IRT’s Christie mystery an exciting ride

By Wendy Carson

In whodunits, the locked-door mystery is one of the cornerstones and most compelling of all scenarios in the genre. Someone had to have done it, but who, and how? Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” is one of the most original versions of the mystery in existence – not only because of the lavish setting, but also the revolutionary solution to the puzzle. Famed playwright Ken Ludwig has adapted this intriguing story for the stage, now playing at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

Legendary detective Hercule Poirot (Andrew May) has to cut his vacation in Istanbul short to take a case in England. In need of quick travel arrangements, he accepts an offer from his dear friend, Monsieur Bouc (Gavin Lawrence), of transport on his company’s train, the luxurious and now-legendary Orient Express. These two are joined by a quirky array of travelers.

British Colonel Arbuthnot (Ryan Artzberger) and Mary Debenham (Nastacia Guimont) are scheming about something in secret, yet not too covertly.

Samuel Ratchett (Ryan Artzberger in a second role) is a loud, rude American “businessman” who feels money can buy anyone or anything. Hector MacQueen (Aaron Kirby) is his overworked and oft-abused secretary.

Princess Dragomiroff (Dale Hodges), one of a number of exiled Russian royalty roaming about Europe, is traveling with a new companion, Greta Ohlsson (Callie Johnson) who has been serving as a missionary in Africa and is very unsure of anything.

The beautiful Countess Andrenyi (Katie Bradley) is traveling on her own. With her storied past, including a stint as a medical doctor, she intrigues everyone, including the elusive Poirot.

Also traveling on her own is the obnoxiously abrasive Helen Hubbard (Jennifer Joplin), an American who quickly gets herself on everyone’s “hit list.” Attempting to oversee all of this is Michel (Rob Johansen), the train’s French conductor.

Add to this a snowstorm that stops the train – right before a murder occurs – and you have a wonderful setting for a grand mystery. All passengers are accounted for at the time of the killing, or are they?

Anyone familiar with the character of Poirot knows that he is a quirky and particular personality. May adeptly explores as many facets as he can without frolicking into the territory of camp. His performance alone is worth the price of admission.

Artzberger does an exceptional job of playing vastly different characters with great aplomb. Guimont keeps her character a frigid distance from all but Arbuthnot, seemingly as a protective guise.

Joplin submerges herself into the typical “ugly American” so well, it is surprising that she is not the one who meets with the knife.

Hodges keeps the Princess as mysterious as her peculiar wardrobe. Johnson’s take on Ohlsson, the missionary, is wacky and almost overdone, but it does lend some lightness to the dark tale.

Kirby does an exceptional job of keeping his character sympathetic rather than just shady. Lawrence deftly keeps his frantic businessman persona from being entirely heartless, worrying equally about the safety of his passengers and the bad press a murder would bring to his luxury rail service.

Johansen shines both as the Conductor – not quite as minor a role as you’d first think – and his hilarious turn as the Head Waiter of Bouc’s restaurant in the show’s opening scene.

Bradley as the Countess enthralls us all, characters and audience alike, daintily dancing her way through the story never demanding but certainly drawing all attention available to her.

Christie’s story is a tale for the ages, especially with a twist ending that anyone unfamiliar with the book or movies will never see coming. Director Risa Brainin does a remarkable job keeping the soberness of the entire drama while allowing for its sharp wit, no doubt aided by Ludwig (known for farces like “Lend Me a Tenor”), to shine through.

The stage is a visual spectacle worthy of the legendary train, with designer Robert M. Koharchik placing elements of the sleeping and dining cars on an inventive rotating stage. This and projected elements by L.B. Morse give the proper sense of motion and help the scenes flow when the Express is stopped, maintaining the necessary tension. Even if you already know how it will eventually play out, it’s one exciting ride.

“Murder on the Orient Express” runs through March 29 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis (near Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

For young audiences, IRT presents the power of positive playacting

By Wendy Carson

Our new friends, Devan (Mathias), Isaiah (Moore), and Frankie (Bolda) have decided to put on a play for us.

Devan has drawn a picture of a train and wants to deliver it to her other friends who live a long way away on the other side of the big, big hill. So it is decided that Devan will be a train engine, Isaiah wants to be everything but finally settles on being a doggie passenger on the train, and Frankie will help out by making all the proper sounds throughout.

This is “The Little Choo-Choo That Thinks She Can,” the return engagement of a play for very young patrons at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, a familiar story made new by IRT playwright-in-residence James Still.

Once the train is all loaded up with passengers, Devan begins the trip up the big, big hill. However, the hill is just too big for her to make it over. She tries to enlist the assistance of various other engines but they all can’t, or won’t, help her out. 

She keeps trying, and each attempt gets her a little farther up the big, big hill — but quite not over it. We, her friends in the audience, offer encouragement to assist her in believing she has the ability to actually make it up the big, big hill by herself.

Will she make it? Will her special delivery get through to her friends? What sound does a giraffe make? These questions and others will be answered in terms that preschoolers, special-needs kids, and even the grown-ups who brought them will understand..

This show is a wonderful introduction to live theater shows for young children. It never talks down to them and encourages them to have fun, be themselves and maybe even learn a thing or two.

