IndyFringe: Vinny the Pooh

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

While waiting for the show to begin, you are serenaded by lounge singer Richard Cheese — and if you know who that is, then you have a good idea of what you are in for with this show.

Apparently, after Christa MaBobbin left the 50 Hectare Forest to marry Toad and take a wild ride in neighboring Frogswallow, things changed. Now these beloved characters have been forced into a life of crime in order to remain a “family.”

Steve Kruze gives Vinny the hopefulness and love of honey that you might remember but he also brings a little street-smarts to the role as well. Kelsey VanVoorst as Sniglet gives us a new interpretation of the original’s worried indecisiveness.

Clay Mabbitt is hilarious as Eyesore, with his gloomy outlook and eyepatch(es). Joshua C. Ramsey channels all of the pompousness of Jowl, speaking in Latin throughout.

Carrie Ann Schlatter’s portrayal of Franga (and puppet child Shmoo) brings all of the fierceness that wild kangaroos are known for.

Rounding out the “Family” is John Kern as Stagger. His energy levels are amazing as he bounds through each scene bringing out the self-centered side of his character.

Morgan Morton, as MaBobbin, deftly maneuvers her character from innocent victim to devious plotter without batting an eyelash.

So come out and see how the corruption and intrigue work out. Just know that in this story, while there are snacks, there will also be blood.

An Approxima Productions joint, remaining performances are Friday and Saturday (Aug. 23-24) at the IndyFringe theatre, 719 E. St. Clair.

An American classic comes to life on Civic stage

By John Lyle Belden

“To Kill A Mockingbird,” the celebrated novel by Harper Lee, is likely a book you are familiar with, perhaps from reading it in school, or by seeing the Gregory Peck film which closely followed Lee’s story.

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre presents a live production of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the play adapted by Christopher Sergel, which is performed annually in Monroeville, Alabama, Lee’s hometown on which the novel’s setting is based. Unlike that production, the local staging doesn’t pick a trial jury from the audience – but attorney Atticus Finch still speaks directly to us.

For the unfamiliar, the story, set in Mayscomb, Ala., in the mid-1930s, is told by Finch’s young daughter, Jean Louise, known as Scout. The play gives us a grown-up Jean Louise (Michelle Wafford), who emerges from the audience to narrate for her younger self (Bridget Bingham), who is trying to make sense of all the things happening around her.

Scout, her brother Jem (Dalyn Stewart) and friend Dill (Ben Boyce) are occupied with what the reclusive neighbor Boo Radley might look like. The only clues are items left in a tree in his yard. But a bigger distraction comes when Atticus (Steve Kruze) is appointed by Judge Taylor (Tom Smith) to defend a black man, Tom Robinson (Antoine Demmings), who has been accused of beating and “having his way” with teenager Myella Ewell (Morgan Morton) by her father, town drunk Bob Ewell (Joe Steiner). The children endure taunts for their father defending a black man, but Atticus counsels them to endure and be confident he is doing the right thing. Scout wonders if she can feel pride in her father at all, until an incident with a mad dog reveals there’s more to the man than she ever suspected. Likewise, Jem wonders why his punishment for his vandalism of bitter, hateful neighbor Mrs. Dubose’s (Holly Stults) garden is to deliver kindness, until he comes to understand the whole situation.

The Robinson trial is a big spectacle, so the children sneak in to see it for themselves (thus allowing us to witness it), finding only room to sit in the “Colored” section with the Rev. Sykes (Brad Thompson). They marvel at how Atticus takes advantage of flaws in the testimony, and the kids are sure this will come out in their (and Robinson’s) favor. What does happen gives life lessons the children will never forget. And the events that follow will result in men killed, Jem injured, and Scout becoming a whole lot wiser.

Other notable characters include Sheriff Heck Tate (Clay Mabbit); the Finches’ cook, Calpurnia (Chandra Lynch); and an appearance by Boo Radley (Colby Rison) himself.

Under the direction of Emily Rogge Tzucker, this important story rises from the page to remind us of how horrible, yet accepted, hatred and injustice can be – then, and even more than 80 years later. Of course, that includes the bigoted context of the South in the 20th century, in which no person would even think of saying “African American” and “black” was mostly just a color you painted. So, be warned, the word “nigger” is used numerous times, by characters with either malice or apathy towards its dehumanizing effects. And if my writing the word out in the previous sentence bothers you too much, you should steel yourself before seeing this play – and go anyway.

