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 Thmpson) 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: Agape gets wyrd with ‘Macbeth’

By John Lyle Belden

Though it is the most familiar Shakespeare work in this year’s Bard Fest, the adaptation of “Macbeth” (“the Scottish Play” to the superstitious) by director Dr. Kathy Phipps for Agape Theater Company makes the famous tragedy fresh and fascinating. 

From the opening moments, we see the production has gone all-in on the “Wyrd Sisters.” Aside from the principal three Witches – Mary Zou, Hailey Ready, Laura Sickmeier – and Queen Hecate (Sylvia Seidle), we have a full coven, with Mia Baillie, Rebekah Barajas, Ashlynn Gilmore, Anastasia Lucia, and Maggie McKinney, as they make full use of song and movement to add atmosphere and propel the plot. They are envisioned as Wood Sprites, which gives them a clever supporting role in the play’s final battle. 

But don’t put the blame for what ensues on the Witches. As always, Agape (a youth theatre program of Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church) delves into human morality and the consequences of men’s – and women’s – actions. Temptation can tell us things, but it is up to us how we use the information. Heroic Macbeth (Aidan Morris) and comrade in arms Banquo (Nathan Foster) are told that the former will become King, while the latter is father to monarchs. Banquo senses something troubling in the sprites’ words. Macbeth, seeing part of the prophecy fulfilled, eagerly embraces the rest. And upon hearing of this, Lady Macbeth (Brynn Hensley) immediately goes into murder-mode.

We get solid work from the mostly high school- and college-age cast, including Jake Hobbs as prince Malcolm; Nathan Ellenberger as Macbeth’s rival, Macduff; Kyle Hensley as Banquo’s son Fleance; and Doug Rollins (an Agape parent usually working behind the scenes) as doomed King Duncan. Sickmeier also plays Lady Macduff. Notable in support are Virginia Sever as Ross, Grant Scott-Miller as Lennox, and Carter Thurnall as Angus. 

Morris takes on the title role with gusto, part of a tradition of Shakespeare leads who charge headlong into action before thinking it through. When he does hesitate, however, his wife is there to remind him to “screw (his) courage to the sticking place.” That brings us to Brynn Hensley; the Lebanon High School senior may have put in the best performance in a festival full of strong women in strong women’s roles. She makes the most of an arc that goes from power-mad to just plain mad, even bringing out in just a word or sharp glance the play’s dark humor. 

Other touches are well-served, like frequent appearances of the unsettled dead, a murder in silhouette (part of the excellent stage design by Ian Phipps), the effective use of banners to quickly change scenes, and even a nice “reenactment” in an early scene. Agape cast and crew have taken great care to give this cursed classic it’s due. A work of “sound and fury,” as always, but with some significance after all.

Remaining performances are Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 28-30, at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., in Lawrence. Get info and tickets at www.indybardfest.com and www.artsforlawrence.org

Fat Turtle @ the Fort: Go see ‘Joan’

By John Lyle Belden

Something precious has been stuck in a house for a long time.

Joan Wright was once an “author, traveler and businesswoman,” but in the three years since her husband died she has just been Joanie, a lonely woman spending her days in a bathrobe, knitting and watching the world out her back window.

But changes are coming. Her adult daughters are planning to move halfway across the country, and suddenly an old friend is in her living room, inviting her to a gathering of “the old gang” to celebrate her upcoming birthday. It’s exciting, and a bit frightening, but does it feel right?

This is the essence of the new drama, “Go Be Joan,” by Nathaniel Adams, a premiere by Fat Turtle Theatre at Theater at the Fort.

Kathy Bauchle plays Joan as a strong woman throughout – sometimes channeling that strength into her stubborn insistence on “not being a burden” by getting into nice clothes and out of the house to be among others.

Her girls each have their own issues, especially with the changes that life cast their way. Elder daughter Katherine (Afton Shepard) wears her constant nervous smile like a shield as she tries to maintain control of every situation she’s in. Her little sister Lindsie (Audrey Stonerock) has been taking care of Joan the past few years and really, really, wants their mother to move to St. Louis with them. Shepard and Stonerock swing from comaraderie to conflict and back like real siblings, as the deeper layers of the plot are revealed.

