NoExit ‘1984’ – experience the love of Big Brother

By John Lyle Belden

It was a bright cold day in November, and the clocks had struck nineteen 30 minutes ago. The back door to a facility commandeered by the Party and Ministry of Truth opened, and we were allowed to enter.

After Agents determined our country of origin and loyalty to the Party, we were detained with other participants until 20:00, when the Ministry provided a goodthink show of a man discovering his love for Big Brother. This is all it is and ever was.

I would never be unfaithful to the Party and tell you that this was a clever and insightful production of “1984” – adapted from the George Orwell novel by Matthew Dunster, produced by NoExit Performance (with co-conspirators including AnC Movies, Cat Head Press and iMOCA) and directed by Ryan Mullins – as that would be “fake news.”

But if I were to say such a thing, I would point out that Ryan Ruckman gives an excellent performance as Winston Smith, the conflicted everyman who tires of his duties for the Ministry, constantly “correcting” history and sending obsolete information down the Memory Hole so that it never happened. He wears his depression and ennui like an extra layer of clothing, feeling the weight of the Telescreen eyes upon him. NoExit mainstay Georgeanna Smith Wade wins his heart and ours as secret rebel Julia, who inspires Winston to defy the Party – simultaneously the smartest and stupidest thing he would ever do.

The Party orders that I denounce Dave Ruark for his commanding portrayal of the mysterious O’Brien, Adam Crowe for his deceptively warm turn as Charrington, and Tristan Ross for his appropriately milquetoast presentation of Smith’s co-worker Parsons (extra rations go to Zac Schneider and Elsie McNulty as the Party-faithful children, though Shannon Samson as Mrs. Parsons is still under suspicion). If Syme had not become an unperson, I’d praise Phil Criswell’s double-plus-good performance. I also hallucinated sharp work from Taylor Cox and Ann Marie Elliott in supporting roles.

Where NoExit – I mean the Ministry – most excels is in the way this drama is presented. It is totally immersive: You stand in or right outside the room where each scene occurs; and the actors frequently move from one area to the next, forcing all to turn and/or follow. Ministry agents help guide the audience. There is no climbing stairs, and limited seating is provided at every scene. Compare the amount of movement necessary to an easy tour of a museum gallery with about a half-dozen display areas in three large rooms. Appropriate set design (by Andrew Darr), with occasional video images (by AnC) and haunting sound (by Rob Funkhouser) enveloping the rooms, provide a perfectly tense atmosphere throughout. Big Brother’s red glowing eye is everywhere, watching us all.

I advise all to take time out from news of whatever war we have always been fighting, and observe this double-plus-good entertainment appropriate for whatever year this happens to be. Performances through Nov. 18 at Ministry Headquarters, 1336 E. Washington St., Indianapolis. For information and tickets, visit www.noexitperformance.org.

What’s so funny about peace, love and misunderstanding?

By John Lyle Belden

Anton Chekhov called his 1895 play, “The Seagull,” a “comedy in four acts” – which makes one wonder about Russians’ sense of humor.

But the play, adapted and directed by Casey Ross and presented by her Catalyst Repertory company – shaved down to two acts (one-two / intermission / three-four) – does have some light moments. Good drama always has its share of humor, and its “comic” elements are further reflected in an almost Shakespearean level of unrequited love among the characters.

The setting is a peaceful rural Russian estate, with its nice house belonging to aging civil servant Pyotr Sorin (Dennis Forkel) and a lake, near which his nephew Konstantin Treplev (Taylor Cox) presents a play he has written, starring his girlfriend, local girl Nina (Ann Marie Elliott).

Treplev sees himself in the shadow of his famous actress mother, Irina Arkadina (Nan Macy), and her popular friends. “I have no discernible talent,” he laments. But to prove himself, he is determined to write a “new form” of theatre, simultaneously rebelling against and surpassing the great Arkadina. Before an audience of locals, family and his mother’s guest, famous writer Boris Trigorn (Thomas Cardwell), the premiere flounders thanks to Treplev’s abstract symbolism – inspiring heckling from Arkadina – and Nina’s amateurish acting.

