Dark side of humanity and academia explored in new play

By Wendy Carson

With “The Profession,” Marcia Eppich-Harris has written a play that encompasses our current political and social climate just a little too well. I was privileged to attend a staged reading of the script a couple of months ago and it has stayed with me ever since. Her script roots out not only the dark underbelly of male dominance and what men will do to protect their own, but also the appalling lack of power or support women have when confronting a system stacked against them. Needless to say, nobody emerges from this story unscathed.

Two main storylines intertwine here. One is about Valerie (Becky Schlomann), a dedicated literature teacher at a small, private university who is desperately fighting to keep her job. Secondly, we have Marina (Trick Blanchfield), the impassioned student every teacher longs for, just trying work her way through college no matter how she has to swing it.

Valerie’s nemesis in her plight is Mark (Brad Staggs), a dean still smarting from her questioning of his decisions last fall and ensuring that her future employability is forever doomed. Department chair Jill (Jeri Jackson) has no desire to ruffle feathers herself. Meanwhile, Theology professor Paul (Brian Stuart Boyd) is also relieved of his job, but with a much better settlement check, wonderful references, and a promising spot at a major university.

For her dedication to learning, Marina deals with the exorbitant fees and ends up working as a stripper in order to stay in school. At the club just off campus, she is mentored by the lovely, yet jaded, Lucy (Lola Lavacious) and watched over by the club’s tough but fair manager Flint (Tom Smith).

Seeing Valerie, her favorite teacher, getting a raw deal, Marina divulges to her the seedy goings on by college staff at the club. Valerie’s personal morality keeps her from using this dirt, at first. But as the situation gets ever more serious, and dangerous, she knows she will have to do something.

This drama pulls no punches in all it entails. It does contain vivid discussions of sex work and abortion. As I noted above, the abuse of power and workplace discrimination are rampant as well. Still, it shows vividly how gender politics, as well as other ills contained within, play out in a realistic manner. Eppich-Harris and director Elisabeth Speckman both drew on their experiences in academia in creating this work and bringing it to painfully vivid life.

The cast is sheer perfection with each one embodying the true soul of their character. While Schlomann and Blanchfield are easy to root for, and to understand the impulsive decisions they feel necessary to make, Jackson and Staggs come off so oily with corruption you may need to remind yourself they’re just good actors if you see them off-stage. Boyd has two faces to work with in his character, and plies them well. Smith, a natural at paternal roles, is no angel, but feeling no need to put on a façade, Flint comes off better than the learned men who frequent his club. Also, a shout-out to Ms. Lavacious – while she has years of stage performance under her belt, this is her first performance in a scripted show.

I cannot recommend this play enough. The concurrence of its opening on the same date as the state’s abhorrent anti-abortion law taking effect feels like a sign that maybe with enough encouragement, we can make some real and lasting changes for the good of all. I honestly hope you leave the theater in this frame of mind as well.

Presented by Southbank Theatre Company, performances of “The Profession” run through Sunday, Sept. 25, at Fonseca Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at southbanktheatre.org. (Note: Venue requires masks due to close proximity between audience and stage.)

IndyFringe: Tortillo 3, Sombrero’s Revenge

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Casey Ross has brought back another chapter in the never-ending saga of the Tortillo Corporation and its unfortunate predicament of having cocaine mixed into the seasoning mix for their chips, again. Again.

Presenting “Tortillo 3: Sombrero’s Revenge,” by Ross’s Catalyst Repertory. Even though this is the third installment of the series, you do not have to have seen the previous ones to understand or enjoy it. In fact, highlights of the first two shows are shown prior to beginning of the performance. The cast has an opening number discussing the past events as well.

We begin with put-up Patrick (Dave Pelsue) dealing with imbecilic customer complaints as well as disappointment in the company overlooking his accomplishments.

While Dave (Robert Webster, Jr.) is trying to keep things in the company on an even keel, his decision to bring back the sexist pig, Steve (Matt Anderson) to head up their pretzel division has caused much distress throughout the company even with his wife (Lisa Marie Smith) and their baby Chip. After a heated board meeting, Patrick quits to pursue his dreams.

