re at war again! We’re… where were we…? There’s a dry, almost Pythonesque feel to some of the scenes, eliciting several chuckles from the audience.

Excellent casting helps: Zachary Stonerock gives John a sense of purpose, edged with frustration and notoriously quick temper. He strives to be a good ruler, while his mouth writes checks his army can’t cash. Gari Williams gives Queen Eleanor the regal bearing she held to her last days, her counsel helping keep John on task. Kevin Caraher portrays Philip of France as a monarch weary of war, but not relenting until his son Louis the Dauphin (Cael Savidge) and Duke Arthur (Max Gallagher), who has a claim to England’s throne, get their due. Star turns in supporting roles include Sabrina Duprey, who finds herself little more than a pawn in this game as Princess Blanche of Spain; Tony Armstrong as Hubert, a faithful servant with an impossible choice; and the brilliant Matt Anderson, first as a citizen of a besieged city who offers a crucial compromise, and later as Cardinal Pandulph, who acts with the Pope’s authority to excommunicate King John.

The top performances here are by Georgeanna Smith Wade in two fiery mother roles – most notably railing at all the politicking and half-measures keeping young Arthur from the throne – and by Taylor Cox as Philip “The Bastard” Faulconbridge, illegitimate son of John’s brother Richard, named a Knight in the King’s forces. Cox exudes a brash confidence that seems unearned at first, growing throughout as his role makes him both provocateur and chorus, giving many a sly aside or clever commentary to us watching.

Once again, Bard Fest has served up a Shakespeare work we don’t often see and makes it entertain and even enlightening when compared to the fickle nature of modern statecraft. Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday, Oct. 14-16 at the Shelton, 1000 W. 42nd Street, on the grounds Butler shares with Christian Theological Seminary.

IndyFringe: Breakneck Comedy of Errors

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Tim Mooney returns with his one-man production of one of Shakespeare’s zaniest plays.

Wearing literally dozens of hats to try to help keep the characters straight (there are two sets of identical twins with each pair sharing the same name), he gives us “Breakneck Comedy of Errors,” presenting the entire Shakespeare comedy within the 1-hour limit of a Fringe show.

While his other offerings relied more strongly on various monologues, this one keeps things sparkling with witty commentary. For example, after one brother and his servant spend years searching for each’s twin, when the brother encounters his servant’s twin who gives him a totally different account of their previous interaction, rather than considering that this might be his servant’s twin brother (for whom they have sought) , he immediately thinks that the country is full of sorcerers and they must leave or be killed by the witches. Needless to say, with so many cases of mistaken identity throughout the story, hilarity ensues.

So, if you are a fan of Mr. Mooney, The Bard, or just looking for a goofy time with lots of hats, this is the show for you. Content is appropriate for all ages; while younger children will likely not follow the plot, they will still enjoy the show. Remaining performances are Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, Aug. 27-28, at the Indy Eleven stage of the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair.

The beats of a different Shakespeare

King Richard III (top) literally holds the throne as “Ricky 3” comes out of Intermission.

By John Lyle Belden

It’s a theme as old as theatre: An ambitious ruler steps on so many people on his way up, that those who aren’t killed make sure he has nothing on the way down, not even a horse. As William Shakespeare wrote such a history of England’s King Richard III, the Tudor lineage that violently dethroned him was in charge. So, no gray area with this character; our central figure not only acts as a villain but gleefully describes himself as one. As for everyone else? Lessons on power, complacency and misplaced trust abound, making this – like much of the Bard’s catalogue – a feature on stages again and again.

Now, we meet the ruthless monarch in “Ricky 3: A Hip Hop Shakespeare Richard III,” presented outdoors by Indianapolis Shakespeare Company, which evolved from the former Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre that held annual Shakespeare in the Park productions.

“IndyShakes” Artistic Director Ryan Artzberger (a familiar face from numerous productions around Indy, including the IRT’s annual “Christmas Carol”) drew from his appreciation of the rhythms of both Shakespeare and Hip-Hop in working with local creatives including Nigel Long, Geechie, and director Mikael Burke, as the long drama was carefully trimmed, then the text’s beats and rhymes matched to carefully curated DJ grooves.

Comparisons to “Hamilton” are unavoidable, but this is not a musical. The flow and beat emphasize the poetry, as well as the nuances of the plot, making the show relatively easy to follow, despite most actors playing various roles. Artzberger notes this is not an “adaptation;” he took care that nearly every line is Shakespeare’s. It is not completely rapped-through, which I found intriguing. Still, I feel that, as a first venture into this melding, it leans more towards respecting the arts going into it than indulging what could be seen as a gimmick.