Later Trigorn flatters Nina, encouraging her dream of becoming a professional actor, and winning her away from Treplev. Meanwhile, beautiful-in-black Masha (Emily Bohn) is in love with Treplev, while poor schoolmaster Medivenko (Bradford Reilly) is in love with Masha. Paulina (Kyrsten Lyster) is in an affair with Yevgeny Dorn (Craig Kemp), a kindly doctor with a song in his heart, but she is married to very unromantic estate caretaker Ilya Shamrayeff (Anthony Nathan).

While good acting is essential to any play, the presentation of these characters is all Chekhov has given us – no wild action or deep mystery. Fortunately, Ross knows some very talented actors.

Cox is great at playing the tortured soul, and he has plenty to work with here. A hundred-twenty years later, even in Russia, Treplev would have medication and perhaps a therapist to aid his issues. In this world, he must wade through on his own with little help from his mother – she brushes off his suicide attempt as a silly phase, afraid to leave the limelight world that is the only place she feels happy. Macy turns on the charm, while showing the depth of her character’s shallowness.

Elliott is brilliant as usual, mastering not only all the subtle facets of Nina, but managing to act “bad” in an entertaining way. Cardwell reveals a man wrestling with the life his genius has given him – “I have no rest from myself” – but still subject to base desires. In one of the play’s most famous scenes, he presents the idea of “destroying” the young woman, saying it directly to her. But blinded by her pursuit of fame, Nina allows it to happen, not realizing until it is too late what she has become.

And a shout out to Nathan for nearly stealing scenes with Shamreyeff’s socially clumsy moments, and for making the death of the title bird more funny than it should be.

So: When you get what you’ve been chasing after – or what you settled for – is it worth it? That would be the thematic question at work here, and while the answers aren’t definitive, they do feel honest to the harsh world we live in, wherever we are in time or on the globe. And when the circumstances permit, we can get in a laugh or two.

“The Seagull” has performances Sept. 15-17 and 22-24 at the Grove Haus, 1001 Hosbrook St., near Fountain Square. For info and tickets, visit Facebook.com/CatalystRepertory or the company’s website.

Local writers keeping TOTS busy

By John Lyle Belden

For one more weekend, Theatre on the Square has a sort of double-feature going on: two distinct plays (each requiring its own ticket) by local playwrights, each exploring personal change in different ways: “Puppet Man,” by Andy Black; and “Clutter,” by Lou Harry.

“Puppet Man” is about a prison inmate with serious issues who finds solace by participating in the institution’s puppet shows held for visiting children. Pretty Boy (Taylor Cox) can’t get his guilty mind to shut up, so he dulls the sound with drugs, making his situation worse. When he finds out about the puppet program, his dealer Word (Carey Shea) makes him join in a plot to use the volunteer instructor’s privileges to sneak contraband into the prison. That compassionate visitor, Doc (Miki Mathioudakis), lets Pretty Boy into the program despite suspicions by her and the other inmate puppeteers, especially Sidewinder (Josh Ramsey). Fabulous Fantasia (Josiah McCruiston) and the mysterious Dayton (Matt Anderson), who only speaks through his puppets, help him to craft “Pretty Girl,” the puppet star of the next show. Then Pretty Boy discovers that the voice he now hears in his head is hers.

Though I am not personally familiar with the culture of life behind bars, Black’s story feels real enough, with desperate men making desperate choices while others calmly plot to take advantage of them, a place where the smallest things we take for granted outside have enormous value. While each character is a broadly-drawn type, they don’t come off as cliché. Cox handles being the central character with skill – a tall order, given McCruiston and Anderson’s ability to steal their scenes. Pretty Boy is a complex personality, and his mental issues provide the underlying drama – is this show more like “Avenue Q,” in which the puppets teach us all life lessons, or “Hand to God,” in which the puppets channel dark impulses? Kinda both, actually, punctuated with dark humor. I encourage you to see for yourself what I mean.

