IRT’s ‘Cyrano’: The power of ‘words of love’

By John Lyle Belden

It is wonderful to see a well-staged production of a timeless story, but in five acts? Fortunately, the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s “Cyrano” uses the adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” by Jo Roets, which slims the story down to its essence, an elegant economy of words that would impress the titular legendary French noble.

“Have him write to me,” Roxane (Melisa Pereyra, right) says to Cyrano de Bergerac (Ryan Artzberger) in the Indiana Repertory Theatre production of “Cyrano,” also starring Jeb Burris, viewable online through May 9 (Photo by Zach Rosing)

In fact, one of the original play’s most famous scenes – Act 1, Scene 1.IV, in which Cyrano cleverly comes up with every possible insult for his famously large nose – is related by the actors at the very beginning, to set the scene. That this is a man of incredible wit and passion, yet sensitive about his appearance, is foremost; that the story takes place in mid-1600s France is incidental.

Cyrano, leader of the noble Cadets that serve with the French Army, is renowned for his dueling prowess as well as his poetry, but while he can defend his heart from a blade, he aches for his cousin (distant in family, close in relationship) Roxane. As he considers confessing his love for her, she tells of her love for the handsome Christian, a new Cadet that she wishes Cyrano to take under his protection. This is not her only concern: The tedious Count de Guiche (Cyrano’s commander) wishes to marry Roxane himself.

While remembering his promise to not fillet Christian for mocking his schnozz, Cyrano hears the young man say that he, too, is in love with Roxane, but is at a loss with “words of love.” Thus comes the plan for the noble poet’s words in letters delivered in the handsome Cadet’s name. The plan is endangered, however, when she wishes to hear Christian woo her in person, resulting in likely the second most famous balcony scene in all of theatre.

Ryan Artzberger is Cyrano; the IRT regular slips into the role as he has done so many others, with all the heart-on-sleeve panache he can muster. Melisa Pereyra is also sharp as Roxane, strong-willed and clever, a heroine in her own right. Jeb Burris takes on nearly all other roles, notably Christian and de Guiche – nimbly transforming between the very different rivals, in voice and manner as well as costume, helping us to love the former and detest the latter.

Direction is handled by the IRT’s Margot Lacy Eccles Artistic Director – essentially, the boss – Janet Allen. Burris choreographed the swordplay. A simple but effective stage is designed by Russell Metheney, and costumes are by Linda Pisano.

Also notable is Cyrano’s prosthetic nose, by Becky Scott. It is imposing and hawkish, much like on the portrait of the historical figure on whom the play is based, and not an absurdly exaggerated ski-slope like one often sees.

With an approximately 90-minute run time, this exciting and endearing drama would be an excellent alternative to streaming an old movie (or most new ones). The play was recorded by WFYI Public Television and can be viewed at irtlivevirtual.com through May 9.

Past pain reflects present in IRT drama

By John Lyle Belden

The drama “No. 6,” presented by Indiana Repertory Theatre, is set in an early-21st-century American city where a white police officer has killed a black man, and violent responses to apparent injustice ensue.

Doesn’t narrow it down much, does it?

That’s the problem, and that’s why the IRT chose this play by T.J. Young, inspired by this repeating narrative, centered on the April 2001 riots in Cincinnati. A fully-produced stage performance, directed by Dwandra Nickole Lampkin, was captured by public television station WFYI and is available to stream at irtlive.com through April 4.

The steady progress of unrest has finally reached the storefront of the Anderson family’s laundry/cleaners, while proprietor Ella (Milicent Wright), with teen twins Felix (Jamaal McCray) and Felicia (LaKesha Lorene), shelter in the upstairs apartment. Felicia, who is on the autistic spectrum, dwells on her dinosaur obsession while Felix is out on the streets, scavenging for food from what past looters left behind. But he comes back with more than Spam – dragging in an unconscious white man.

Our mysterious houseguest (Michael Stewart Allen) has booze on his breath and a gun in his backpack, but as the others discover who he is, they find themselves in the very heart of the city’s issues.

Wright is a rock, as always, the mother-hen and conscience of this play. She has reasons behind her righteousness and shows real pain with her perspective that makes her feel genuine, not just a means to the drama’s message. McCray plays an emotional, impulsive idealist – like a teenager – but also reflecting the open spirit of his martyred father. Lorene gives a sensitive, endearing portrayal of an unconventional genius who has an uncanny grasp of the big picture at work here – big, as in global.

Allen hits all the emotional buttons as a man finding himself in a sort of Purgatory, never completely likable nor hateable. He is forced to deal with the perspective of those not like himself, while we must also acknowledge his. Still, what can one do when he is literally part of the problem?

“People across the globe take to streets and cry, ‘Never again!’” Young says in his program note. “And then it happens again. And again. And again.”

This play is important because it continues the much-needed conversation – but also see it because it is gripping drama with solid human performances, punctuated by sound (credit Matthew Tibbs) and light (Xavier Pierce) that makes the danger feel real and immediate, even in an otherwise comforting home (scene: Rob Koharchik). Support local professional theatre, and boot it up on the big screen.