The classic beauty of the spacious Taggart Memorial Amphitheatre in Riverside Park is juxtaposed by a simple but effective stage design by Sydney Lynn Thomas: a simple metal frame holds the Throne on high, surrounded by black cases that would hold its pieces at breakdown, hinting at the here-today/gone-tomorrow nature of the royals’ reigns. This puts the visual focus on subtle (except moments when it isn’t) and effective lighting by Laura Glover, and the exquisite costumes by Tonie Smith, effectively blending the styles of Africa, Shakespeare-era England, and today’s Urban culture.

I don’t know who Shawnte P. Gaston tapped into to portray Richard, but I don’t want to be that person’s enemy. Imagine the worst anyone lied to your face, manipulated you, had you believing things aren’t as they are, used you for favors and discarded you – all with a big smile – and add the willingness to pay people to poke swords into you. It’s the positive empowered Black woman corrupted in the most tragic manner, and Gaston relishes the ride the whole way. Note that she seems to be this 21st-century female archetype portraying the 15th-century male Duke of Gloucester. The “deformity” of Richard is an allusion to the way a current woman of color may feel disrespected, discarded and ignored.

The rest of the company – LaKesha Lorene, Akili Ni Mali, Chinyelu Mwaafrika, Eric D. Saunders, Kerrington Shorter, Manon Voice, Milicent Wright, and young Quintin Gildon Jr. as the ghost of a murdered prince – acquit themselves very well in various roles. Wright’s powerful speeches as mad ex-queen Margaret sparked spontaneous applause.  

This unique cultural experience is worth your time and the effort to find it at 2441 N. White River Parkway E. Drive, Indianapolis (or north on East Riverside from 16th Street east of the White River, turn left at the park), and no cost at all to attend, though all are required to set up free tickets at indyshakes.com. See the site for details. Performances are Thursday through Saturday, July 28-30, at 8 p.m.

What a ‘Dream’!

By John Lyle Belden

There is a land of centuries-old mysteries, equal parts pagan celebration and reverent tradition working in unique harmony, where in shadowy woods the very air is sodden with magick – Louisiana.

It is in the bayou town of Athens that we find the familiar yet always fresh William Shakespeare rom-com “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” presented by Bard Fest with Arts for Lawrence in the park amphitheater behind Theater at the Fort, a production called “Shakespeare at the Fort.”

As appropriate to a free public “in the park” Shakespeare play, this “Dream,” directed by Matthew Socey, is highly entertaining regardless of if you’ve practically memorized it, or you slept through high school Lit and have only heard the title in conversation. Wendy said to me afterward that this is not only one of the best “Midsummers” she has seen, but easiest version to follow.

For those who need it, here’s the silly and overall simple plot (Cajun version): The most respected man in the Parish, Duke Theseus (Jo Bennett) and his lovely amazon, Hippolyta (Afton Shepard) are to be married, but they are first asked to settle the engagement of Demetrius (Matthew Walls) to Hermia (Maggie Lengerich) at the insistence of her mama Egeus (Sarah Froehlke) because Hermia wants to marry Lysandra (Kristie Shuh). Fair Helena (Evangeline Bouw) wishes to wed Demetrius, who is repulsed by her playing so easy-to-get. The Duke puts it all off to the wedding celebration day, and everyone agrees to disagree.

Most of the action occurs out in the spooky forest outside town.

Is that a Tulane track star at home for summer break that we see? Naw, it’s Robin Goodfellow (Diane Tsao)! One of the bayou faerie folk, that trickster Puck only answers to the local voodoo king, Oberon (Bennett), who is having some words with his queen Titania (Shepard) over the custody of a little Indian girl becoming their half-fae Changeling (Beatrice Hartz). To aid in childcare are Titania’s faeries Cobweb (Jamie Devine), Moth (Samantha Kelly), and Mustardseed (Monica Hartz).

Then, trompin’ around these woods are common folk of the Mechanical trades who wish to put on a play for the Duke’s wedding, rehearsing in secret. Exceedingly patient director Petra Quill (Chynna Fry) is staging the old favorite “Pyramus and Thisbee” starring Flute (Justina Savage) as Thisbee, Starveling (Emily Hauer) as Moonshine, Snout (Beverly Roche) as Wall, Snug (Froehlke) as a Gator, and the colorful Bottom (Kelsey VanVoorst) as Pyramus. But then, stuff happens.