“Clutter, or, The Moving Walkway will Soon be Coming to an End” is three scenes depicting the changes in four people’s lives over six years. First we meet Bobby (Ben Fraley) and Eddy (Nick Barnes), two best friends struggling to keep their business afloat. Eddy is the more scattered of the two, which only adds to Bobby’s tension. Aside from planning a networking party, they discuss their romantic prospects with an offstage coworker. We meet that woman, Barb (Anna Lee), in the second scene, three years later, talking about the frustrations of life with her best friend, Bev (Kelsey Van Voorst). Eventually, Barb sees a man she used to work with offstage, and decides to take her chances with him. Move on to the third scene, again three years later, involving all four characters at the home two of them share.

The theme seems to center on inevitable endings and the struggle to improve and change one’s path. One character appears to have turned his life around with “Mission” – a self-help method that helps him focus his life, but doesn’t automatically solve his problems. All seem to be seeking something new, yet something that remains stable, at the same time. Note a “shoe is on the other foot” metaphor with which woman wears the red shoes. The show has dynamite dialogue and sharp humor, thanks to Harry, but subtle pacing that – along with being a one-act – gives the sense that it is part of a larger story, feeling incomplete by itself.

There is a slight over-run on stage times – “Clutter” on the second stage follows “Puppet Man” on the main stage – but if you spring for both shows, it’s possible they could hold the curtain for the second. Or, as they are independent stories, you can simply see one or the other. Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday, Jan. 20-22, at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave.; call 317-685-8687 or see tots.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.

Three great plays at Bardfest

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

Bardfest had a great opening weekend, and has two more – Oct. 20-23 and 27-30 – at the little Carmel Theatre Company stage, 15 First Ave NE in Carmel’s downtown Arts District (former home to Carmel Community Players).

It was noted in the curtain speech of one show I attended that Indianapolis is about the only major metropolitan area without a Shakespeare Festival. Fortunately, Willie’s plays do reach the boards a few times a year in individual productions around Indy, including a free summer production in White River State Park. But having three shows by the Immortal Bard – only one of which you would likely name off the top of your head if asked to list his plays – is a wonderfully unique experience.

‘KING LEAR’

I confess to missing the First Folio production of “King Lear.” Fortunately, I was familiar with the play and I trust First Folio Productions to pull this classic off more than competently. The title character is played by David Mosedale, and the role of her eldest daughter Cordelia (and a turn as the Fool) by Ann Marie Elloitt, two of the best speakers of iambic pentameter I’ve seen in central Indiana. Sarah Froehlke and Beth Clark as Lear’s devious other daughters are no slouches, either, and excellence is reflected throughout the cast and crew list, including the incredible Tristan Ross.

For those unfamiliar, “Lear” is about a British king who decides to give his kingdom to his three daughters. When the eldest refuses to flatter him, he misunderstands her actions as an insult and banishes her. She ends up in France, and leads an invasion to save her father’s kingdom from the machinations of her sisters. Mix in more madness and intrigue, and end it all tragically, and you have an excellent evening of drama. Which I didn’t have to see, but I highly recommend you do if you can.

‘TWELFTH NIGHT’

I did get a look at Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night.” It runs down the Bard comedy checklist: Shipwreck? Check. Siblings in distress? Check. Thinly made, but still effective, disguises? Check. Misunderstandings? Check. Wild wooing, leading to unlikely marriage? Check and check!

Perhaps understanding this, Garfield Shakespeare Company and directors Chris Burton and Sam Brandys made this a highly entertaining production by blending conventional pop songs into the narrative – one in particular, you’d swear was written for the play – as well as having instrumentation performed live on stage, especially by Feste, the minstrel Fool, played with perfect charm by Ashley Chase Elliott.

