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.

Uneasy relationships in Southbank production

By John Lyle Belden

Ever have those people in your life who are just awful, yet they’re somehow your best friends? Thanks to shows like TV’s “Seinfeld,” we can see what it’s like when such people are besties with each other. Now imagine if these persons that you love, yet wouldn’t trust to watch your houseplants, had real problems and real feelings.

This, with a healthy dose of father-daughter issues, is the world of Nina Raine’s play, “Rabbit.” Her first produced work, debuting to acclaim in 2006 on London’s West End prior to a hit Off-Broadway run, gets local treatment with director Marcia Eppich-Harris for her Southbank Theatre Company at the Storefront Theatre in Broad Ripple.

Bella (Emily Ann Scott) is trying to help her testy father (Craig Kemp) with his neurological issues. It becomes plain through this play that they have a complex history, arguably abusive but tinged with love and the universal desire for a child to please her parent. She’s trying to help him recover from a stroke – but it’s not a stroke, and he’s not recovering.

From this scene we go to the main setting, a London bar where Bella starts celebrating her 29th birthday with friend Emily (Trick Blanchfield), who launches into a tone-deaf gripe about a hearing-impaired coworker. Changing the subject, they discuss who will join them at the party. An impromptu choice is Tom (Brant Hughes), an ex-lover of Bella’s who doesn’t seem to mind abandoning the women he had been with to join them.

They will also be joined by lawyer (a Barrister, complete with wig in his satchel) and struggling fiction author Richard (Ryan Powell), a long-time friend whom Bella had also slept with. Rounding out the party is American ex-pat, writer, and scratch-offs enthusiast Sandy (Joy Shurn). Prior to her arrival, Richard refers to Sandy as a “sexual kleptomaniac” – which sounds odd, but you come to understand he has a point.

When not appearing in flashbacks as the father, Kemp stays in the background as the quietly smiling bartender, a device which aids in the flow of the play. Raine’s storytelling skills, as well as those of Kemp and Eppich-Harris, come through in his vignettes and dreamlike moments that give context to Bella’s inner struggle, as well as the visible personality flaws that equally not-nice-but-they-try friends just take in stride. Were this a Brit-com like “Coupling” or the UK’s “Men Behaving Badly” (or America’s “Seinfeld”), she’d be seen as a bitch for bitch’s sake, controlling and harsh to others while easily wounded.

Not that the others are angels – Richard goes into a rant that could be described as playfully misogynistic, which seems both earnest and just getting a rise out of the ladies for fun. But this also gives Bella an opportunity to comment harshly on the roles and expectations of women in 21st century feminism, while living in the shadows of past leaders. Emily, a practicing physician, is hard-pressed to agree or refute.

Tom is a cypher with a Scottish accent (he “work(s) in the city”), but that gives Hughes room to work with to make the character interesting. In another setting, perhaps Sandy would be the “ugly American;” here she can be the voice of reason.  

The pace of our better angels quietly spinning out of control is given by a clever visual metaphor, front and center. Even as we might struggle to like, or at least understand, the characters, this whole becomes much better and more poignant than the sum of its parts.

And what of the title? It will eventually become clear. In a personal observation, it occurred to me that while in nature animals are said to respond to danger with “fight or flight,” for a wild rabbit, it’s typically “flight or freeze.” I’ll just leave you with that.

“Rabbit” has remaining performances Thursday through Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, Dec. 9-12, at the Storefront, 717 Broad Ripple Ave., Indianapolis. Entry is by a long stairwell, contact the theater or Southbank if this is an issue. Info and tickets at southbanktheatre.org.

Don’t ‘fiddle’ and miss this one

By John Lyle Belden

“Seneca and the Soul of Nero” is a new play by Southbank Theatre Company artistic director Marcia Eppich-Harris, but stands well in style and content with other great historical tragedies. I sense it could have been written at any time between now and the 900s, when the myth that Emperor Nero “fiddled while Rome burned” became popular. 

The premiere Southbank production of the play, at the IndyFringe Basile stage through Oct. 2, resembles a Bardfest event in its excellent handling by director Doug Powers and a cast that includes David Mosedale as Stoic philosopher Seneca and Evren Wilder Elliott as teenage “Princeps” Nero. 

Despite the abundance of written material in the First Century, much of it surviving to today, the true history of Nero is anything but clear, with contemporary accounts often written by those who didn’t like the young tyrant and centuries passing to add myth and legend to his story. The fiddle didn’t even exist at the time, but it was possible to draw a bow across a lyre, an instrument that Nero did enjoy playing — and he embraced music and theatre at a time when its practitioners were in lower regard than prostitutes (never mind an alleged god-king). Just as we don’t mind the words that Shakespeare put into the ancients’ mouths, Eppich-Harris is perfectly entitled to her well-researched dramatic license, especially as she captured the spirit of the era and its abundant lessons for today’s social and political climate. 

Seneca was Nero’s tutor when he ascended to the throne, and the boy, feeling immediately in over his head, smartly kept the philosopher on as principal advisor and speechwriter, as well as trusted military leader Afranius Burrus (David Molloy) to head his guard. Also on the scene were his ever-hovering mother Agrippina (Rachel Snyder), naive half-brother Britannicus (Brant Hughes), and dutiful but suspicious stepsister/wife Octavia (Bra’Jae’ Allen) whom he would ignore in favor of the beautiful and ambitious Sabina (Trick Blanchfield). At Seneca’s side were faithful wife Pompeia Paulina (Jenni White) and his nephew, the famous poet Lucan (Noah Winston).

Elliott brilliantly brings us along on the emperor’s journey, as he grows older and more at ease with power, but no more mature. At first troubled by signing off on the deaths of the justly condemned, Nero comes to find a quick murder is an easy solution to an immediate problem — but then more issues pop up in its place. Each death takes a little more of his soul, power-madness devolving to madness, reducing him until nearly no one is left, and the knife is in his hand.

Mosedale stands ever solid, defending his young charge as long as he can while defending himself against the hypocrisy of living large yet espousing Stoic principles. In the end, he must choose between Nero and Rome. White’s Pompeia leads the greater example, steadfast to her husband but never wavering on their moral stand. 

Snyder embodies the complex Agrippina without slipping into villainous caricature, perhaps even engendering some sympathy as the evil she sows grows out of her control. Molloy exemplifies the “good soldier” completely, bearing his orders until his sense of justice can do no more.

An exceptional look at history and the dynamics and hazards of unfettered power, “Seneca and the Soul of Nero” is worthy to stand among the Classics. We encourage all who can to see it, and to those reading this in the future to consider bringing to your own stages.

Find information at southbanktheatre.org and tickets at indyfringe.org. Note that COVID-19 vaccination and masking are required of all audience members. Home viewing via “on-demand” streaming available Oct. 15-Nov. 14 (see Southbank site for details).