The room is divided into three seating areas. Each actor takes one section and gets to know their new friends (the individual kids in the audience) prior to the show. We are all asked to participate in the show, but only to our levels of comfort. 

This was especially evident in the performance I attended, one of their “Sensory Friendly Performances:” The lights are kept brighter; there are fidget spinners, headphones, and other toys available to use during the show; and it is acceptable to leave and return as the need requires. There is also a guide for parents to assist with knowing when loud or potentially off-putting things will occur. This allows all attendees to enjoy the show as much as possible. In fact, I hardly would have known it was not a regular performance if they had not brought it up beforehand.

The play was a delight for myself and my companions, especially the precocious little 4-year old for whom this was her first live show. She liked meeting Isaiah, both as an actor with skin like hers, as well as the purple puppy. She told me and her mother she can’t wait to see a play again.

This IRT Exploring Stages production (targeted to ages 3-8) is directed by Benjamin Hanna. Performances are held in the “cabaret” space, which isn’t too big and allows for easy interaction, through March 1. Tickets start at just $8 for a child to sit on the floor near the action, $17 for an adult to join them. The IRT is at 140 W. Washington in downtown Indianapolis, close to Circle Centre. For more information, call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

‘First Date’ jitters take form of advice-giving friends in Footlite musical

By Wendy Carson

Dating — the stress, vulnerability, tension, sheer terror, and coping with it all. Is all of this worth it, to possibly find “the One”? This is the subject the Broadway musical, appropriately titled “First Date,” playing at Footlite Musicals.

The show focuses on Aaron (Zach Hoover) and Casey (Halle Catlow) as they undergo a blind date, and we experience it with them, while seeing their inner thoughts portrayed by others in the cast.

Starting with drinks at the bar, it is obvious that these two have nothing in common except shared geography and a couple of friends who feel they might be a good fit for each other. Still, they are curious enough to overlook their first impressions — and Casey ignores the “bailout calls” of Reggie (Austin Stodgill), her gay bestie — to get to know each other more.

Religious differences, past relationship horrors, and even the embarrassment of their internet history are broached, yet they keep feeling out the possibility of their compatibility. Each constantly teeters on the verge of leaving, yet in their minds, Casey’s sister Lauren (Hannah Janowicz) and Aaron’s best friend Gabe (Ben Fraley) keep showing up to convince them to stick it out.

So, will these two make it to dinner — or maybe breakfast? Will Casey actually let Reggie’s calls give her an out? Will Aaron overcome his feelings for ex-fiance Allison (DonaMarie Kelley)? Can the head Waiter (Darrin Gowan) inspire them to actually fall in love? Honestly, is any of this actually worth it?

Margaret Smith and Adam Gardner complete the cast as waitstaff and part of the mental chorus.

This being Footlite’s annual “cabaret” production, audience seating is on the stage at tables of Darrin’s Restaurant, adding an appropriate intimate feel. The show — book by Austin Winsberg, music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner — is laugh-out-loud funny, with memorable tunes including “First Impression,” “The Girl For You,” and “I’d Order Love.” (We’ve heard them occasionally on SiriusXM’s “On Broadway” channel.) Direction is by Kathleen Clarke Horrigan, with choreography by Trish Roberts and music directed by Linda Parr.

So good, you might want to take a date of your own, “First Date” runs through Jan. 19 at 1847 N. Alabama St., near downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-926-6630 or visit http://www.footlite.org.

ATI tells important ‘Story’

By Wendy Carson

“This is a story about two rabbits.”

Seven innocuous words that begin not only a beautifully illustrated children’s book, but also a major political ballyhoo about race and censorship.

“Alabama Story,” a play by Kenneth Jones making its Indiana premiere with Actors Theatre of Indiana, is based on a true story of one simple book that sparked a major racial controversy due to its depiction of a white bunny marrying a black bunny. 

The setting is 1959 and even though George Wallace (“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”), has yet to be voted in as Governor, he is the leading political voice of Alabama. Racism is a fact of everyday life and the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement are just starting to stir. Rosa Parks had recently sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was still a local pastor. 

Enter Emily Wheelrock Reed (Cynthia Collins), the state librarian, and her diligent assistant, Thomas Franklin (Samuel L. Wick). Franklin brings the initial hubbub over “The Rabbits’ Wedding” to her attention, but Reed dismisses it until Senator E.W. Higgins (Don Farrell) starts pressuring her to remove the book from the library system. 

We also see the story of two children who grew up together. Lily Whitefield (Maeghan Looney), the daughter of a cotton plantation owner and Joshua Moore (Cameron Stuart Bass), the son of one of the Whitfields’ servants, descended from their slaves. They meet up again as adults, in exchanges that echo the book, but overshadowed by painful events of their past.

Overseeing all of this is the book’s author and illustrator himself, Garth Williams (Paul Tavianini). He takes on all of the supporting roles as well as giving his personal insight to the drama. Williams reiterates that he only chose the black and white colors for the rabbits due to his love of Oriental artworks which draw on those two colors for balance. He never meant for his tale to become what many believed to be a subversive indoctrination of their children into believing that interracial marriage was normal.