Katherine’s daughter Cara (Natalie Marchal) adds another generation to the mix, with her own quirks and concerns. She seems a bit two-dimensional and cliché at first, a selfish child preoccupied with the digital world in her smartphone, until Joan’s insistence on communicating yields to us a nice insight into Cara and her post-Millennial perspective. In return, we see the girl help her grandmother into the 21st century – which in the context of Joan’s shutting herself off from the world in recent years takes on special relevance.

Dan Flahive is neighbor and old friend John Patty, who delivers the invitation – and a mysterious wrapped gift – to Joan. He, too, lost a spouse years ago, so has a special insight into their situation. Flahive’s knack for playing a best friend you feel you’ve known and loved all your life is in full effect here. He plays it coy enough to balance the chemistry between his and Bauchle’s character deftly between platonic/agape friend and possible love-interest.

Fat Turtle artistic director Brandi Underwood directs.

This is a good start for a promising play, and an excellent opportunity for local audiences to support local art. The characters and their story touch our hearts with gentle humor and an insightful look at how we grieve and learn to go on living.

Oh, and my opening statement above refers to more than just the title character.

Performances of “Go Be Joan” run through July 28 at 8920 Otis Ave., on the grounds of Fort Benjamin Harrison in Lawrence. Get information and tickets at www.fatturtletheatre.com.

Fat Turtle drama a matter of maturity

By John Lyle Belden

In “Adults,” the new play by Jeremy Grimmer in its world premiere with Fat Turtle Theatre Company, the characters are all adults.

They are consenting adults, okay with having sex whenever they want. They are adults who are free to gather and play video games at any time. They can feel comfortable enough with any situation to not let it bother them. They can say “I love you.”

“Life isn’t easier, just because it looks freer,” says E.J. (Colin Landberg). This is his house, which he inherited and now lives in alone. One night he brought home Sarah (Afton Shepard), who decided to be “not married” for one day. She awakens shocked to find him fixing her breakfast — is this the way adults do this? Charmed and conflicted, she engages in one more romp before going home to her husband — then returns about once a week. Her marriage is crumbling, having lost its intimacy, but she has kids so she doesn’t divorce; it seems like the adult thing to do.

Old high school friends Meg (Kim Egan), Seth (Josh Turner) and Fred (Brad Root) come over to E.J.’s to play a shared online wargame. While each has a life (and Seth a wife) outside this gathering, all that matters here is leveling up and what snacks are being offered. They even eventually meet Sarah (introduced as E.J.’s neighbor) and are totally cool with her. Why wouldn’t they be? We’re all adults here.

Thus we go through five years of an affair and unusual friendships, the events that lead up to today, when our couple has to make hard — adult — choices.

Directed by Fat Turtle co-founder Aaron Cleveland, this script feels almost too polished to be new, and the cast give solid performances, especially Landberg as easy-going heart-on-sleeve E.J. and Shepard as sweet but girl’s-got-issues Sarah. While even the characters note the improbability of their situation lasting so long, this only goes to the overall atmosphere of arrested development throughout the cast. We find that it’s not enough just to be an adult; at some point you also have to grow up.

Be warned that another theme element is food — starting with the awesome smell of bacon for the first scene in the air before the play even starts. It might be best to have dinner before the show.

This sharp drama nicely leavened with comic elements is worth the effort to find, with one remaining weekend of performances, Thursday through Sunday, Jan. 17-20, at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave. on the grounds of old Fort Benjamin Harrison off of North Post Road in Lawrence. Get info and tickets at fatturtletheatre.com.

Fat Turtle hilariously handles impossible quest to dramatize Don Quixote

By Wendy Carson

Don Quixote. We all know the story – or do we?

