Bard Fest cast brave Albee classic

By Wendy Carson

Let me begin by saying the old adage is true: Nothing good happens after 2 a.m.

This is the precise hour in which our tale begins. George (Tony Armstrong) and Martha (Nan Macy) have arrived home from one of her father’s numerous parties just in time to continue the “festivities” by initiating the new professor into the way of life at their provincial college. Since Martha’s father is the President (and ersatz owner) of this establishment, Nick (Matthew Walls) and his wife Honey (Afton Shepard) feel compelled to attend.

What begins as two couples sharing cocktails quickly escalates into a verbal brawl in which no one is safe. At first, Nick and Honey gape in shock as the barbs fly back and forth. but as time passes and alcohol is consumed, their own skeletons explode out of the closet for all to see.

Edward Albee’s classic play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” shows the author’s mastery of language and its power. Martha’s tongue is a lethal weapon, which no man, save perhaps George, can survive. However, George can hold his own in this melee.

Watching Martha and George go at each other is akin to seeing different beasts battle for dominance, the saddest thing is that they honestly do love each other, in their own way. Macy is a black belt at this sort of verbal karate, complete with Martha’s sharp tools of wit and psychological warfare. Armstrong presents George as the weathered stone taking on wave after wave of abuse, but with the eerie calm of one who has little left to lose, and one more devastating ace to play.

Walls brings his own cockiness, in which Nick manages for two of the drama’s three acts to feel that he will come out of this skirmish unscathed, and perhaps ready to exploit what he’s heard. But too late he finds he’s way too Kansas for these Ivy League-level head games. Shepard manages a lot with her character, an easy foil for Albee’s humor who, with the help of lots of brandy, devolves from a waif lost in the playground to a girl lost in the woods.

For those unfamiliar with the play, or the Oscar-winning Elizabeth Taylor film, note this production, directed by Matthew Socey, is a wild ride, an emotional roller coaster with no brakes, so engaging you may not notice it runs three hours. No story told or alluded to is without importance (except one bit in the first scene, more on that later) and only at the end do we get a full view of the field of play. However, while the show is very intense, it can be amusing to notice how often various couples in the audience knowingly look at each other after some of the exchanges.

Oh, and to save you a minute or two of Googling during the first intermission, the answer to Martha’s question is, “Beyond the Forest.”

Presented by Indy Bard Fest as part of its Prestige Project of great stage plays not written by Mr. Shakespeare, performances continue Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 14-17, at The Cat theatre 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel (note there are some construction street closures, but it’s possible to reach the building). Get info and tickets at indybardfest.com.

Simon comedy gets ‘radio’ treatment

By John Lyle Belden

It’s been a wild year, with social unrest, a wild presidential election, war in Vietnam — yes, it’s 1968. To bring back the flavor of the good ol’ days, “station WCAT” in Carmel is hosting a live radio play of the Neil Simon hit, “Plaza Suite.”

This is the situation presented by Indy Bardfest, which is taking a break from Shakespeare fare to explore more recent celebrated playwrights. The necessity of personal distance for those on the stage, as well as in the audience, in the wacky year of 2020 make the radio drama an excellent format for presenting a character- and dialogue-driven play such as this.

Director Matthew Socey has given the cast of Tony Armstrong, Nan Macy, Afton Shepard, and Matthew Walls, assisted by Tony Johnson as host and sound-effects guy, plenty of opportunities for visual antics to accompany the “theatre of the mind” atmosphere. On-stage social distancing is achieved as each stands apart at their own microphone, even during moments like the creatively unorthodox kissing scenes.

Simon’s ‘68 Broadway smash is three acts, each its own story, all taking place at 3 p.m. on different days in Room 719 of the Plaza Hotel in New York City. In the first, an exercise in emotionally-charged dark humor, Karen (Macy) has booked the suite as a surprise anniversary gift in hopes of recharging her lackluster marriage to Sam (Armstrong). But she finds she may be too late, and maybe even in the wrong room. Walls appears as members of hotel staff, and Shepard as Sam’s beautiful secretary.