While Steve and his idiot nephew, Mitchell (Ryan Powell) – Patrick’s cellmate during chapter 2 – are doing research, it’s discovered that the chips are doped yet again, leaving Patrick as the prime suspect.

Will we find out who was behind this nefarious plot? Will Sombrero actually return? Who exactly is the lovely Madeline (Trick Blanchfield) and why does she seem to know so much about Patrick’s past? Also, why is Ted (Tristan Ross, no relation) even here – didn’t we kill him already? That’s not THE John Entwistle (Brian Kennedy) as our Janitor/Narrator, is it?

These burning questions and many more will be answered (whether you want them to or not) in this crazy show. Watch, laugh, enjoy, and be ready in case this gang cooks up another sequel.

Note Casey likes writing the F-word, otherwise it’s OK for teens and up, with performances Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, Aug. 27-28; and Thursday night and Saturday afternoon, Sept. 1 and 3; at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair.

Uneasy relationships in Southbank production

By John Lyle Belden

Ever have those people in your life who are just awful, yet they’re somehow your best friends? Thanks to shows like TV’s “Seinfeld,” we can see what it’s like when such people are besties with each other. Now imagine if these persons that you love, yet wouldn’t trust to watch your houseplants, had real problems and real feelings.

This, with a healthy dose of father-daughter issues, is the world of Nina Raine’s play, “Rabbit.” Her first produced work, debuting to acclaim in 2006 on London’s West End prior to a hit Off-Broadway run, gets local treatment with director Marcia Eppich-Harris for her Southbank Theatre Company at the Storefront Theatre in Broad Ripple.

Bella (Emily Ann Scott) is trying to help her testy father (Craig Kemp) with his neurological issues. It becomes plain through this play that they have a complex history, arguably abusive but tinged with love and the universal desire for a child to please her parent. She’s trying to help him recover from a stroke – but it’s not a stroke, and he’s not recovering.

From this scene we go to the main setting, a London bar where Bella starts celebrating her 29th birthday with friend Emily (Trick Blanchfield), who launches into a tone-deaf gripe about a hearing-impaired coworker. Changing the subject, they discuss who will join them at the party. An impromptu choice is Tom (Brant Hughes), an ex-lover of Bella’s who doesn’t seem to mind abandoning the women he had been with to join them.

They will also be joined by lawyer (a Barrister, complete with wig in his satchel) and struggling fiction author Richard (Ryan Powell), a long-time friend whom Bella had also slept with. Rounding out the party is American ex-pat, writer, and scratch-offs enthusiast Sandy (Joy Shurn). Prior to her arrival, Richard refers to Sandy as a “sexual kleptomaniac” – which sounds odd, but you come to understand he has a point.

When not appearing in flashbacks as the father, Kemp stays in the background as the quietly smiling bartender, a device which aids in the flow of the play. Raine’s storytelling skills, as well as those of Kemp and Eppich-Harris, come through in his vignettes and dreamlike moments that give context to Bella’s inner struggle, as well as the visible personality flaws that equally not-nice-but-they-try friends just take in stride. Were this a Brit-com like “Coupling” or the UK’s “Men Behaving Badly” (or America’s “Seinfeld”), she’d be seen as a bitch for bitch’s sake, controlling and harsh to others while easily wounded.

Not that the others are angels – Richard goes into a rant that could be described as playfully misogynistic, which seems both earnest and just getting a rise out of the ladies for fun. But this also gives Bella an opportunity to comment harshly on the roles and expectations of women in 21st century feminism, while living in the shadows of past leaders. Emily, a practicing physician, is hard-pressed to agree or refute.

Tom is a cypher with a Scottish accent (he “work(s) in the city”), but that gives Hughes room to work with to make the character interesting. In another setting, perhaps Sandy would be the “ugly American;” here she can be the voice of reason.  

