Healthy dose of love and laughter in Lawrence

By John Lyle Belden

Could love be considered a disorder? Think about it: The irrational behavior, the mood swings, the heart racing, the feeling in the pit of your stomach – nothing about being in love seems healthy!

Consider our case study of several infected individuals in and around the SuperCenter shopping experience in the comedy “Love/Sick,” by John Cariani, presented by Theatre Unchained at Theater at the Fort in Lawrence, directed by Kaya Dorsch.

The highly talented cast of Lucy Fields, Aaron Henze, Kyrsten Lyster, Brittany Magee, and Joe Wagner bring these afflicted souls to life as various characters in nine scenes in this charming hour-plus one-act.

The performance bar is set high by the first scene, in which – due to their disorder – Fields and Wagner have to deliver their exact same lines, with the same energy, at the exact same time. Add in a bit of intimate physical comedy, and they succeed to hilarious effect.

Fields then takes on the role of delivering a most awkward message to Lyster. We also have, among other bits, Henze discovering how literal “deadly boredom” can be, and Magee on a search to “find herself” that many of us can relate to.

The result is a mix of laughter and heartache that any physician would agree are a sure sign of a love outbreak, and for us in the audience the feelings are contagious.

Dorsch took a lot of TLC in growing this specimen, and if it leads to a pandemic of uncertain joy – know there’s no cure.

Remaining performances are Thursday through Saturday, Jan. 19-21, at 8920 Otis Ave. Get info at TheatreUnchained.org and tickets at ArtsForLawrence.org.

Unique ‘Holiday’ story seeks to heal family

By Wendy Carson

As bright and sparkly as they appear to be, for a large number of us the Holidays ramp up our depression and sorrow. Such is the situation with the Abrams clan in “A (Happy) Holiday,” presented by Theatre Unchained.

Grandmother Bunny (Wendy Brown), mother Busy (Jenni White) and daughter Leigh (Wilhelmena Dreyer) are not only dealing with the death of son-in-law/husband/father Owen (Bradley Lowe), but also their lack of connection with each other. Into this mess enters the gloriously anthropomorphized chemical compound, Sarah Tonin (Ariel Laukins) along with the ever-perky duo of Elf 1 (Anja Willis) and Elf 2 (Thomas Sebald) to deliver a present to make their Christmakkah (being a blended family, they have a blended holiday) complete.

Reluctantly the ladies work their way through a giant magical book with 12 chapters of Holiday memories, forcing them to face their past – no matter how good, bad, or ugly. Leigh just wants to move forward and find her true self regardless of what her mom or society demand of her. Busy wants Owen back and will settle for nothing else. Bunny, who just wants everyone to be happy and get along, seems to down a lot of “holiday cheer” to keep her distracted.

This show has numerous parodies of holiday movies and TV shows as well as other pop culture touchstones to keep the laughs coming. However, the story pulls no punches in showing the sadness and sorrow of these women. Each comes to terms with pivotal moments of their past that damaged them, yet taught them to grow and carry on, to be their true selves.

This show is a true ensemble piece, executed with sheer perfection. Each performer being great on their own, together they will move you to tears of sorrow and joy. Speaking of ensemble, this play is a special project of Theatre Unchained, co-written by Karina Cochran, Kaya Dorsch, J.E. Hibbard, and director Max McCreary. They initially set out create a series of distinct holiday scenes, but found they fit together in a single theme, focused on this relatable yet unique family.

As you can tell, this show is not a typical Holiday story. Still, it is moving, touching, endearing, and entirely affirming for all. This should be at the top of your list of shows to see this month, especially since there are only three performances left, this Thursday through Saturday, Dec. 8-10, hosted by Arts for Lawrence at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave.

Good for teens and older, grab up those members of your family and come together for an uplifting story – maybe start an important dialogue to help make your own holiday complete. Get tickets at ArtsForLawrence.org.

Serving up something darkly unique in Lawrence

By John Lyle Belden

“It’s fun to cook with someone else.”

That quip by our host Terry becomes an incredibly loaded statement in “Taste,” a co-production of Monument Theatre Company and Theatre Unchained at Arts For Lawrence’s Theater at the Fort.

Based on a bizarre true story, this play by TV writer Benjamin Brand presents a “unique” two-person dinner party. Terry (Austin Hauptstueck) has arranged for Vic (Bradley Allan Lowe) to come to his apartment, where he will kill and eat his guest. This is no ambush; in fact, Vic is eager to be consumed, and even joins Terry in tasting the first piece that is chopped off and cooked.

Needless to say, this is for mature audiences only, and not for anyone squeamish about the subject matter. The stage is a working kitchen, with a bit of (simulated) flesh put on the plate. Discussions are frank, and there is even some audio from adult films.

As director Megan Ann Jacobs notes, this is an opportunity to not only look into the mind of someone who would consume another human, but also into that of one who would agree to be eaten. Once you get past the true-crime premise, seeing this as absurdist metaphor, we get at the relatable issues of loneliness and feelings of self that make a person this desperate for intimacy in any form. Thoughts of sex (in which “eat” is a common euphemism) lie just below the surface. The desire for a “real” experience overrides all other considerations. Issues of trust become vital: Did Vic really tie up loose ends to vanish from his past life? Will Terry keep his word and eat all of Vic, and not discard him like garbage? Who are the recorded videos for?

