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.

Bard Fest: Tragic Egyptian queen still fascinating

By John Lyle Belden

Indy Bard Fest presents the Improbable Fiction Theatre Company production of “Antony and Cleopatra” – which, though I know that’s the way Shakespeare titled it, should give the doomed last Queen of Egypt first billing.

Already an incredible talent, Afton Shepard throws herself fully into her title role, portraying Cleopatra’s “infinite variety” of moods and mental states. But under her demeanor, ranging from stormy to sultry, burns a fierce intelligence. All this and more Mark Antony, well-portrayed by Darin Richart, sees, and dedicates himself to as they rule the Eastern third of the Roman Empire. But confict with fellow triumvir Caesar (the eventual Augustus, played by Thomas Sebald) is inevetable.

This production, directed by Ryan T. Shelton, pares down the cast and puts the focus more squarely on Cleopatra. Having ruled since she was a teen – and still showing fits of immaturity – she is also well traveled and educated. She knows a woman’s typical place in this world (much like ours, in a way) and is not afraid to use seductive charms to camoflauge her true wisdom.

Many characters are placed on the weary shoulders of Craig Kemp, who enters as the Soothsayer and appears as various messengers and soldiers as the story demands. The excellent cast includes Bobbi Bye as Caesar’s advisor Agrippa, Dana Lesh and Barb Weaver as Cleopatra’s servants Charmian and Iras, Duane Leatherman as third triumvir Lepidus, Jamie Devine as Caesar’s sister Octavia, Becca Bartley as Cleopatra’s guard Alexas, and Jet Terry as Antony’s faithful soldier Scarus. Kevin Caraher gets a meaty role in Enorbarbus, steadfast for Antony up to the point that he sees history turning and fearing himself on the wrong side, “when valor preys on reason.”

Gender-blind casting is nothing new in today’s theatre, but I liked that Caesar’s soldier Dolabella, played by Evangeline Bouw, seems to lend an element of feminine empathy in being the last Roman to guard Cleopatra at the end.

Scholars debate the fine points of even the original historical sources, but this powerful play gives a good sense of the era and the essence of the larger than life persons in it. We feel we have met Cleopatra and Antony, and it’s an honor.

Performances are Thursday, Saturday and Sunday (Oct. 28, 30, 31) at The Cat Theater, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Get info and tickets at indybardfest.com.

Indiana Ten Minute Play Festival

By John Lyle Belden

In our restricted world, there are not a lot of opportunities for live entertainment. Fortunately, IndyFringe has managed a nice setup in its “pocket park” next to the theatre building, where an audience can sit at tables spaced about six feet apart. The actors use the garage-style opening of the Indy Eleven stage to set up their play space. (See indyfringe.org for upcoming shows at this unique venue.)

Last weekend, that little space held a big variety of entertainment as Fringe presented the Indiana Ten Minute Play Festival. The seven brief comic dramas had a surprising degree of depth and content, even at their silliest, thanks to sharp writing and excellent acting from a fun group of players.

We started with “Hurry Up, It’s Almost Bedtime” by Janice Neal, directed by Anthony Nathan with Emerging Artists Theatre. David Molloy is Frank, who is likely dead, which spells trouble for fellow senior-home residents Rose (Linda Grant), Lucille (Wendy Brown) and Betty (Joy Shurn). Nurse Brittany (Stephanie Anderson) hasn’t caught on, yet. The fast-approaching bedtime of the title gives them an idea to ensure that Frank’s body is found in his bed. While the idea of this play sounds macabre, the Golden-Girls-style repartee among the ladies makes this a nice dark comedy.

“Aloha Apocalypse,” by Marcia Eppich-Harris – directed by Megan Ann Jacobs with Rapture Theatre – is based on an actual event not that long ago when an “incoming missile” alert was sounded in Hawaii. Sophie (Laura Baltz) and Ed (David Molloy) are a mainlander couple on vacation who discover they may only have minutes to live. What to do? After a comically-arranged farewell video to their children, there’s the agonizing wait for The End. Feeling his conscience bother him, Ed makes a confession of infidelity. That doesn’t help them, but it makes things even funnier for us. Fate has the last laugh, of course, when it’s announced that the crisis is a false alarm. Baltz and Malloy have great chemistry, even when the reactions are unstable. A newscaster voice is provided by Thomas Sebald.