A lot of stuff happens – go see the play!

The vicinity of New Orleans is a perfect setting, and not just to try out some passable Southern accents. The environment is embraced in the music used, costuming, and just the otherworldly air of the whole show. More people have watched “True Blood” and other bayou-set stories than have visited Greece, so engaging the audience is easy. The change in what kind of beast chases Thisbee works perfectly and adds to the comedy. (Fear the Chomp!) It all contributes to a flavorful comic gumbo that goes down easy.

And finally, we have a place where the Elizabethan habit of English people always saying “adieu” makes sense.

The stage would be a bit small for most serious productions, but the intimate nature of it and the surrounding lawn allows for an immersive and interactive experience. Entrances and exits are literally from and to anywhere, fairies dance with kids in the audience, and in an ingenious move, the nobles viewing the Mechanicals’ play are seated in the exact center of the audience. Rather than divide our attention at one end of the stage, they are out of the corners of our eyes, allowing us to enjoy the unintentional hilarity of the play-within-the-play on the stage, while they comment and quip like posh robots from Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The cross-gender casting, which has become more common across all stages in recent years, feels more natural here, and non-hetero feelings add to the stress of our four mortal lovers. In a great mockery of Shakespeare-era plays having boys play women, Savage shines as (pardon if I’m wrong on personal gender) a female actor playing a man who resents having to play a woman. Fry’s Petra aside, the other Mechanicals portray rough men in a gentle art (adding to comic potential).

The double-casting of Oberon/Theseus and Titania/Hippolyta is good as it always is in bringing a unity to the overall play, but largely stopping there avoids audience confusion. (Since we never see them in the same room, perhaps they are secretly the same entities? Voodoo works in mysterious ways.)

The whole cast, top to Bottom, are exceptional – which is praise I often heap on every one of these actors individually in practically everything they do. And to that I’ll add Guy Grubbs as Theseus’ servant Philostrate, whose every entry is a punchline.

The above aside, I’ll toss my text roses at the wonderful surprise that is 7-year-old Beatrice Hartz. Anyone who saw the advance photos of Shepard holding the Changeling as just promotional can be forgiven (if I can be) for thinking her just a dancing prop in the play. With the assurance of her mother in the cast (and her father and a best friend in the front row opening night), she flits her way into and out of her every scene and cue like a pro. Her confidence radiates, and feeds into her character as the fellow fae play along. In this world, she will be become a power to rival her sitters, so it adds meaning as she literally calls their dances at one point, and when she places her hand before a character in a “halt” gesture (which is obeyed) we almost feel the invisible door close. She even gets to speak a line.

Classic with a twist? A drug-induced fever-dream by Tennessee Williams? However you think of it, the price is right – free, but please “buy” $0 tickets online for headcount. While the content is family friendly and the site is easy to reach, do note a few things. The weather is Louisiana-like with high heat and humidity, so shading, sunscreen, and hydration are advised as the play starts before sundown. A couple of food trucks are nearby, and picnics are OK. Bring your own lawn chairs, or sit on a blanket. And in these intimate confines the company goes old-school with no microphones on actors. Fortunately, most lines seem to be uttered in an excited state, but a little audience noise discipline, extending to the nearby swings, would be appreciated.

Performances are just this one weekend: 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 22; Saturday, July 23; and Sunday, July 24; at the small park behind Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., Lawrence (far north end of Indy’s Post Road). Tickets and info at indybardfest.com and artsforlawrence.org.

Visual storyteller Gregory Hancock sets new season

By John Lyle Belden

First, a bit of unfinished business. After seeing the opening of Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre’s “Antony & Cleopatra” in June, I posted a quick review on the PWJW Facebook page but have yet to officially add a write-up here. Since, like many companies, GHDT can shine up an old gem and give it another whirl in a future season, this may be some useful commentary:

Like most of his work, this production has choreography and costumes by Gregory Glade Hancock. In addition, he insisted on music and songs by award-winning composer Cory Gabel, who also worked with him on 2018’s “The Casket Girls.”