Bass’s performance shows that even though Franklin is living a better life himself, he never forgets the trauma and struggles he went through and his people are still enduring. Looney does a commendable job of showing the naiveté of the privileged class during these changing times.

Collins shows the strong, stalwart woman that Reed was, holding her own and never wavering no matter what came her way. Wick is endearing as Franklin, a free-thinking young man who was raised to be prejudiced but refuses to succumb to the hatred.

Tavianini brings a “Mr. Rogers” -type warmth to Williams, who also wrote and illustrated numerous other children’s books (including books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and E.B. White), none of which sparked any controversy.

However, the standout performance is by Farrell. He oozes all of the slick sliminess of a typical Southern politician. His soft-spoken words hold a thousand brutal attacks within, the demure and friendly smile hiding the fangs that are ready to strike you down with their poisonous barbs. He does such a great job embodying the character, you will likely want to punch him (but please don’t). 

ATI chose this play to be their first foray into serious drama and they have done an excellent job of it, under the direction of Jane Unger. This show is important to give you context as to this country’s history and what our future could be again should we glorify the past instead of learning from it.

Performances run through Nov. 17 in The Studio Theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get information and tickets at atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

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.

Restless dead haunt Fonseca Theatre drama

By Wendy Carson

Inspired by the recent trend of ghost investigations, a new drama, “The Brothers Paranormal,” appears on the new stage of Fonseca Theatre Company.

Delia is haunted. She is convinced that her new apartment is haunted by a Thai ghost. For the past six months she has heard whooshes, floorboard creaks, footsteps, and has now seen apparitions of a creepy young girl. While her loving husband, Felix, has not shared in any of this phenomena, he supports her decision to blow all of their savings to hire the titular service to find proof of this and hopefully restore their lives, still coming together after losing their New Orleans home to Katrina and relocating to the Midwest.

Max is haunted. The son of Thai immigrants, he and his older brother, Visarut, are just barely scraping by. Delia’s request is the first job they have attained. Max has had to leave college, his West Coast home, friends and girlfriend behind to help Visarut care for their schizophrenic mother, Tasanee. Max also worries about Visarut’s drinking problem, made worse by what their mother did.

Felix is haunted. He works as a paramedic and thought his job would be constantly saving lives. However, he feels the truth is that more often than not, he is just trying to keep them alive for a little bit longer. The ones that die under his care weigh heavy on his soul.

Can the brothers find proof of Delia’s ghost, or is her own family history of schizophrenia to blame for these manifestations? What is real? What is an illusion? Why do some cultures celebrate death and others fear it? These are among the questions posed by Prince Gomolvilas’s engrossing script.

Sean Qui is excellent as Max, running the gamut of feelings, especially towards his family. Ian Cruz is a steady presence as Visarut. Diane Tsao is charming as mother Tesanee.

Dena Toler is also in fine form as Delia, her performance putting her fright into the audience. Ansley Valentine, as Felix, delivers as a man slowly realizing he can only evade the truth for so long.

And a shuddering salute to Kim Egan as the spectre. Director (and company namesake) Bryan Fonseca uses her and the cleverly designed set to accomplish a rare feat – to make a horror stage play truly frightening. There were moments audience members were practically jumping out of their seats.

There is more to this play than the scares, of course. It fulfills the FTC objective of showing and making us consider different cultural and ethnic perspectives. But it also makes one hell of a Halloween-season experience. Performances run through Nov. 10 at FTC’s newly-remodeled Basile Building, 2508 W. Michigan St. in Indy’s near-Westside. Get info and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

IndyFringe 2019 reviews

Here are links to the reviews on this site from the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival — IndyFringe — in August 2019.

(Click on the title)

The Adventures of Crazy Jane & Red-Haired Annie

Adventures While Black in Great Britain

And Then They Came For Me

Behind Every Great Mariska Hargitay is a Great Kurt Fitzpatrick

BRAIN-O-RAMA: Mentalism and Mischief

Class Dismissed: Figuring Out What the Hell We’re Going to Do With Our Lives

The Cookie Dough Show

The Day Penny Drowned

Fairy Godmother & Associates

Fallen from the Toybox

FootLose

Game of Crows: Winter’s Coming,  Father Ned!

Generations

Is Your Brain Still Cooking?

Iron in Your Future

It Gets Bitter, The Ron Popp Story

Jan of All Trades

Jeannette Rankin: Champion of Persistence

Journey to Hell

Lady LIVES

A Life of Sorrow: The Life and Times of Carter Stanley

The Last Man

Les Chanteuses

The Madwomen’s Late-Nite Cabaret

Make Me A Match

Nharcolepsy

Not Dead Yet

Orgasmo Adulto Escapes from the Zoo

Phantom of Fountain Square

Pretty Face: An American Dream

The Prodigal Hoosier Returns (pending)

The Reluctant Mind Reader

Schoolhouse Rock LIVE, Fringe Edition

Tasty Bits: The Magic and Stories of Taylor Martin

A Thousand Words

Vinny the Pooh

Vixen DeVille Revealed

VolleyBrawl

What They Said About Love

YAS, Twain