ATI tells important ‘Story’

By Wendy Carson

“This is a story about two rabbits.”

Seven innocuous words that begin not only a beautifully illustrated children’s book, but also a major political ballyhoo about race and censorship.

“Alabama Story,” a play by Kenneth Jones making its Indiana premiere with Actors Theatre of Indiana, is based on a true story of one simple book that sparked a major racial controversy due to its depiction of a white bunny marrying a black bunny. 

The setting is 1959 and even though George Wallace (“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”), has yet to be voted in as Governor, he is the leading political voice of Alabama. Racism is a fact of everyday life and the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement are just starting to stir. Rosa Parks had recently sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was still a local pastor. 

Enter Emily Wheelrock Reed (Cynthia Collins), the state librarian, and her diligent assistant, Thomas Franklin (Samuel L. Wick). Franklin brings the initial hubbub over “The Rabbits’ Wedding” to her attention, but Reed dismisses it until Senator E.W. Higgins (Don Farrell) starts pressuring her to remove the book from the library system. 

We also see the story of two children who grew up together. Lily Whitefield (Maeghan Looney), the daughter of a cotton plantation owner and Joshua Moore (Cameron Stuart Bass), the son of one of the Whitfields’ servants, descended from their slaves. They meet up again as adults, in exchanges that echo the book, but overshadowed by painful events of their past.

Overseeing all of this is the book’s author and illustrator himself, Garth Williams (Paul Tavianini). He takes on all of the supporting roles as well as giving his personal insight to the drama. Williams reiterates that he only chose the black and white colors for the rabbits due to his love of Oriental artworks which draw on those two colors for balance. He never meant for his tale to become what many believed to be a subversive indoctrination of their children into believing that interracial marriage was normal.

Bass’s performance shows that even though Franklin is living a better life himself, he never forgets the trauma and struggles he went through and his people are still enduring. Looney does a commendable job of showing the naiveté of the privileged class during these changing times.

Collins shows the strong, stalwart woman that Reed was, holding her own and never wavering no matter what came her way. Wick is endearing as Franklin, a free-thinking young man who was raised to be prejudiced but refuses to succumb to the hatred.

Tavianini brings a “Mr. Rogers” -type warmth to Williams, who also wrote and illustrated numerous other children’s books (including books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and E.B. White), none of which sparked any controversy.

However, the standout performance is by Farrell. He oozes all of the slick sliminess of a typical Southern politician. His soft-spoken words hold a thousand brutal attacks within, the demure and friendly smile hiding the fangs that are ready to strike you down with their poisonous barbs. He does such a great job embodying the character, you will likely want to punch him (but please don’t). 

ATI chose this play to be their first foray into serious drama and they have done an excellent job of it, under the direction of Jane Unger. This show is important to give you context as to this country’s history and what our future could be again should we glorify the past instead of learning from it.

Performances run through Nov. 17 in The Studio Theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get information and tickets at atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Would be a crime to miss ATI’s ‘Scoundrels’

By John Lyle Belden

The criminal culture on the French Riviera of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is an easy-going atmosphere where there is truly honor among thieves, the setting for the raucous comedy of the 1988 film (starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin) and the more recent Broadway musical, now presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana.

Polished and posh local con man Lawrence Jameson (played by TJ Lancaster) has perfected his act of posing as an exiled prince, extracting funds for his “revolution” from willing rich women, including Muriel (Judy Fitzgerald), an American all too eager to spend her ex-husband’s fortune. Lawrence’s accomplice, Andre (Don Farrell), is also the city Chief of Police, so they pretty much have it made.

But shortly after hearing that a notorious swindler, The Jackal, is in the area, Lawrence meets Freddy (Tony Carter) a crude but effective fast-talker who wants the more mature con artist to teach him his methods. They gain a grudging respect for each other, but get on each others nerves to the point that they make a wager – first to fleece their next mark for $50 thousand gets to stay; the other must leave. Enter the Soap Queen of Cincinnati, Christine Colgate (Deborah Mae Hill). The con is on!

The result is hilarious and thoroughly entertaining. Fortunately, the musical’s book by Jeffrey Lane (songs by David Yazbek) doesn’t force our leads to be copies of the charismatic Caine or unique Martin, but excellently-rendered characters that Lancaster and Carter have obvious fun embodying. They and the supremely charming Hill make the most of the show’s frequent slapstick moments. Fitzgerald fits among the criminals, stealing scenes — especially with fellow ATI founder Farrell. Supporting and chorus parts are ably filled by Michael Corey Hassel, Tim Hunt, Annalee Traeger, Brynn Tyszka and Sabra Michelle, who shines as an Oklahoma oil heiress set on marrying our faux Prince. Direction is by New Yorker Michael Blatt.

ATI opens their 2019-20 season with this show in the intimate confines of The Studio Theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, running through Sept. 29. Get info and tickets at atistage.org, or thecenterpresents.org.

Civic goes Wilde

By John Lyle Belden

If you think Victorian English manners and society were stuffy and insufferable, imagine how it was for someone living through it. Fortunately, Oscar Wilde had his rapier wit to help him skewer those pretensions in his masterpiece farce, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre presents in the cozy confines of the Studio Theater through April 6.