Aside from being a dance showcase without spoken lines, this “Antony and Cleopatra” is quite different from the Shakespeare play in the story it tells. The narrative is pared down and freely adapted, with adventurous casting. It is set not in Roman-era Egypt, but a more modern time – the nightlife world of Club Isis. Gabel’s songs include (prerecorded) vocals, combining with power-pop and dance music for a feel reminiscent of “Movin’ Out,” with the song lyrics and movement weaving the plot to good effect.

The two men in the company, Adrian Dominguez and Thomas Mason, are the title characters respectively. Not just supporting characters (in both the role and lifting-the-women sense), this is quite a showcase for their talents, especially in a beautifully sensuous pas de deux.

Also incredible are Abigail Lessaris as Antony’s spurned wife Octavia, and Zoe Maish as Lamprius the Soothsayer, agent of Fate. As usual, there are first-rate performances from the whole company, including “G2”.

Even (especially?) with its toying with setting and gender, Hancock’s production is still a compelling fascinating story of forbidden desire and love, rash actions and tragic consequences. It may not be what actually took place in Roman Alexandria, but note the Bard wasn’t a historian, either.

The next performance of “Antony and Cleopatra”… is when Mr. Hancock and company feel like doing it.

To open the 2022-23 season, GHDT celebrates a quarter century of dance with the “25th Season Celebration,” Aug. 26-27 at The Tarkington in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. According to the press release, Hancock “link(s) together theatrical tales from throughout GHDT’s rich 25-year history and will tell the collective story through moving, poignant and memorable theater, thrilling movement, and beautiful music.” Sounds like fun.

This year’s remaining performances also have an air of the familiar. October 28-29, Hancock’s “There’s No Place Like Home” returns. This wonderful production, inspired by “The Wizard of Oz,” is based on young Hancock’s journey of discovery as the Boy from Kansas in a strange land, with dance drenched in the magic and culture of India. Performances will again be at the Tarkington; see our prior review for more info.

This is followed on December 2-3 with the holiday classic, “The Nutcracker.” Everyone has their Christmas traditions; if this is yours, get your seats at the Pike Performing Arts Center (6701 Zionsville Road, Indianapolis).

Celebrating the new this season is “New World Dances” on weekends of February 11-26, 2023, featuring work that Hancock created during the recent pandemic, presented at The Florence, GHDT’s new black box performance space, 329 Gradle Drive, Carmel.

This anniversary “season of reflection” also includes “Illumination,” April 7-8, with a spiritual theme, and “Director’s Choice,” June 9-10, which Hancock (naturally) picks, both at The Tarkington in Carmel.

For the information and tickets, see gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org.

Agape youth willing to ‘rumble’ with tough topics

By John Lyle Belden

Agape Theater Company, a middle- through high school youth program hosted by Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church, has a particular approach. It takes on classic stage works – from Shakespeare to Broadway – with an eye to the moral and spiritual lessons they hold. In June, they tackled the subject of a Tony winner with now two Oscar-winning film productions: “West Side Story.”

(Various excuses I could give prevented Wendy and I from attending opening weekend, but Agape invited us for the closing.)

With book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the mid-20th century musical is based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” with feuding families replaced by rival street gangs: the Jets, white kids whose working-class families are getting pinched by Manhattan’s building boom; and the Sharks, young immigrants from Puerto Rico hoping for their own American Dream. Personally, I think the “Story” is a little better than in R&J, as the tension and stakes are a little more real with a clash of two cultures, and Tony (our stand-in for Romeo) is, while still a lovesick fool, less immaturely foolish than that boy in Fair Verona. Plus, there are those cool songs (reeeal cool).

Directed by Kathy Phipps with musical director April Barnes, the young cast gave a top-notch performance. The present medical concerns that put a lot of understudies and swings on the stage in New York also struck here, yet the company managed to roll with the changes, with only a couple of cancellations, and making cast changes without losing a step.

Bursting with talent and Latinx pride are Rebekah Barajas as Maria, Jaelynn Keating as Anita, and Cordale Hankins as Sharks leader Bernardo. Leading the Jets with an ever-tense feeling their turf is slipping away are smooth Riff (Grant Scott-Miller, u/s Nathan Ellenberger) and hot-headed Action (Clayton Mutchman), who long for their true leader, Tony (Johnny Gaiffe, u/s Caleb Wilson) to take charge. But Tony has a real job, and senses real possibilities (“Something’s Coming”) but as the saying goes, “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet.” The gangs want to have the rumble (gang-fight) to end all rumbles, with the terms set at the neutral-ground school dance. Tony and Maria are each reluctant to attend, but they go – they meet – and their fates are set.