Twin siblings Viola and Sebastian (fraternal, yet perceived by other characters as identical in appearance, performed by Abby Gilster and Spencer Elliott) have washed up on different shores of Illyria after their shipwreck, each presuming the other drowned. Viola disguises herself as a boy and goes to work for the local Duke Orsino (Benjamin Mathis), a single man pursuing the one woman who doesn’t want him, Lady Olivia (Audrey Stonerock). Orsino sends his new servant to deliver his messages of love, but Olivia instead falls for Viola-in-disguise – compounding the “boy”s confusion as s/he is smitten with Orsino. Meanwhile, Olivia’s brother, the drunken Sir Toby Belch (Jay Brubaker) and his dim-witted companion Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Monica Verdouw) are carousing with Feste, an apparently freelance Fool working in both the Duke and Lady’s households. They and Olivia’s servant Maria (Kate Ghormley), play a cruel but hilarious prank on the prideful fellow court member Malvolio (Anthony Johnson), which only adds to the wild goings on – made even wilder when Sebastian makes his way to Olivia’s house.

Confused yet? It’s a Shakespeare comedy; a lot of various characters doing silly things to one another is part of the standard formula. Just relax, let the major groupings and who-loves-who sort themselves out, and just enjoy the ensuing mayhem. And nobody dies – that’s his other plays.

I must heap high praise not only upon every cast name listed above, but also Burton, who takes on various character roles on top of his other duties – he was even fixing the lights before the show.

‘CORIOLANUS’

As for “Coriolanus,” regarding the odd name, if we must get to the bottom (sorry!) of the story it is simply an unfortunate (for modern audiences, though Shakespeare did enjoy a bawdy pun) honorific bestowed on the main character, Caius Marcius (Taylor Cox) to celebrate his victory in battle at Corioli, where pre-Empire Rome defeated the rival Volscians, led by Tullus Aufidious (Ryan Ruckman).

Back in Rome, Marcius is not quiet about his elitist attitude, which doesn’t sit well with the commoners who already blame him (falsely) for a grain shortage. Fortunately, his smooth-talking friend Menenius (Matt Anderson) calms things down, but two Tribunes, Brutus and Velutus (Matt Walls and Paige Scott) observe this and stir up the citizens to oppose Coriolanus’s inevitable ascension to Consul.

Marcius himself doesn’t want the office, but his ambitious domineering mother Volumnia (Nan Macy) insists he take power, while his wife Virgilia (Abby Gilster) agrees, hoping it will keep the lifelong soldier home. But despite his friends and family insisting he stay calm, Marcius verbally explodes, giving the Tribunes the excuse to banish him.

In the second act, the exiled Coriolanus turns to his blood enemy Aufidious, who sets him in charge of the Volscian invasion of Rome. Being the era’s greatest general, Marcius practically brings troops to the gates of the capitol. Desperate to save Rome and win back his friend, Menenius tries to reason with Coriolanus. Finally, his mother, wife and son make their desperate plea. I’m not giving any further spoilers, but it all doesn’t end well.

Cox, who is proving himself to be one of the best actors in Indy, is excellent as his frustratingly complex character. You may not like this Caius Marcius Coriolanus, but you have to respect him. Davey Pelsue applies his matching talent as fellow Roman officer Titus Lartius, a dutiful soldier of inevitably conflicting loyalties. Macy’s is the top performance, a force of nature like a mother wolf who wants to be pack Alpha. You might not want her for a Mom, but you want her on your side. Anderson imbues his glib character with genuine feeling, fearful yet hopeful that his smooth tongue can cure any roughness he encounters. As for Walls and Scott, their villainous portrayal has them practically twirling old-time movie mustaches.

The other “bad guy” of the piece, Ruckman’s Aufidious, stays true to his character and principles, and carries a confident air throughout. Were the audience made of Volscians, he would be the easy hero. This adds to the many gray areas this play works in – not all virtuous win, not all villainous are punished, few are completely noble or evil – which might explain why it so rarely produced.

Unafraid, director Casey Ross gives this story a chance to show us all its complexities. The era portrayed is unspecified, the costumes mildly punk without being distracting, leaving us only with these characters and the drama that plays out among them. Occasional music is modern, but works with the timeless narrative. If you are a fan of great theatre, seeing this “Coriolanus” should be a priority.

For information and tickets to Bardfest, see http://uncannycasey.wixsite.com/bardfestindy.

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

Review: Ecce ‘Equus’

By John Lyle Belden

The Peter Shaffer play “Equus” is famous for not only its dark subject matter (intertwining themes of bestiality and religion, horse mutilations, etc.) but also for its nudity.