One mark of how absorbed we get in this weirdness is how much we find ourselves laughing at this dark comedy.

To engage us in the audience, no doubt the actors had to dig deep into perspectives we presume they wouldn’t normally hold, into the darkest aspects of humanity. Hauptstueck presents as an eccentric epicure, not entirely detached like a Hannibal Lecter sociopath. He relishes this experience in his own way, the foodie wanting to get not just the recipe but the whole culinary experience just right. Lowe portrays a lost soul seeking a sort of salvation, a bizarre “communion” in which he can be integrated completely – giving himself to nourish another. Fascinated by anyone’s life but his own, he sees this as his way out of an empty existence.

What less-desperate things have we all done to feel connection, belonging? There may be a place for more of us at this table than we’re willing to admit.

“Taste” is served Friday through Sunday, Sept. 29-30 and Oct. 1 at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., Indianapolis. For info and tickets, visit artsforlawrence.org, monumenttheatrecompany.org, or theatreunchained.org.

Traumatic issues taken seriously in new drama

By John Lyle Belden

Over time, I have gotten to know persons who shared their struggles with Dissociative Identity Disorder, which pop culture gave the misleading label of “multiple personalities.” This mental health condition is complex and usually borne of deep personal trauma. 

Therefore, the Trigger Warnings for “Coping with Autumn,” the new drama written and directed by Megan Ann Jacobs for Theatre Unchained, presented by Arts for Lawrence, should be taken seriously.

Autumn (Kyrsten Lyster) is under observation after her arrest for killing her boyfriend. She decides that if you are going to watch, she will give you a show, telling you the story of how she arrived in this unfurnished cell.

During her narration, we meet the occupants of her mind: Dee (Maresa Eileen Kelly), the eternal child who won’t tell her what happened when alone with her father, appears shortly before her mother (Rachel A. Snyder) divorces and moves them from Wisconsin to Indiana. Joy (Ethany Reeder Michaud), the impulsive, takes over when potential new high school friends invite her to a party, then ensures Autumn has a “good time.” When regrets set in, Vera (Roci Contreras), the confrontational, appears to make sure those classmates never bother her again.

Like many misfits, Autumn feels more at home at a distant college. There, she is befriended by Kasey (Brittany Magee). They bond over poetry and spend a lot of time together, until Kasey invites Autumn to a “small” get-together. Naturally, it’s another wild crowd, and then the bag of drugs comes out.

Before her “friends” emerge, Autumn exits, and meets Steven (Thomas Sebald). He seems so nice, and perfect. He pampers her, gives her fancy meals and nice gifts. Then he starts making demands. Is this what love is like? Must be, she thinks, and does everything she can to please him – until she can’t. Kasey has been shut out, and Steven has charmed Mom. Who can help her? I’ll give you three guesses.

The second act features Autumn’s trial and aftermath. New allies include therapist Dr. Weber (Kelly Keller) and pro bono attorney Alex (Joe Wagner), who feels a personal connection to the case. But Sebald returns to the stage as a prosecuting attorney, the resemblance not lost on Autumn. 

Lyster, who has shown so much range in past roles, is amazing here. Magee, who joined the cast late into the production, is incredible in support. Snyder is superb, and by happy accident has a physical resemblance to her “daughter.” Their portrayals of well-meaning but damaged women never slip into cliche and evoke appropriate emotional responses from the audience and each other.

This ain’t “Inside Out.” The two adolescents and child that represent portions of
Autumn’s psyche are neither cartoonish nor comic relief. The dissociation is handled respectfully in smooth transitions with Lyster so that we easily see the four actors as aspects of the same woman. 

Sebald plays Steven so disarmingly kind (when the monster is hidden away), it’s easy to see how men like this character can charm and trap women who find no one believes them when relationships turn abusive. And when he’s a beast, “evil” is an understatement.

Cast and crew took this sensitive topic seriously. During a post-show talk-back, dramaturg Max Andrew McCreary said he shared his mental health research with them, including that according to one source, it is estimated that nearly half of adults have at one time had a sort of dissociative incident, from a moment feeling outside one’s body, all along the spectrum to rare cases of true DID (fictional Autumn’s condition is on the spectrum). All involved took consent into account throughout the entire process, from the first rehearsal. Sebald, who said he had helped workshop Steven/Prosecutor, said this was especially essential for him to feel comfortable in his role. This atmosphere of trust helped make the action in this drama more raw and natural, which some in the audience noted in their comments.

If you have experience with abuse and/or psychological trauma, be careful about seeing this. But for any who can manage, this is highly recommended. Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, May 19-21 (post-show talkbacks on Thursday and Saturday) at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., Lawrence (off the north end of Indy’s Post Road). Get info and tickets at TheatreUnchained.org or ArtsForLawrence.org.