ALT: Intense drama includes talkback after every show

By John Lyle Belden

American Lives Theatre, the latest new company to the Indianapolis stage scene, makes a bold and provocative debut with its production of Pulitzer finalist “Gloria” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.

In the offices of a New York-based magazine, aspiring writers, stuck as assistants to faceless editors, snipe at each other as they lament their lack of opportunity, discuss their exit strategies, and seek to take advantage of the breaking story of a celebrity death. Dean (Joe Barsanti) is facing his 30th birthday with the vain hope that his memoir on his struggles in a dying industry will make all this worth it. Ali (Morgan Morton) is very go-along-get-along, which infuriates super-ambitious Kendra (Kim Egan). It’s the last day for intern Miles (Joshua Short), who is questioning his career path, now that he has seen the beast from the inside. The general commotion in this room infuriates Lorin (Tom Weingartner), trying to keep up with the demands of being chief fact-checker down the hall. Meanwhile, Gloria (Bridget Haight) — generally quiet and kinda weird, but a constant presence for the past 15 years — keeps dropping by, appearing anxious. Could this have something to do with the housewarming she hosted the night before, to which only Dean showed up?

This is about all I dare reveal of the plot. Director (and ALT founder) Chris Saunders notes that the content of this play includes a “trigger warning” due to a very specific trauma at the heart of the story. But I won’t spill, as the shock is an essential part of the drama. 

Fortunately, there is plenty of satirical and workplace humor, even as the characters become haunted by their circumstances. Haight also plays Nan, an editor with her own perspective that receives attention. Most of the cast also have additional roles, notably Short as a rather in-charge Starbucks barista. All have talents well up to their task.

“Gloria” is not so much about what happens, but rather how we deal with it. As each person comes to terms with their role and reactions, it becomes a question, as Saunders asks in the post-show discussion, “who owns the rights to trauma?”

Yes, there’s a talk-back — after every performance. Saunders hosts, and the actors may also get involved. Given what happens in the play, this can be a very important part of the overall experience.

Performances are Friday, Saturday (Jan. 17-18) and the next Friday through Sunday (Jan. 24-26) at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair. Get info and tickets at americanlivestheatre.org or indyfringe.org.

Bard Fest: Trauma has woman caught in ‘Lear’s Shadow’

This Show is part of Bard Fest, central Indiana’s annual Shakespeare festival. Info and tickets at www.indybardfest.com.

By John Lyle Belden

For many of the people I know, theatre is life. Sometimes it feels like the two blend together, and in “Lear’s Shadow,” by Brian Elerding, the words of a William Shakespeare drama can help one to deal with a real-world truth.

Jackie (Nan Macy) arrives at her company’s rehearsal room to find it empty and the wrong scripts on the table. She has unexplained bruises and a sore neck, but her main concern is that no one is there to start working on Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” 

Then, company member Stephen (Tom Weingartner) arrives, visibly worried. He calls Rachel (Morgan Morton), who is on her way, but in the meantime he needs to keep Jackie occupied, working through her frequent mental re-sets until she is ready to understand…

For much of the hour of this First Folio production in the IndyFringe Indy Eleven Theatre, Jackie and Stephen explore the idea of following just the plot of the King in “Lear,” apart from other intrigues, exploring his relationships and growing madness. Thus many passages from the play are quoted and enacted, leading up to Act IV, Scene 7. Jackie, who has the script memorized, takes the title role, which she instructs must be played starting less-mad, giving his character somewhere to go, “to see someone gaining strength as they lose everything.”

Macy is incredible, both as Jackie and as Jackie-as-Lear, as we come to learn the parallels between the two — picking favorites, pushing away a loved one, psychological trauma, and the need to rage against something that can’t be controlled.

Weingartner shows deft command of the stage as well, and Morton acquits herself well in her scene. 

Directed by Glenn Dobbs, this drama is a worthy addition to the festival, a good “Shakespeare-adjacent” play that helps relate the old texts to today’s world as well or better than just putting players in modern suits (though we do enjoy those, too, theatre friends!). 

Remaining performances are Oct. 24-27: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday (with talkback after Friday’s show) and 2 p.m. Sunday. 

Harry’s ‘Monsters’ haunting Irvington

By John Lyle Belden

The movie “Halloween” is in theaters, the Dodgers are in the World Series, and there are concerns about the impact of personal video on films and television.

Yes, it’s 1978 in Los Angeles, and the magazine Popular Monsters is about to put out what may be its last issue — a tribute to horror B-movie star Ephraim Knight. Publisher Elsa Creighton is honestly no fan of scary movies — or Knight — but she works to honor her dying father, the magazine’s owner. On the other hand, staff writer Greg is a superfan of all the bumps in the night, a passion he shares with girlfriend Shawna, who, through her family, is no stranger to the ways of Hollywood.

This sets the scene for “Popular Monsters,” the fully-staged premiere of a comedy-drama script by Lou Harry, produced by another Indy playwright, Casey Ross and her Catalyst Repertory company, at the Irvington Lodge, directed by Zachariah Stonerock.

Jamie McNulty is super suave as Knight, the man who played a beast on the silver screen, whose urbane patter disguises the beast he was when the cameras weren’t rolling. Tom Weingartner as Greg flies in the other direction: manic, uncertain and painfully naive. Alexandria Miles as Shawna faces the world with razor-sharp wit and BS-detector turned to 11. And Miranda Nehrig musters her talent for complex characters by making Elsa bitchy, yet likable; and by lending humor to the scenes when she is extremely drunk without devolving into slapstick.

These bold performances with gentle humor help illuminate the play’s examination of these different characters. Appropriate to a story set in Hollywood, there are themes of what is real and what isn’t — is something a lie, or just “acting”? — the stories we tell and the truths we avoid. As Knight states, “There is always a story.”

The setting of a cultural turning point, with references to old black-and-white monster movies alongside the dawn of the slasher films and the phenomenon of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, fits so neatly, especially with Michael Myers chasing Jamie Lee Curtis in theaters again. But this is also a clever vehicle for Harry, through Stonerock’s vision, to show the ever-present “monsters” within us all.

Remaining performances are Nov. 1-3 at the historic Irvington Lodge (No. 666 — really!), 5515 E. Washington St., Indianapolis. Info at www.facebook.com/catalystrepertory.

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.