“Don’t Toy With Me” by Andrew Black, directed by Casey Ross of Catalyst Repertory Theatre, brings the focus not only down to 10 minutes long but also to 10 inches high, as Thomas Sebald plays a GI Joe action figure that has arrived at the Malibu Beach House occupied by Beach Glam Ken (Grant Nagel). At the moment, they don’t hear the godlike voices of their child masters, so they can be themselves. They remark on how so much of their world is “out of order,” like the canteen or juice bottle they feel compelled to “drink” even if no liquid comes out. Eventually the mistress of the dreamhouse, Malibu Barbie (Kyrsten Lyster), arrives. And even if she can be temporarily distracted by a fashion faux pas, her power over Ken is too strong for the men’s relationship to last. The sharp script and this talented trio make this the most hilarious bit of the evening. And it helps that the actors have their “articulated” movements down, especially Sebald.

“Are You Busy Tonight” – by Russell Ridgeway, directed by Anthony Nathan – is what Mother (Wendy Brown) asks son Kevin (Nathan) in this funny roller coaster of a phone conversation. At first Kevin is annoyed at his mom wanting to invite her to an evening at the theatre, but after suggesting that she ask if someone else is free, he becomes even more exasperated to find out he – her son – was the 28th person she thought to ask! And that included a couple of friends who had died. Nathan is at his best acting flustered, and Brown is a force of nature, so they mint comedy gold here.

Heritage Christian High School Theatre Department presents a teen rite of passage with “Promposal!” by Josie Gingrich, directed by Spencer Elliott. Sam (Bradley Bundrant) likes Anna (Cate Searcy) but over time she has become distant. So, what better way to win her over than by asking her to the Senior Prom, in an extravagant gesture reminiscent of the ’80s movies she likes to watch. Our scene begins as Anna exits the Cafeteria thoroughly embarrassed, and Sam follows, desperate to find out how his perfect plan went so wrong. This sweet and authentic look at high school life, loaded with unforced humor, feels pitch-perfect. Bundrant and Searcy nimbly portray how two such different personalities – he impulsive and loud, she quiet and wanting to be invisible – can eventually feel meant for each other.

Mark Harvey Levine is great at making these short-form plays – Phoenix Theatre patrons may remember some years back he presented a series of them there in “Cabfare for the Common Man.” In this festival, Levine brings us “Ordained,” directed by Megan Ann Jacobs. Sharon (Kyrsten Lister) is manic, unabashed, double-espresso perky, and just recently ordained as a minister by the SacredChurchOfAngelicMinistry.com. Now, at this airport waiting lounge, she has found Abby (Case Jacobus), who is single, and Gary (Grant Nagel), who is also single. Let’s get them married! The resulting scene is wildly hilarious, even as what seems to be an encounter with a well-meaning lunatic starts to have the odd feel of destiny. Jacobus and Nagel play it well, taking the oddness in stride, and Lister is in her element.

What better way to finish an evening of unusual stories than with “Sock Puppet Fetish Noir,” by Kelly McBurnette-Andronicos, directed by Casey Ross, who also stars (stepping in for Missy Rump, who couldn’t make it for health reasons). Jane (Ross) pays a visit to an unusual detective, Inspector Darryl, a puppet sock who will only talk to her sock placed on her hand. It seems some “friends” have gone missing, last seen going into the laundry with their partners. But it turns out that Melvin (David Molloy), the man at the other end of Darryl’s arm, has been keeping secrets in that jar on the desk. So, yes, it’s very weird – quite funny – and with up-for-anything actors like Ross and Malloy, it somehow works.

This was a one-weekend event, so hopefully one or more of these scenes will pop up again somewhere. The festival was an excellent exhibition of local talent and creativity, part of the great and varied Indy theatre scene that we look forward to seeing more of as current events allow.