Cardinal show anything but ‘Ordinary’

By John Lyle Belden

For these unusual times, Cardinal Stage of Bloomington presents an unusual theatre experience.

Shown online on-demand through Feb. 21, Cardinal’s production of the musical “Ordinary Days” by Adam Gwon relies on technological wizardry to allow four actors to interact while performing their parts in Covid-safe separate locations. Set in New York, circa 2008, we meet four “ordinary” individuals who will have an extraordinary influence on one others’ lives.

Our introduction to them, and this play, initially struck us with an uneasy “what’s this?” feeling. The obviously green-screen NYC backdrop, with our struggling artist-slash-artist’s-assistant-slash-pamphleteer? singing about – what’s this about, again? – but he sure is eager. And wordy. This song could have been written better. And there’s just a single piano in the background. Why does this feel like an audition tape?

If it all seems puzzling to you as well, stick with it. It gets much better.

After Warren (Henry Miller) ends his song with a winning smile, we jump to frustrated grad student Deb (Nina Donville) singing the foundation of her character arc, then to Jason (Julian Diaz-Granados) and Claire (Kayla Marie Eilers) who we discover are moving in together. So that connects two of the characters, but how about the others? A lost-and-found, followed by an odd but artsy rendezvous, kicks off an unlikely relationship between two souls seeking their purpose in art and words. And by the time this hour and a half (no intermission) is over, one pair will affect the other in a subtle but profound way.

Donville delivers as a woman struggling with the expectations of others, and herself, brought to a personal crossroads by impish Warren, in whom Miller channels the “if I can make it there” spirit of the Big Apple, even when his perpetual optimism is challenged. Diaz-Granados’ Jason is a hopeful romantic, wishing to communicate the depth of his feelings for Claire, but instead, at the worst moment, blurts out a proposal. Eilers effectively presents Claire as someone yearning to move forward, but held by a nagging uncertainty. Under the direction of Cardinal Artistic Director Kate Galvin, Gwon’s plot gently weaves together these “ordinary” yet interesting lives with a gust of the wind through the high-rises.

Also tying the scenes and thematic threads together are music director Ray Fellman on piano, and video editor Alyssa V. Gomez of CO-OP Productions, who brilliantly creates character interaction in this strange (for live stage fans) medium. For the vocal harmonies, I’m guessing credit goes in part to sound editor Robert Hornbostel. Rounding out the crew is stage manager Corey Hollinger.

To experience “Ordinary Days,” go to CardinalStage.org, and gather around the screen for a $25 “household” ticket, but only through Sunday.

IRT ‘Tuesdays’ provides lesson for any day

By John Lyle Belden

Morrie Schwartz wrote his own epitaph: “A Teacher to the Last.” But the lesson hasn’t ended; he’s still teaching us about life today.

The old college professor’s wisdom was captured by friend and former student Mitch Albom in his bestselling book, “Tuesdays With Morrie.” The stage play, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, is presented by Indiana Repertory Theatre through Feb. 21. The production, directed by Benjamin Hanna with Ryan Artzberger as Mitch and Henry Woronicz as Morrie, was recorded on the IRT mainstage earlier this month by local Public Television station WFYI for viewing online.

Mitch had treasured his time with Morrie at Brandeis University, taking every one of the old man’s Sociology classes. They inspired him to follow his dream of becoming a jazz pianist after college. But life has a way of killing one’s dreams, so Mitch turned to his other talent, writing, and became a successful sportswriter and columnist. He left Morrie’s gentle guidance in the past, embracing the hard-hitting world of chasing the next deadline.

Until the night he happened to watch an episode of “Nightline.”

Morrie’s life had changed as well. His spry energy – he loved to dance – was failing him, and it was discovered he had ALS (popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and, at most, months to live. His decision to confront dying head-on, ironically enriching his life, got the attention of local media, and eventually Ted Koppel.

Upon learning of Morrie’s condition, Mitch took a brief moment from his frantic schedule to pay him a visit. It was only going to be one Tuesday afternoon, but he eventually went back, and kept returning to Morrie’s Massachusetts home every week until the professor was gone. Ever the journalist, Mitch asked questions, which his mentor gladly answered, re-cementing a bond that not even death could break.

The script by Albom and Hatcher is loaded with refreshing drops of wisdom by Schwartz – a welcome relief from the spiritual drought of this last year – delivered with sincere joy by Woronicz, who also contemplated life’s final chapters in his previous IRT role in “Morning After Grace.” Artzberger, a familiar face to local audiences, also played Mitch at the IRT about a decade ago, and comfortably still fits Albom’s shoes.

Like real life (which this is based on), there are many sad and heart-touching moments, but there is also an abundance of humor natural to the exchange of quips between a wise teacher and the student who doesn’t realize he has so much to learn, or between two souls who truly love one another. The overall arc is uplifting, something we all need right now.

To take this master class in life, visit irtlive.com. A $30 virtual ticket gives access to those gathered around the screen, perhaps the IRT’s best value (though your friends should consider hitting that “donate” button).