The pace of our better angels quietly spinning out of control is given by a clever visual metaphor, front and center. Even as we might struggle to like, or at least understand, the characters, this whole becomes much better and more poignant than the sum of its parts.

And what of the title? It will eventually become clear. In a personal observation, it occurred to me that while in nature animals are said to respond to danger with “fight or flight,” for a wild rabbit, it’s typically “flight or freeze.” I’ll just leave you with that.

“Rabbit” has remaining performances Thursday through Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, Dec. 9-12, at the Storefront, 717 Broad Ripple Ave., Indianapolis. Entry is by a long stairwell, contact the theater or Southbank if this is an issue. Info and tickets at southbanktheatre.org.

Don’t ‘fiddle’ and miss this one

By John Lyle Belden

“Seneca and the Soul of Nero” is a new play by Southbank Theatre Company artistic director Marcia Eppich-Harris, but stands well in style and content with other great historical tragedies. I sense it could have been written at any time between now and the 900s, when the myth that Emperor Nero “fiddled while Rome burned” became popular. 

The premiere Southbank production of the play, at the IndyFringe Basile stage through Oct. 2, resembles a Bardfest event in its excellent handling by director Doug Powers and a cast that includes David Mosedale as Stoic philosopher Seneca and Evren Wilder Elliott as teenage “Princeps” Nero. 

Despite the abundance of written material in the First Century, much of it surviving to today, the true history of Nero is anything but clear, with contemporary accounts often written by those who didn’t like the young tyrant and centuries passing to add myth and legend to his story. The fiddle didn’t even exist at the time, but it was possible to draw a bow across a lyre, an instrument that Nero did enjoy playing — and he embraced music and theatre at a time when its practitioners were in lower regard than prostitutes (never mind an alleged god-king). Just as we don’t mind the words that Shakespeare put into the ancients’ mouths, Eppich-Harris is perfectly entitled to her well-researched dramatic license, especially as she captured the spirit of the era and its abundant lessons for today’s social and political climate. 

Seneca was Nero’s tutor when he ascended to the throne, and the boy, feeling immediately in over his head, smartly kept the philosopher on as principal advisor and speechwriter, as well as trusted military leader Afranius Burrus (David Molloy) to head his guard. Also on the scene were his ever-hovering mother Agrippina (Rachel Snyder), naive half-brother Britannicus (Brant Hughes), and dutiful but suspicious stepsister/wife Octavia (Bra’Jae’ Allen) whom he would ignore in favor of the beautiful and ambitious Sabina (Trick Blanchfield). At Seneca’s side were faithful wife Pompeia Paulina (Jenni White) and his nephew, the famous poet Lucan (Noah Winston).

Elliott brilliantly brings us along on the emperor’s journey, as he grows older and more at ease with power, but no more mature. At first troubled by signing off on the deaths of the justly condemned, Nero comes to find a quick murder is an easy solution to an immediate problem — but then more issues pop up in its place. Each death takes a little more of his soul, power-madness devolving to madness, reducing him until nearly no one is left, and the knife is in his hand.

Mosedale stands ever solid, defending his young charge as long as he can while defending himself against the hypocrisy of living large yet espousing Stoic principles. In the end, he must choose between Nero and Rome. White’s Pompeia leads the greater example, steadfast to her husband but never wavering on their moral stand. 

Snyder embodies the complex Agrippina without slipping into villainous caricature, perhaps even engendering some sympathy as the evil she sows grows out of her control. Molloy exemplifies the “good soldier” completely, bearing his orders until his sense of justice can do no more.

An exceptional look at history and the dynamics and hazards of unfettered power, “Seneca and the Soul of Nero” is worthy to stand among the Classics. We encourage all who can to see it, and to those reading this in the future to consider bringing to your own stages.

Find information at southbanktheatre.org and tickets at indyfringe.org. Note that COVID-19 vaccination and masking are required of all audience members. Home viewing via “on-demand” streaming available Oct. 15-Nov. 14 (see Southbank site for details).