IRT: Happiness is a long list

By Wendy Carson

Depression, suicide, and mental illness have all been highly stigmatized subjects. Only recently have we as a nation been broaching these topics, yet still refer to them in hushed tones.

In the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s staging of “Every Brilliant Thing” by Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe, we are presented with a unique look at someone dealing with the above issues through personal accounts of his experiences.

This is the story of a Man (no name is given) whose mother’s first attempt at suicide is when he is 7 years old. To somehow make sense of things, and help her heal, he begins to make a list of things that are worth living for. No matter how hard he tries to get this across to her, she seems to not listen. After a while the list is abandoned in the pages of a favorite book and forgotten.

During his college years, he begins wooing a girl and inadvertently loans her the book containing the list. She delights in the idea and returns it to him with a few of her own additions. The two continue adding to the list and he continues to send its contents to his mother, but to no avail. Her suicidal tendencies overwhelm her no matter what.

Since this is not a fairy tale, nobody lives happily ever after. The man and his girlfriend marry, then separate. The abandoned list resurfaces, only about 1,000 items shy of one million. How many more Brilliant Things can they add?

The story overall is quite endearing. It’s never too dark or too syrupy, but very true to the realities of the world. What sets it apart is the manner in which it is presented.

Prior to the show, lone performer Marcus Truschinski hands out postcards and other scraps of paper to various members of the audience. Each has a word or phrase on it along with a number. When he mentions that number – an item on the list – during the show, the person holding the corresponding card must shout out the information for all to hear.

There is a small section of audience seating at the rear of the stage which patrons can choose. Of course, these people will be incorporated into the show, as the script requires various other people to interact with Truschinski in order to tell the story. However, in a stroke of misdirection, audience members from all over are actually used.

True to the show’s fringe-festival roots, with its audience interaction each performance is entirely unique. Add to this Truschinski’s amazing improv skills and you have an evening of theater that is uplifting, thought provoking, touching, and enriching throughout.

Make a note to add this experience to your own list. Performances are through Feb. 10 on the upperstage of the IRT, 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy; call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

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Even the bitterest fruit can revive sweet memories

By Wendy Carson

The term “comfort food” exists for a reason. Some of our happiest and most vivid memories consist of the scent and taste of a dish that exudes love and safety. Therefore, even though the apples are not as sweet and fresh in the dead of winter, a home-baked pie can still transform a dank prison cell into the warm, inviting kitchen of one’s childhood.

This is the crux of Jennifer Fawcett’s new play, “Apples in Winter,” at the Phoenix Theatre.

Miriam arrives in a prison kitchen to bake the apple pie that is her condemned son’s last request, under the watchful eye of the guards. The audience bears witness to her efforts and the story of how she came to be in this situation.

Her story is all too common: A loving mother does the best she can to raise her child well. However, due to forces beyond her control (or were they?), he turns down a darker path. Was she too naïve to realize what was happening or to prevent his escalation? That you can decide on your own, you are merely here to listen to her tale. Judgement has already been made and is what has brought us all to this place and time.

Jan Lucas gives a poignantly heart-wrenching performance as Miriam. She deftly brings forth the loving memories of her radiant child but never pulls the punches on the troubled soul he evolved into. She perfectly turns the wretched situation into a confession of love, guilt, and sorrow, without overwhelming the audience with bitterness.

Now, a few words about that pie. During this show, Lucas actually prepares and bakes an apple pie, from scratch, in front of the audience. At the end, a lucky audience member wins it in a charity raffle to bring it home for their own consumption. Tickets are sold before the performance, which has no intermission.

John and I happened to win the pie on the night we attended (winter weather limited the audience, helping our odds, and it was truly a random drawing – yes, John paid for his ticket). So, to share our bounty, I feel that a short review of the pie is appropriate: First, it is beautifully made with a lattice-style top. The crust was lighter and crisper than I’ve had before (more like a cookie), and my favorite part. Though the apples used were not the best quality (as per the script, and it being January), they were perfectly spiced and brought forth a nice flavor. I suggest serving it with a scoop of a quality vanilla ice cream to fully enjoy the experience.