Scout’s purpose in this story is to learn to see the world through others’ eyes – a man who would rather do what’s right than what’s popular, a person in unspeakable pain, a person judged purely by his skin tone, even a person who just can’t deal with other people – and thus teach us to do the same. Experience it for yourself at the Tarkington theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, through Feb. 23. Information and tickets at civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org, or call 317-843-3800.

Bard Fest: CTC makes ‘Much Ado’ really something

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

By John Lyle Belden

For those who tire of Shakespeare plays being set in all manner of different times and places, good news – Carmel Theatre Company’s production of the comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” retains its original setting of 1600s Italy. But for those who don’t want to see every random character and hear every scripted word (raises hand) this play has undergone some gentle editing, adapted by director Laura Kuhn, sparing us from the sprawl of characters the Bard typically populates his comedies with.

With easy to follow cast and plot, and sharply delivered lines, we get an entertaining romp that often has the feel of a TV sitcom. This establishes itself from the beginning, as returning soldier Benedick (Steve Kruze), whose wit is as sharp as his sword, starts verbal sparring with Beatrice (Christine Kruze), a slightly less cynical version of Kate from “Taming of the Shrew.” They each have such a disdain for love and marriage that – well, you can guess what’s in store for them.

But the big love story is Count Claudio (Jeffrey Bird) who longs to woo the maiden Hero (Elysia Rohn). His BFF Don Pedro (Matt Anderson) arranges the match, but Pedro’s sister Donna Joanna (Amanda Bell) doesn’t like it when people are happy – especially her brother – and sets out to ruin the impending marriage. She nearly succeeds, but this is a comedy.

The actors so far listed deliver brilliantly, as well as Tony Johnson as Hero’s father Leonato, David Whicker as his brother Antonio, Jarrett Yates as Don Pedro’s servant Balthasar, Leah Hodson as Hero’s attendant Margaret, Dustin Miller and Manny Casillas as Donna Joanna’s minions Borachio and Conrade, Daniel Young as Friar Francis, and Jim Mellowitz as the Sexton. As for Jim Maratea as Constable Dogberry, as his partner Verges (Guy Grubbs) would mark it at the appropriate time that he is “an ass,” his gaily executed performance takes his comic foil role to its limits.

Even for one like me who has seen a few “Much Ados” this earnest production delivers, with much laughter and appropriate melodrama. The scenes where one character listens in on others’ conversations are gems of physical comedy. The costumes looked perfect, but the set a bit too solidly built – hopefully they can find a way to smooth the scene changes by the second weekend.

As the play’s title implies, what doesn’t seem that big a deal becomes literally life-and-death situations. We laugh at those old-time attitudes, but one honest look at the Internet shows we’re never immune from the drama.

Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday, 1:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5-7 at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, just east of the College and Mass Ave. intersection.

Civic hosts Christie’s deadly countdown

By John Lyle Belden

Set in the intimate confines of the Studio Theater, rather than its regular stage next door, the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre invites you to look in on a classic mystery: See those 10 people at the party? They are all guilty of something, and one by one they will die. Who will be standing at the end? Are you sure you know?

The Civic presents Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” Director Charles Goad (who we are more used to seeing on the stage than behind it) has trusted his talented cast the freedom to bring out the dark humor in the play’s growing suspense. Even when a character is one you wouldn’t mind seeing become the next victim of “Mr. Unknown,” he or she is presented in an entertaining manner.

Matt Anderson and Christy Walker sharply portray the domestics who literally help set the scene in a fine house on an island off the English coast. Vera (Carrie Schlatter at her steadily unraveling best) thought this was just a job opportunity. Army Cpt. Lombard (Joshua Ramsey as a unflappable man proud of all his qualities, good and bad) was advised to bring his revolver, just in case. Anthony (Bradford Reilly, doing upper-class spoiled well) is up for any kind of adventure. Mr. Daniels – or is that Blore? – (Steve Kruze, working the fine line between gruffness and guilt) was, or is, a cop, making him impossible to trust. Retired Gen. MacKenzie (Tom Beeler, showing mastery of a subtle character) can see this for the final battle it is. Emily (Christine Kruze, working a stiff upper lip that could break glass) is as sure of her own innocence as she is of everyone else’s immorality. Dr. Armstrong (David Wood, becoming even more likable as we find the man’s flaws) feels he could really use a drink, though he doesn’t dare. And prominent judge Sir William Wargrave (David Mosedale in top form) knows a thing or two about unnatural death, having sentenced so many to the gallows.

The cast is completed by Dick Davis as Fred, the man with the boat.

