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.

Shakespeare fun and foolishness set to music

By John Lyle Belden

It’s hardly a new idea to base a musical on a Shakespeare play (a recent Oscar-winning remake of an Oscar-winning film comes to mind). New York based songwriter Shaina Taub, with Kwame Kwei-Armah, adapted the Bard’s comedy “Twelfth Night” for its musical debut in Central Park in 2018.

Southbank Theatre Company brings that version to the IndyFringe Theatre (outdoors preferably, but on the Basile stage in bad weather) through May 8. 

If the story doesn’t easily spring to mind, note it is where we get the quote, “If music be the food of love, play on.” The play checks many of the boxes for a Shakespeare comedy: disguises, mistaken identities, siblings separated, wild wooing, nobles who will not marry, and ending up with a wedding anyway.

What makes this musical version exciting and interesting is that Taub’s songs do more than just put a tune behind Shakespeare’s words. They illuminate the themes of this old story, making it fresh and relatable. This makes the show the perfect companion to a traditional production of the play.

For instance, our central character Viola (Michelle Wofford), a woman recently arrived in mythical Illyria (vicinity of today’s Albania) finds it safer to disguise herself as a man, opening up surprising opportunities. In the song “Viola’s Soliloquy,” she sings of “the Devil’s blessing” that simply wearing trousers gives her.  

Viola, taking the name Cesario, finds her/himself between Duke Orsinio (Dave Pelsue), his employer, and the Countess Olivia (Natalie Fischer), who keeps spurning Orsinio’s advances, but has found herself smitten with Cesario. However, the Viola within the disguise pines for Orsinio, who only sees in her a dutiful young man.

Still, this wouldn’t be a Shakespeare comedy without the silly subplots. There is much opportunity for merriment in the Countess’s court, with sack-sotted Sir Toby Belch (Mark Cashwell), worst-at-wooing Sir Andrew (Kim Egan), mischievous Maria (Brittney Michelle Davis) and Fabian (Jordan Paul Wolf), who all seek to take pompous Molvolio (Hannah Boswell) down a peg or two.

Then there is the arrival of Viola’s lost-at-sea twin brother Sebastian (Matthew Blandford), accompanied by his rescuer Antonio (Z Cosby), who braves arrest to be by the man he secretly loves. Other roles are played by Brant Hughes, Ron Perkins and Yolanda Valdivia, who is also on hand as Officiant for the inevitable marriages. 

All this is accompanied by a live band, and the wit and wisdom of accordion-wielding jester Feste (Paige Scott).

With all the action of the classic comedy, but condensed down to a manageable hour and a half, this romp is an excellent showcase for the talented cast. Scott is simply amazing, whether giving chiding counsel, a beautiful ballad, or some handy narration to the audience. Speaking of fools, Boswell is a riot in an arc that goes from bombastic to pathetic, but always fun. Cashwell employs his improv skills and comic chops to great effect. Pelsue has long cornered the market on cool-guy-who-can-sing, so is totally in his element. Fischer has the sweet/feisty mix down perfectly. And Wafford is endearing with an inner strength befitting the character. Everyone else? Awesome, awesome, awesome – directed by Max McCreary with musical direction by Ginger Stoltz.

Performances are Thursday through Saturday evenings, and Sunday afternoon, at IndyFringe, 719 E. St. Clair, Indianapolis. Get information at southbanktheatre.org and tickets at indyfringe.org.

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 Thompson) 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.