All in all, this show is a moving tribute to a mother’s love and determination to persevere throughout whatever challenges she must face. Performances continue through Jan. 27 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St.; call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

CCP adds more girl power to ‘Pageant’

By Wendy Carson

I remember in high school we had a huge problem picking out shows because 80 percent of our auditioners were female, up for only about a third of the roles. It seems that this gender disparity has not changed, because when Carmel Community Players held auditions for “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” most of the actors who turned up were female. So, in a brilliant casting twist, Director Lori Raffel decided to change the genders of several of the roles, mainly affecting the dreaded “Herdman clan” — it worked out beautifully.

The Herdman children, a grubby, ill-mannered, bunch of bullies, end up taking over all of the major roles in the church Christmas Pageant, much to everyone’s dismay.

Beth Bradley (Dana Hackney), our narrator, relates that her brother Charlie (Sam Vrtismarsh), whose favorite part of church is the fact that it is the one place without torture at the hands of the Herdmans, inadvertently causes this catastrophe to occur.

Stuck in the hospital from an accident, the pageant’s usual director, Mrs. Slocum (Lee Meyers) gives directing duties to Charlie’s mother, Grace (Deb Underwood), including constant phone calls “reassuring and advising” her.

Enter the Herdmans: Ruby (Jayda Glynn in the former “Ralph” role) takes the part of Joseph. Imogene (Maya Davis) usurps the role of Mary, which had always been played by Alice Wendleken (Avery Pierce) and relegating poor Alice to the Angel Choir. Loretta (Delaney Soper in “Leroy” role), Ellie (Ellianna Miles in “Ollie” role) and Claude (Austin Helm) grab the roles of the Wise Men. Rounding out their family unit, little Gladys (Abigail Smith) plays the Angel of the Lord bringing the good news to the shepherds – “Shazam!”

Add to these characters a couple of gossipy church women, Mrs. Armstrong (Ginger Home) and Mrs. McCarthy (Nikki Vrtis); the Pastor (Joe Meyers); and the petulant rest of the pageant cast – Maxine (Sophia McCoskey), Elma (Christina Whisman), and Hallie (Megan Holliday); not to mention Charlie’s ever-suffering Father (Steve Marsh), who keeps trying to get out of attending the pageant in the first place.

How this whole mess turns out, and changes those in attendance, is a Christmas miracle that has warmed audience hearts for years all over the country. It just looks a little different here.

While the cast on the whole does an admirable job, a few standouts that must be mentioned: Holliday’s dance solo was a delightful display of budding talent. Hackney did a nice job shifting her focus between telling the story and trying to survive the insanity all around her. Pierce excellently portrays her character’s “Holier than Thou” attitude throughout. Davis adds depth as Imogene finds connection with The Virgin’s plight. However, it is Smith’s turn as the fiercely indomitable Gladys Herdman that shines the brightest. I expect we will be seeing a lot more of her talents in the future.

There is one weekend left of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” through Dec. 9. So, gather the whole family, scoot over to the Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy, 10029 E. 126th St. in Fishers, and enjoy a fun Christmas show. Get info and tickets at carmelplayers.org.

Also, make sure you bring a few extra dollars to purchase one of the lovely pasta angels handcrafted by the troupe. They are quite lovely and will make a wonderful accent to your tree for years to come.

BCP presents truly off-kilter comedy

By Wendy Carson

It’s said that you can never go home again. After seeing the comedy “37 Postcards,” on stage now at Buck Creek Players, you might think twice about even trying.

Avery Sutton has spent the last eight years traveling throughout Europe. Now he’s decided to return home with his new fiancé. He tries to warn her that his family is a bit odd, however, just how crazy things have gotten in his absence will throw them both for a loop.

The house itself is tilted; his dead Grandmother is very much alive; nobody’s fed his dog for 5 years; and his father has become golf-obsessed. Add to this his Aunt’s new “Cottage Industry” and Mother’s spotty memory, not to mention those mysterious 37 postcards, and you have the makings for one hilarious tale.