These actors give a delicious recreation of the old story which doesn’t feel dated, considering a strong storm on a remote island would cut off smartphone reception just the same as past means of communication. The plot is propelled by the old poem “Ten Little Soldiers” (a more palatable version than the frequently used “Ten Little Indians” or its original, more controversial, title). Ten tin soldiers stand on the mantle, their number decreasing throughout the play as the victims accumulate. The verse is on a plaque by the fireplace, and reprinted in the program for us to follow along.

I don’t want to give spoilers, but bear in mind that Christie wrote more than one way to end the story. See for yourself at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel through April 8. Call 317-843-3800 or visit civictheatre.org.

Civic presents fabulous farce

By John Lyle Belden

A man is shot. A woman is missing. Reputations and political careers are on the line. A doctor is called. The police are on their way.

Believe it or not, that is the setting for a hilarious comedy: Neil Simon’s “Rumors,” presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre through Feb. 18 at The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

Ken and Chris Gorman (Kim Ruse and Clay Mabbitt) are first to arrive at the anniversary party of their friend Charlie, the Deputy Mayor of New York. But the servants are gone, leaving uncooked food in the kitchen, Charlie’s wife is missing and their host has a hole in his earlobe from trying to shoot himself. Ken, as the man’s attorney, is trying desperately to keep the potential scandal under wraps, which isn’t easy when other friends arrive: Leonard and Claire Ganz (Parrish Williams and Carrie Schlatter), Ernie and Cookie Cusack (Trevor Fanning and Marni Lemmons), and finally Glenn Cooper (Steve Kruze) with his own political ambitions to consider, as well as neurotic wife Cassie (Christine Kruze, yes they’re married in real life, too).

Excuses for what is going on get more bizarre as events unfold, but eventually all are informed. But then, the police (Joanne Kehoe and Joe Aiello) arrive. What story to tell them?

This American farce in the Moliere mold has gag after well-written wacky gag, excellently played by a cast well-suited and experienced in stage comedies, directed by Charles Goad, no stranger to delivering a punchline himself. Ruse and Schlatter have such chemistry that when one woman delivers a zinger, just a glance between them sets off even more laughter. Mabbitt and Williams also sell the jokes with their knack for physical shtick, especially when Ken is deafened by the second gunshot, and when Leonard has to pretend to be Charlie – and convincingly explain what’s been going on the whole time.

This show is a welcome escape from today’s constant stresses (political and otherwise). Call 317-843-3800 or visit civictheatre.org. Tickets also available at thecenterpresents.org.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Civic’s puttin’ on a hit

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

By John Lyle Belden

For a more-silly-than-spooky Halloween crowd-pleaser, you can’t go wrong with “Young Frankenstein,” presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre through Nov. 5 at The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

In this Mel Brooks musical, based on the Mel Brooks movie (inspired by the Mary Shelley novel), Frederick Frankenstein (played by Steve Kruze), grandson of the infamous mad doctor – who has changed the pronunciation of his surname in a vain attempt to shake its infamy – must go to his grandfather’s castle in the generically central/eastern European town of Transylvania Heights to settle the estate.

Once there, Frederick meets family servant Igor (Damon Clevenger), who has rounded up a lovely lab assistant, Inga (Devan Mathias). At the castle, they are welcomed by Frau Blucher (Vickie Cornelius Phipps), who was more than a housekeeper to the elder Frankenstein – a case in which a single line from the film became a whole song in the musical.

The temptation to follow in the family business becomes too great, and Frederick makes a Monster (B.J. Bovin) despite the village having passed a law against such practices, inviting the ire of local police Inspector Kemp (Parrish Williams). Add a surprise visit by Frederick’s fiancé Elizabeth (Nathalie Cruz) and a lot of mayhem – and song-and-dance numbers – ensue.

This production goes all-out on the famous “Puttin’ on the Ritz” singing Monster scene, a great credit to the cast and choreographer Anne Nicole Beck. And Williams doubles as the blind Hermit in another famously funny scene.

No one can match the manic genius of Gene Wilder, but Kruze manages to make the title role his own. Cruz and Phipps are natural scene-stealers, and Mathias is a treat. Bovin makes the most of the limited motions of the Monster, and his often-confused expressions add to the comedic effect. But the show doesn’t work without a great Igor (pronounced “Eye-gor”), and Clevenger is pitch-perfect in the role. It’s a credit to the others that he doesn’t steal the whole show.

Brooks’ gags still zing and his Tony-nominated monster of a musical still entertains. Get info and tickets at civictheatre.org.

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