In 1890s London, among polite folks for whom ignorance is a virtue and honesty a vice, John (Ethan Mathias) and Algernon (Bradford Reilly) have been undertaking some “Bunburying” – that’s not code for something obscene; it’s just the simple practice of being one person in town, and another in the country. John is in love with Gwendolen (Carrie Schlatter), while Algernon has fallen in love with John’s ward, Cecily (Sabrina Duprey). But both ladies insist on marrying a man named Earnest. So both our heroes oblige, and hilarious confusion follows.

Gwendolen’s aunt, Lady Bracknell (Vickie Cornelius Phipps), is very particular about who the girl marries. Meanwhile, Cecily’s governess Miss Prism (Miki Mathioudakis) is trying to get the attention of the Reverend Chasuble (Craig Kemp), but she is also hiding an important secret.

The incomparable Matt Anderson completes the ensemble as the butler at each house. Performances are top-notch, and even the scene changes are entertaining — executed by the actors under Anderson’s watchful eye.

When the world is full of absurdity, nonsense starts to make its own sort of sense. That was Wilde’s world then, and some could argue that reflects our world now. So, enjoy this Earnest effort at classic comedy.

The Studio Theater is at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. For tickets and information, call 317-843-3800 or visit civictheatre.org.

Help pick the killer du jour at ATI’s ‘Drood’

By John Lyle Belden

Regardless of if you’d consider a murder mystery fun, you are bound to get a kick out of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana through May 13 at The Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

The biggest mystery of the story is how it ends. Charles Dickens died while writing it, with no definitive clues left as to his intended perpetrator, or even if Drood actually dies.

In this Broadway musical, written by Rupert Holmes, we witness a Victorian-era comic troupe bring the story to life, while letting the audience vote to settle questions such as the identity of the killer. True to English music hall “panto” tradition, the lead male is played by a woman, we are encouraged to “boo-hiss” the villain, and silliness could break out at any time.

ATI co-founder Cynthia Collins takes on the title character, a bright, likable gentleman engaged to the lovely Rosa Bud (Harli Cooper) since they were children. Drood’s uncle, church choirmaster John Jasper (Eric Olson) wants to possess Rosa – or at least one of his personalities does. Meanwhile, the Rev. Crisparkle (Darrin Murrell), has arrived from Ceylon with the Landless twins: Neville (Logan Moore), a hot-tempered young man who also feels desire for Rosa, and Helena (Jaddy Ciucci), who worries about Neville’s temper while otherwise acting exotic and downright mysterious. We also meet Durdles (John Vessels), the good-natured gravedigger; opium-den matron Princess Puffer (Judy Fitzgerald), whose customers include Jasper; Mr. Bazzard (Paul Collier Hansen), played by a man always up for minor parts; and Flo (Karaline Feller), who is, well, pretty. We are guided through this cast and story with the help of The Chairman (T.J. Lancaster), who also has to pitch in for an absent actor.

In scenes laced with cheeky humor and song, clues are dropped and a minor bit of tension raised as the story leads up to Drood’s disappearance. Then more revelations are made as an obviously-disguised person appears as private eye Dick Datchery. But soon, the lights go up as the Chairman notes that this is as far as the Dickens text goes. Who’s who and what’s what? Time to vote! (Note this election is not rigged; any of several suspects could be selected and can be different from one performance to the next.)

Performances are great all around. Lancaster is an excellent guide, while Collins holds the center well. Meanwhile, Olson plays a cruel maniac so well, it just seems too obvious to consider him the killer! The show has a great music hall feel, with the musicians at the back of center stage, and appropriate look thanks to designer P. Bernard Killian, complemented by costumes by Stephen Hollenbeck.

I’ve used “fun” a lot to describe recent plays, but it certainly applies here in a style that feels more intimate and engaging for the audience in the Studio Theater’s black-box style space. As one only has to applaud their choice or turn in a ballot from a pre-printed list, it’s not too involved an “audience participation” situation, yet you do feel like part of the festivities, making for a fully satisfying theatrical experience – even if your candidate for murderer doesn’t get chosen.

Get information and tickets at www.atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

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 Knuze, 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 fun ‘complete’ look at Bard’s catalog

By John Lyle Belden

Whether you have only a passing interest in the Bard of Avon, or have memorized all his plays and sonnets, you will enjoy “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged,” presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre through April 1.

Since this is a more intimate show than the typical Civic play, it is staged in the Studio Theater, at the other end of the lobby from the Tarkington in The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

Frankie Bolda, Kelsey Vanvoorst and Antoine Demmings (as themselves) are Shakespeare enthusiasts – you might even have seen Frankie or Kelsey in one of the Bard’s plays – who, thanks to a script by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, discuss and present the man and all his works in 97 minutes (plus intermission).

The results are fun and unconventional — just as Shakespeare was in his day — with features such as “Othello” in rap, all 16 of the Bard’s comedies as a single mashed-up play, the Histories as a football game and, naturally, “Titus Andronicus” as a cooking show.

The second act is mostly devoted to “Hamlet,” which gets further abbreviated over and over with madcap results.

This trio do an excellent job, not only Bolda and Vanvoorst, who are no strangers to the art of making acting silly look easy, but especially Demmings — who had not done stage work before, but should now consider playing Othello for real. A tip of the Elizabethan headgear to John Michael Goodson for his directing, and to Will Tople for the simple yet appropriate stage design.

This house is smaller than the regular Civic stage, so sellouts are likely; call 317-924-6770 or visit civictheatre.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.