Other tensions include the cops, ever-present but always a step behind (and the butt of the joke in one song). More subtle is the hint dropped by Bernardo that Tony is called “Pollack” behind his back, not even fully respected by his fellow Caucasians. In today’s climate, we especially feel for “tomboy” Anybodys (Aleah Mutchman, u/s Jocelyne Brake) and the desire to join a hoodlum gang being their only hope for being “one of the boys.”

The dancing and acting were superb – having actors the ages of their characters helped – as were the voices, heartbreaking at times. Still, despite the fun moments, the story is still a tragedy. There was no backing down from the dark moments, complete with believable anguish.

In a promotional video, the principal cast spoke of the emotional burden they were taking on, and of being true to all who have done these roles before. When asked what they hoped the audience would take away, the unanimous answer was that all would take time to look past people’s differences and let go of hate. They did well towards accomplishing that mission.

Agape will next perform at IndyFringe in August, with “Sing Down the Moon: Appalachian Wonder Tales.” They also return to Indy Bard Fest this fall with Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.” For more information, including supporting this 501c3, visit agapetheatercompany.com.

Footlite makes ‘Rotten’ a sweet show

By John Lyle Belden

Once upon a time, and what a time it was! It was the Renaissance, and in England there were many people you know well – if you are a scholar of the Renaissance in England. But for the rest of us there was one superstar, who was actually quite famous in his own day.

William Shakespeare!

But the hit Broadway musical “Something Rotten!” is not about him (though, being himself, he butts in). It concerns one of his many theatrical rivals, who is so unknown he’s downright fictional (this is a musical, not a documentary), Nick Bottom! And we see the lengths Bottom went to be on top.

Written by Kary Kirkpatrick, Wayne Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell – with some lines by the Bard which are public domain anyway – this show is brought to the stage by Footlite Musicals, directed by Ed Trout, through this weekend.

Nick hates Shakespeare – a feeling borne of jealousy because he kicked Will out of his acting troupe, telling him to try something else, like writing, and he did. Now Nick (Kayvon Emtiaz) and his brother, genius poet Nigel (Roy Bridges) are struggling to get a play produced. It was going to be about Richard II, but you-know-who is getting one on stage first, and the patron Lord Clapham (Joshua Cox) is going to pull funding unless the Bottoms come up with a sure-fire original show.

And what is worse, now Nick’s wife Beatrice (Jessica Hawkins) is disguising herself as a man to find work to feed them.

Desperate, Nick seeks out a soothsayer (Darrin Gowan), calling himself Nostradamus (the famous one’s nephew), to find out what the future of theatre will be. Surprisingly, the mage is not a fraud, and he forsees – musicals!

Meanwhile, Nigel encounters Portia (Ellen Vander Missen), daughter of strict Puritan pastor Brother Jeremiah (Dennis Jones). Nigel discovers Portia secretly enjoys poetry and plays, beginning their secret though chaste affair. She inspires him so much, he even shows some verses to Shakespeare (Rick Barber), but Nick warns his brother off dealing with the Bard, as they have their own show to create.

With past monarchs off the table, what well-known aspect of history could our playwrights use for their first musical? “The Black Death” is dying in rehearsals, so Nick gets more desperate, and paying his last farthing, asks Nostradamus what Shakespeare’s greatest work will be, so that he may copy it in musical form.

The visions are cloudy, but the answer seems to be “Omelette.”

So, songs about eggs it is.

Yes, this comedy with singing is just as silly as it sounds, and even more funny. While an homage to everything Shakespeare — as well as parodying his superstar status (both then and now) — practically every modern musical hit gets skewered in the process. We even get the Jewish producer, Shylock (Dan Miller). Ervin Gainer is the Minstrel who gets the whole thing started off.

Could we all use a good laugh now? This is a great laugh. All performances are spot-on and hilarious, especially Emtiaz as our frustrated hero, Barber as the jaded icon (secretly stuck for a new idea as well), Hawkins as the take-it-in-stride spouse, and especially Gowan as the seer who barely believes the bits that are in focus – “a bunch of cats, on stage, singing… no, wait… no, it’s actually a bunch of cats on stage singing.”

If you like Shakespeare or musicals at all, you must see this almost-Shakespeare musical. Performances are Thursday through Sunday at the Hedback Theatre, 1847 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis. Info and tickets at footlite.org.