In the second act, successful young Hollywood producer Jesse Kiplinger (Walls) arranges to meet with his high-school sweetheart, Muriel (Shepard), a working-class New Jersey housewife. He longs for the simplicity of the past, while she is fascinated by his life among the stars. Much humor is derived from the cumulative effect of vodka stingers vs. the delicate dance of seduction. Their exchange is a fun examination of the people we pretend to be, even to ourselves, as Jesse works out how to keep their metaphorical masks in place long enough to get Muriel’s actual dress off.

The third act, arguably the best and most popular, has stressed out parents Roy (Armstrong) and Norma (Macy) struggling to coax daughter Mimsey (Shepard) to unlock the bathroom door so she can make her way downstairs to her wedding. Roy is already fuming at how expensive the ceremony and reception have become, while Norma is a nervous wreck. Slapstick abounds, even with the limited movement in this format. 

This production is wonderfully cast, as all have great range and the ability to convincingly go from serious to silly as the situation demands. Johnson gets surprisingly involved in the action, such as being a sympathetic fourth wall to a character’s asides, adding to the charm of this unusual show. 

Bardfest has one weekend left in the “Plaza Suite,” Friday through Sunday, Oct. 9-11, at The Cat theatre in downtown Carmel. Visit indybardfest.com for info (or see them on Facebook) and thecattheatre.com for tickets.

Full ‘Hamlet’ enriches familiar story

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

By Wendy Carson

By now we all know the story of Hamlet. It’s one of Shakespeare’s most produced plays and you’ve likely seen more than one version of it. However, Doug Powers and the Carmel Theatre Company have chosen to give us a different take by giving us an almost entirely unabridged look at the play.

Before you balk at the 3-plus hour running length (with intermission), note that with these rarely acted scenes returned to the story, it just deepens the richness of the characters. It also brings the secondary plot forward (remember Norway?) bringing more closure and purpose to many of the characters.

Honestly, I had forgotten many of the scenes and speeches performed and was touched by the true beauty of not only their narrative but the language itself.

Also, the starkness of the stage and minimalist set pieces help remind you that this show is about listening to and understanding the characters. In order to fulfill this task, one must have great actors and Powers has outdone himself in procuring them.

Brian G. Hartz sizzles as Hamlet, pulling forth all of the rage and deviousness that the character embodies. Miranda Nehrig turns Ophelia into a young woman who’s confusion and frustrations over Hamlet’s behavior help lead her to her desperate end. Both have skill in communicating beyond saying the lines, especially Nehrig’s talent for adding volumes with a single facial expression.

Eric Bryant as Claudius and Jean Arnold as Gertrude present the quintessential parents who are bewildered as to why their son has so quickly changed his demeanor. Their recent nuptials so soon after the previous King’s untimely death never cross their mind as a possible reason.

While most of the Bard Fest offerings have cast women in several men’s roles, Powers uses his casting choices to their maximum effect. Jo Bennett plays Horatio as a dear friend but in later scenes there seems to be romantic tension, which they pull off with great aplomb.

However, the best example of this is with the character of Guildenstern, played by Gorgi Parks Fulper. Instructed to play upon her history with Hamlet to obtain information, she is asked to use her feminine wiles. Meanwhile, Benjamin Mathis plays Rosencrantz as the perfect second banana who seems to always be left out of the whole scheme.

Alan Cloe is perfect as wise but tragic Polonius. Noah Winston is a fiery force as his son, Laertes.

Casting is also clever in its players with two or more roles: Fulper and Mathis also play palace guards in the opening scene. Janice Hibbard is the messenger to Norway, and later is that country’s warrior princess Fortinbras. The ghost of murdered King Hamlet (the title character’s dad) is portrayed by Tony Armstrong, who also plays an identical character in the play-within-the-play that Hamlet (the younger) sets up to watch his stepfather’s reaction; later Armstrong is the gravedigger who unearths Yorick’s skull.

In addition, kudos to Rachel Snyder and Kyrsten Lyster as members of the traveling troupe of Players.

There is some intense swordplay in this production, so credit is due to Bryant as fight choreographer.

Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday, 7:30 Saturday (with talkback following) and 1 p.m. Sunday (Oct. 25-27) at the IndyFringe Theatre.

Bardfest: The wild woman vs. the wacky womanizer — with music

By Wendy Carson

The biggest complaint I have heard from people, regarding Shakespeare’s plays, is trouble following the plot due to the antiquated language. In her Bardfest production of “Taming of the Shrew,” Catalyst Repertory founder and play director/adapter Casey Ross has tackled this issue with the periodic inclusion of pop songs to assist the viewer in comprehending the message of the narrative. Being that the story is fairly well known, this style just makes a fun show even more enjoyable.