But in the Casey Ross production playing through July 24 at the Grove Haus, though there is a scene with characters fully naked, more striking are the souls laid bare in this drama. Never going beyond loosening his tie, Dr. Dysart (Brian G. Hartz) finds his profession of psychiatry, his personal relationships, and his very life raw and exposed to the audience as well as the probings of his own mind. Frank Strang (Doug Powers), father to disturbed teen Alan (Taylor Cox), tightly bound in vested suit and his own convictions, finds himself exposed and convicted in his son’s eyes. Alan’s mother Dora (Ericka Barker) finds her faith shaken and her own facade sliding away. And young Jill (Sarah McGrath), fascinated by the sight of bare skin, exposes herself to Alan completely, never suspecting the devastation that would follow.

As for Cox, who has admitted to struggling with his role as a boy who comes to deify horses, confusing religious and sexual ecstacy, his dedication to conveying Alan’s pain to the audience – which are seated around the central stage area, the front row inches from the action – has paid off immensely. You can’t help but feel empathy for the plight of Alan, the people in contact with him, and even the steeds he adores, then hurts when his passioned delusion turns violent. Hartz provides a brilliant counterpoint with his compassionate yet driven Dysart.

Excellent support is provided by other members of the cast: Allison Clark Reddick as magistrate Hester Solomon, Tony Armstrong as stablemaster Dalton, Nan Macy as the Nurse, and the horses played by Bowie Foote, Christopher Bell, Beth Clark and Johnny Mullens as Nugget, Alan’s favorite. Ross, who directs with the assistance of David Mosedale, provides an excellent minimalist stage design, and kudos to Davey Pelsue for composing the haunting original score.

Shaffer wrote the play after being inspired by a brief news story of a 17-year-old blinding six horses with a sharpened tool. With this fact, he spun a fictional drama that strikes at the truth of faith and devotion, and our definitions of sanity and normalcy. I couldn’t help but notice that when Alan has nightmares of his equestrian gods judging him, he cries out “Eck!” which is revealed to be the obvious, “Equus,” the word for his godhead and savior. Still, it echoes to me of “Ecce Homo” – “Behold the Man,” Latin for the words of Pilate presenting a broken Jesus to the public.

In “Equus,” we are presented with a broken boy, exposing the cracks in everyone around him until all are shattered. It is truly something to behold.

Find the Grove Haus at 1001 Hosbrook St., near Fountain Square just southeast of downtown Indy. Find info and tickets at http://uncannycasey.wix.com/caseyrossproductions or the Casey Ross Productions Facebook page.

(This was also posted at The Word [later The Eagle], Indy’s LGBTQ newspaper)

Review: The price of defying godlike power

By John Lyle Belden

In the hands of Eclectic Pond Theatre Company, one of Western civilization’s oldest surviving plays truly becomes timeless.

“Prometheus Bound,” attributed to ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, was based on the myth of the Titan who defied the ruling god Zeus and brought fire – and with it, civilizing knowledge – to humankind. For his “crime,” Prometheus was chained to a rock and subjected to daily torture. In the play, he is visited by characters who ask him why he committed the act and to beg for forgiveness.

In the ETC production, playing Friday through Sunday at Wheeler Arts Community Center, Prometheus is the online name of a hacker (played by Bradford Reilly) who worked for the NSA and its director – nicknamed “Zeus,” of course – to develop the all-knowing Firenet. Acting similarly to real-world fugitive Edward Snowden, the online titan makes the secret program public – giving “Fire” to mankind.

He is shackled by Hephaestus (Tristan Ross) and Kratos (Taylor Cox), now represented by the prison warden and guard. The Chorus who questions Prometheus and listens to his soliloquies is a TV reporter played by Ann Marie Elliott. Oceanus, the fellow Titan who begs the prisoner to reconcile with Zeus, is in 2016 his attorney, played by Ross. Cox also takes a second role as Hermes, Zeus’ messenger.