Under the direction of Jan Jamison, who also designed the wonderful tilted stage set, this production revels in the whimsy throughout Michael McKeever’s script and gives us a thoroughly enjoyable show.

I’m sure none of you are familiar with the story, but it may become a favorite once you have watched it all play out. We sort of described it as “Arsenic and Old Lace” without all of the murdering.

Dave Hoffman perfectly portrays Avery, a man who is struggling to figure out what is going on around him and desperately trying to keep sane while doing so. As we discover why he had left home eight years before, he discovers that his relatives had been escaping each in their own way as well.

Mary McNelis does a wonderful job portraying Avery’s confused mother, Evelyn; though her selective memory mimics a sort of early dementia, her portrayal never mocks the condition. Wendy Brown is hysterical as the foul-mouthed and still very much alive Nana. Tracy Brunner begins as the picture of sanity in this confusion as Aunt Ester, then quickly shows her own wild side. Mike Harold gives a heartfelt performance as Avery’s father, Stanford, who avoids his own uncomfortable secret.

Between being mistaken by the maid by Evelyn, constantly insulted by Nana , and forced to golf all night by Stanford (not to mention what Aunt Ester says to her), Letitia Clemons gets to show her range of exasperation as Avery’s finance, Gillian.

Last, but not least, is the exceptional debut of a fresh talent in Lucy Telpin’s layered take on Skippy. One note, she can be a bit of a Diva so don’t expect a meet-and-greet with her after the show.

Performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave., near the Acton Road exit off I-74 southeast of Indy. Call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.

I would also like to point out that this show has been rated PG-13. There are a few harsh words and innuendo (plus one term most parents will not be eager to define to younger children). So, you might want to consider leaving the little ones at home, but bring the teens and the rest of the family out for a great look at what family really is and how crazy it can make you.

Bard Fest: ‘Merchant’ an entertaining comedy with troubling themes

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

By Wendy Carson

One of the things I love about Bardfest is that at least one production is more obscure or rarely produced. This year’s offering is “The Merchant of Venice,” presented by First Folio Productions, adapted and directed by Doug Powers.

The play is actually a romantic comedy, but has tragic overtones. It sports an easy-to-follow plotline and is immensely entertaining. Therefore, you may wonder why is it not done more often. I can only guess it is due to the overwhelming Antisemitism rife in the story’s main plot. So let’s address that matter: I believe it exists, not just to justify the character’s level of vengeance, but also because in the overwhelmingly Catholic nation, the Jews were a minority. This opens a dialogue regarding the mistrust, denigration and oppression of minorities. Especially in our turbulent modern times.

That all being said, let’s now get to the actual play.

The crux of the story is that Bassanio desires to woo the lovely Portia, a wealthy heiress. Since he has foolishly squandered his own fortunes, he turns to his beloved friend, Antonio, to loan him the money needed (which will be easily repaid by his new wife’s money). With Antonio’s funds tied up in his own business ventures, they must seek the aid of a local Jewish moneylender, Shylock. Having been slandered and ill-treated my Antonio for years, Shylock is loath to help him, but agrees to the loan provided he is delivered a pound of flesh upon default. Since the gentlemen know that there is no way this would occur, they agree.

Portia’s father passed away, but had devised a method to aid her in the choosing of the correct bridegroom. Three coffers are given, one each of gold, silver and lead, each with a warning regarding the contents – only one granting permission to marry. After other suitors fail, Bassanio chooses correctly.

Meanwhile, Antonio’s ships have all wrecked leaving him unable to repay the debt. Add to this that one of his friends, Lorenzo, not only eloped with Shylock’s only daughter, Jessica, but also converted her to Christianity, and the overwhelmed Shylock resolves to exact his revenge by literally collecting the promised pound of flesh. Bassanio offers to save his friend by paying twice the amount of the debt, but for Shylock, this is not about money, it is about his honor.