For those of you who don’t know the plot: Younger sister Bianca can’t marry until older sister Katherine does. Katherine has no intention to marry anyone. Their father is wealthy and offers a large dowry to whomever can take Katherine off his hands. Cash-strapped playboy Petruchio takes the challenge and not only ends up changing Katherine’s ways, but they both fall in love in the process. There’s also the sub-plot of various suitors trying to secure Bianca’s love.

The setting of this interpretation is a Vegas-style resort casino in the 1970s, with the daughters being cocktail waitresses, their father the owner, and Petruchio a traveling singer looking for a place to earn some money before his debt collectors catch up with him.

Hannah Elizabeth Boswell as the fiery Katherine (or Kate) is a sassy bundle of empowerment, while Davey Pelsue’s Petruchio boldly becomes every bit the hilariously lusty womanizer that the character suggests.

Abby Gilster’s delicate take on Bianca shows the character’s sly knowledge of her situation that is often overlooked in many productions. Bradford Reilly and Robert Webster Jr. as her two suitors (Lucentio and Hortensio), in disguise as tutors, bring a delightful comic desperation in their attempts to secure time with their desired.

Audrey Stonerock adds to the fun as the hottest “Widow” in the club, and Donovan Whitney is at his scene-stealing best as Tranio, a servant pretending to be the rich man while his master plays a humble tutor (see above). The proud – and relieved, when Kate is wed – papa is a charming Godfather-light performance by Tony Armstrong.

All in all, this is a rollickingly great production of a hilarious show. One note though, as we have mentioned previously, this show is not for all ages. Consider it PG-13 at least, though worldly kids might learn a new appreciation for Shakespeare if they see it. Also, bring a few dollars to tip your waitresses and maybe tuck into the clothes of some of the performers.

Performances are Friday, Saturday and Sunday (Oct. 27-29) at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair. Find more information at www.indyfringe.org.

Hero-ing ain’t easy

By Wendy Carson

We have all heard of Hercules and that he performed numerous “labors” as penance for his past misdeeds. He is always thought of as a noble hero – but what if he was actually a douche?

In “Mad Mad Hercules,” presented by NoExit and Zach Rosing Productions, we see him as a horny, drunk asshole who disrespects everyone and only aspires to become a constellation. To do so, he must complete these labors, which he has no desire to work for. True, he has been tortured and almost killed his entire existence by his reluctant stepmother, Hera. Still, that is no excuse for him being this big a tool.

This being Greek theatre, we have a Chorus to keep things going, fill in exposition, pose as occasional characters in the story and so on. Matthew Altman, Carrie Bennett Fedor, and Devan Mathais do an wonderfully energetic and whimsical job in this case.

Ryan Ruckman portrays Hercules so well, you will fight to keep yourself from punching him out. Nathan Thomas brings great passion to his character, Iolas, who must force Hercules to accomplish those tasks. He had always thought of Hercules as his hero, until he met him.

Beverly Roche is hilarious as Hippolyta, the leader of the Amazons. She also does a great job puppeting Galinthias, who was transformed by Hera into a polecat for helping to birth Hercules.

Speaking of puppetry, Matt Roher is a master at transforming himself into many of the creatures that are essential in the labors. His turn as the Ceryneian Hind is a marvel to behold.

Dena Toler gives a solid turn as the Trisha-Yearwood-idolizing Hera. However, it is her touching portrayal of Echidna, the monstrous mother of the Nemean Lion, that truly shows her amazing depth as an actress.

Josiah McCruiston is delightful as Eurystheus, Ruler of Hercules’s homeland and biggest pain in his ass.

Seemingly underused in the cast is Tony Armstrong as Zeus, the loving father who just can’t keep it in his pants.

The show, written by Bennett Ayres and Directed by Zack Neiditch, is an irreverent and thoroughly enjoyable interpretation of this epic tale. Be sure to catch it before it, too, is but a legend.

Find “Mad Mad Hercules” at the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair (just east of the Mass Ave./College/St. Clair intersection) in downtown Indianapolis, through May 7. Get info and tickets at www.indyfringe.org.

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)