Prometheus also encounters Io (Elysia Rohm), a woman whom Zeus lusted after. In mythology, she was turned into a cow, today she is only called one as an epithet, and is disappeared to a neighboring prison cell.

The classic translation of the Greek drama is kept intact, so to be understandable we must take myth as metaphor, but Reilly manages to communicate well his disdain for a tyrant of any era. Ross, Cox and Elliott, all experienced with Shakespearean dialogue in a modern setting, have no trouble with this material either. I first thought that Elliott in her role smiled a bit much for such serious subject matter, but it works as a portrayal of the cynical nature of today’s media – addressing world-changing news with an incredulous grin. Rohm is effective in making us feel Io’s plight – whether as the maiden pursued by an amorous god, or an inconvenient affair that a man in power can’t let walk free.

To better understand the story and put it in a relatable context, there are several well-produced broadcast news breaks shown on a screen to the side of the simple set of Prometheus’s cell. These were helpful and fit right in with the whole concept of the play.

Director Carey Shea and company have produced an excellent fresh take on an old story, a commentary on the “gods” we may all find ourselves answering to. Find Wheeler Arts at 1035 Sanders St., Indianapolis, near Fountain Square. For information and tickets, see eclecticpond.org.

(Also posted at The Word)

Review: Time for ‘Timon’

Timon (Brian Hartz, center) is finally losing patience with the artist (Bradford Reilly, left) and poet (Taylor Cox) who had been so eager to take his money in Shakespeare's "Timon of Athens," presented by Casey Ross Productions at the 2015 Bard Fest in Carmel, Ind.
Timon (Brian Hartz, center) is finally losing patience with the artist (Bradford Reilly, left) and poet (Taylor Cox) who had been so eager to take his money in Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens,” presented by Casey Ross Productions at the 2015 Bard Fest in Carmel, Ind. — CRP photo

By John Lyle Belden

You’ve heard the phrase, “generous to a fault” – now see the consequences play out in Casey Ross Production’s “Timon of Athens” during the Bard Fest Shakespeare Festival in downtown Carmel.

In Shakespeare’s least-produced play, which, having elements of both his comedies and tragedies, Ross considers a black comedy, Athenian nobleman Timon (played by Brian G. Hartz) lavishes his wealth on friends and hangers-on, overpaying for art and giving to all who ask – or even don’t ask, but are there to receive it.

Only his steward, Flavius (Colin McCord), sees the danger of Timon’s dwindling fortunes. And only the self-denying philosopher Apemantus (Carey Shea) refuses to accept any gifts, making him the only one Timon is suspicious of, rather than the leeches at his banquet.

When Flavius finally gets through to Timon, the nobleman is broke – even his lands are forfeit. The “friends” who received so generously will give him nothing, so a disgusted Timon leaves the city to live in the wilderness. Even the discovery of a cache of gold does not make Timon happy, other than his mad glee to use the found fortune to curse Athens while keeping nothing for himself.

Hartz is in his element with this complex character, keeping him easy to root for as both the generous noble of the first act and the wild man in the woods of the second. Shea is a worthy foil; McCord is sharp as the faithful servant; and Tristan Ross takes on yet another Shakespeare role with ease as the exiled Athenian general Alcibiades. Notable are Bradford Reilly and Taylor Cox as the painter and poet who seek Timon’s patronage for a life of leisure, but all are well cast, including Tom Weingartner, David Mosedale, Allyson Womack and Minnie Ryder.

As both parable and intriguing drama, “Timon” is worth making the effort to see, and kudos to Ross for tackling the difficult job of polishing this rare gem. Upcoming performances are 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. Sunday; 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15; and 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17.

The festival also hosts performances of the comedy “As You Like It” by First Folio and the tragedy of “Othello” by Garfield Shakespeare Company. In addition, Ross hosts Shakespeare trivia contests during the festival, as well as a performance of her latest Fringe play, “Hell’s 4th Ring: The Mall Musical” at 11 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17.

The stage is located at 15 First Ave. NE in the Carmel downtown Arts and Design District (former location of Carmel Community Players). For information and tickets, visit the the Carmel Theatre Company website.