It turns out that the storyline we are so familiar with is actually less than 20 percent of the thousand-page tome. The beautiful Dulcinea, for whom Quixote pines, is merely referred to and not actually a character in the book. The vast majority of the saga involves the deranged “knight” and his faithful squire just riding through the countryside getting beaten up frequently.

So why does this epic novel continue to inspire numerous attempts to adapt it for stage or screen, only to be defeated by the effort? That is the focus of Mark Brown’s whimsical play, “The Quest for Don Quixote,” produced by Fat Turtle Theatre Company through Sunday at Theater at the Fort.

Jason Page portrays Ben, our intrepid playwright, whose passion for the text is only eclipsed by the despair of his inability to write anything at all. His agent Jeffry (Dan Flahive) has tracked him down to a coffeehouse in order to retrieve Ben’s script – after all, rehearsals begin tomorrow. Flahive shines through his desperation and terror at discovering the situation, especially as he relentlessly tries to kick-start Ben’s writing.

As they deliriously brainstorm throughout the night, the story comes alive with the coffeehouse staff and patrons joining them to act out their efforts. The results are wacky and bizarre, yet tenderly true to the intentions of the original story.

Nan Macy and Savannah Jay embody a myriad of characters each, yet manage to bring each one fully to life in such a manner as to make you forget that they are just two people.

Justin Lyon’s portrayal of the buffoonish “squire” Sancho Panza brings out the heroic heart of the character.

Of course, the story could not work without our hero, Don Quixote. Jeff Maess deftly brings the deluded, yet inspired, mania of the character fully to light.

While not actually playing one of the various actors in the story, Chris McNeely uses his guitar as a driving force in the narrative by setting the tone for each scene. In fact, you might recognize a bar or two of some more contemporary songs that punctuate a few plot lines.

In adapting the unadaptable, this hilarious play about a play about a immortal character that transcends his literature bends the rules enough to blend medieval chivalry with Pinkie Pie from “My Little Pony.” Yet the soul of the story of the man who showed us the folly of fighting windmills – no matter what form they take – remains as pure as a noble knight’s heart. Director Aaron Cleveland acquits himself well in taking up the lance against this mill.

Find Theater at the Fort on the former grounds of Fort Benjamin Harrison, just west of Post Road just north of 56th Street in Lawrence. For info and tickets, visit www.fatturtletheatre.com.

Old lore gets modern makeover in Catalyst’s ‘Slaying the Dragon’

By John Lyle Belden

I got so much more than I expected when I saw “Slaying the Dragon,” and I have high expectations from a play written by Casey Ross.

Ross’ plays are character-driven with great dialogue, flavored with enough of the absurd to make them entertaining without stretching credulity. And with her latest comedy production – presented by her Catalyst Repertory at Theater at the Fort, directed by Carey Shea – Ross enters the realm of fairy tales and conjures a thought-provoking fable.

Mythical kingdoms have reluctantly come into the 21st century, and the castle of King Farenwide (Dan Flahive) is now a condo. His Queen (Nan Macy) is happy as long as she has a place to garden, but Princess Maleena (Abby Gilster) is frustrated that her parents neither embrace New World ways nor accept that she has. To the King’s delight, a Knight has moved nearby – and being the only handy noble, a good prospect for his daughter (she’s not pleased with that prospect). But upon visiting Sir Alexander Meander (Matt Walls), they meet his roommate, Flameson (Tristan Ross), a dragon.

The inevitable conflict of old prejudices (that dragons are beasts worthy of little more than slaying) and outdated loyalties (a knight must obey orders and kill such beasts) with more modern attitudes can’t help but raise comparisons to events in the offstage world. True to the style of Casey Ross (no relation to Tristan, though they are good friends), the issues are handled with great humor and humanity. While it’s easy to make “Shrek” comparisons, the inspiration here seems more like the Disney short “The Reluctant Dragon” and the stage/film/TV classic “The Odd Couple.”

Gilster is great as the sane center of the swirling silliness. Flahive is fun, and makes riding a mobility chair look as noble as an actual royal steed. Macy tackles yet another maternal role with soothing ease (and a fantastic hat). And Josh Weaver adds to the laugh factor as obliviously mellow Page Jon, the castle servant.

It’s easy to see which is the “Felix” and which is the “Oscar” with Walls and Tristan Ross. Meander makes his best effort at being noble in tarnished armor, while Flameson is an excellent housekeeper and cook (who can light the stove by breathing on it). The actors’ performances are totally up to snuff, especially in Tristan’s talent for not going over-the-top with a fantasy character, aided by excellent makeup effects.

This is definitely a new work that is worthy of seeking out – and a little seeking might be in order. Theater at the Fort is located on the grounds of former Fort Benjamin Harrison (technically in Lawrence) at 8920 Otis Ave.

Performances are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday, March 16-19. Get info at uncannycasey.wix.com/catalystrepertory or follow Catalyst Repertory on Facebook; get tickets here.

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

Classroom drama gets excellent portrayal by student actors

By John Lyle Belden

ATTENTION: Your assignment is to see and applaud some very talented youth.

CYT director Laura Baltz told us that her all-kid cast of “Up the Down Staircase,” playing this weekend at Theater at the Fort, were unsure about how us grownups would judge their efforts, especially as it’s a first-time foray into drama rather than comic musicals. But, simply put, John & Wendy were blown away.

The play – based on the 1960s novel – takes place in an inner-city New York high school where a young first-time teacher is confronted by a run-down building, bureaucratically stifled staff and apathetic students. Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the film or a stage version (or “To Sir With Love” or frankly any inspiring-teacher film), you know the story. But it’s how the teacher gets through the red tape and reaches the kids that’s important, and it doesn’t seem so cliché when the students are actually played by school-age kids (middle-schoolers in high school are easier to accept than Hollywood’s 20-something screen “teens”).

The adult roles are played by elder members of the CYT troupe, and come off as believably mature. I thought I could guess which actors are 18, but Baltz informed me that actually, none of them are.

Abagail Johnson is appropriately inspiring as new teacher Sylvia Barrett. She seems comfortable in her own skin with an optimistic confidence that shines through her character, even when overwhelmed, making you believe in and root for the “Teach” at the center of the story. Sabrina Duprey convincingly plays at least a decade older than her 16 years as Beatrice, Sylvia’s fellow teacher and mentor.

Sam Surrette couples his excellent performance with a cocky swagger as teacher and frustrated author Paul Barringer, who feels he’s too good for the job he’s stuck in until his efforts to stay emotionally distant from his students backfire almost tragically.

Maria Saam ably plays Ellen, a friend who provides outside perspective for Sylvia (and the audience) through their correspondence.

And Joshua Minnich manages the difficult job of injecting humanity into administrative assistant J.J. McHabe, the personification of much of what Sylvia is up against.

The rest of the cast do very well as faculty and students – keeping events flowing and lines delivered sharply (even when the scene calls for them to talk over one another). Jackson Bell and Makayla Cripe handle the dramatic load of portraying students who are troubled, each in a distinctly different way.

As the original story was told in letters, memos and written notes, the play cleverly provides them as loose conversations or popping in through hidden doors in the wall (like the old TV show “Laugh-In”). Ellen’s home, miles away, enters and exits the stage edge by clever lighting. All elements are executed smoothly.

I should note that CYT stands for Christian Youth Theater. It is easy to assume that such a group might feel compelled to insert Bible verses or otherwise “Jesus-up” the show, but there’s no preaching here. The play carries a theme of Christian compassion that speaks for itself.

And the teachers’ plight might look a little too familiar, even 50 years after the story was written.

As for the concerns mentioned earlier, these young thespians needn’t worry. They are doing solid work in an American classic. My advice to them is to keep working on the stage as long as you feel inspired to, and take the play’s notion of reach-exceeding-grasp to heart. It might not always work (still, you did your best, right?) but this time it definitely did.

Just one weekend of performances (weather permitting) Friday through Sunday, Jan. 13-15 at 8920 Otis Ave. on the former Fort Benjamin Harrison grounds, just off the north end of Post Road. Info at www.cytindy.org.