A trial commences and Shylock is granted his pound of flesh. However, the visiting lawyer – Portia in disguise – announces that upon taking his due, he not only must take the exact amount (no more, no less) but must also not spill a drop of blood in its collection. What will Shylock do?

Emily Bohn as Portia and Amanda Boldt as her maid, Nerissa, aptly bring forward the cunning that women are scarcely afforded in many of the Bard’s productions. Ryan Ruckman (Antonio) and Zach Taylor (Bassanio) portray not only the determination of each character but their intensely loving friendship. Ryan Reddick beautifully embodies the emotional sorrow and vengeance that drive Shylock to his end.

While John Mortell plays three characters throughout the show, his endearingly comic turn as Portia’s somewhat dimwitted servant, Balthasar, is truly a delight to behold. Bringing much-needed levity to a show that can be fraught with darkness.

The cast also includes Jim Banta, Aaron Cleveland, Ben Mathis, Pat Mullen, Rachel Snyder, Dwuan Watson Jr. and Lexy Weixel – all excellent.

Powers places the play in an Italy resembling the 1930s, as his Director’s Note explains, a time when rampant antisemitism has swept Europe, but its tragic endgame was yet to be revealed.

Remaining performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5-7, at the Indyfringe Indy Eleven Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, just east of the College and Mass Ave. intersection.

Fonseca’s debut drama shows what we are capable of building

By Wendy Carson*

I honestly don’t know what is more horrifying about Robert Shenkkan’s play, “Building the Wall,” the details of atrocities committed or the sheer fact that I can see all of it happening in the real world, pretty much the exact way it does in the script.

The story revolves around a college professor conducting an interview with a reluctant prison inmate. Throughout their dialogue, you discover why Rick has been incarcerated – and his truth of the situation that led him here.

Clay Mabbitt does an amazing job at weaving Rick’s story without forcing a biased slant on the situation. This is a man who sees himself as inherently good but also acknowledges he allowed much of the inhumane treatment to continue, climaxing with their inevitable final solution to the situation.

Millicent Wright as the academic, Gloria, deftly leads him through his tale. Since his lawyer prevented him from defending himself or even speaking at his trial, she wants to help him get his story out in his own words so that he can finally be heard.

Again, the story presented here is fictional, but it contains so many references to actual historical events and situations that it feels just a bit too real. In fact, we found it hard to believe it was written in 2016, and not this year.

This is the first play for the newly-founded Fonseca Theatre Company, established by a group of central Indiana artistic people led by the company’s namesake – and this play’s director – Bryan Fonseca. Like his past work establishing the Phoenix Theatre, this is the first of a planned season (and seasons to come) of thought-provoking, important theatre on West Michigan Street.

Aside from helping create an enduring arts scene in the near-westside of Indy, FTC’s mission is to embrace and celebrate diversity in all its diverse forms. As one can guess from the present-day setting and the play’s title, its inspiration comes from the President’s promise, and the continued heated debate, regarding immigration and immigrants. What does a play with a black woman and a white man have to do with this? In “Building the Wall,” it is not Latinx people who have to justify what they’re doing or explain how they got where they are.

In the end, this is everybody’s problem.

Performances are Fridays through Sundays, through Oct. 7, at FTC’s temporary home, Indy Convergence, 2611 W. Michigan. See www.fonsecatheatre.org for details and tickets.

(John Lyle Belden also contributed to this review.)

IndyFringe: ‘Aphrodite’s Refugees’

This show is part of the 14th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 16-26, 2018 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

It’s hard to not hear the word “refugees” in the news today. It’s bandied about on an almost daily basis. This tends to numb us to the meaning and situations that cause people to succumb to this status.

When show creator Monica Dionysiou witnessed an exhibit by Doctors Without Borders in her hometown of Boulder, Col., she felt inspired to revisit her family’s stories of their own struggles during the many battles for dominance on their home island of Cypress, and how they came to America in the first place.

You can now witness the beauty, tragedy, and resilience of these people in her stunning offering, “Aphrodite’s Refugees.”

She artfully weaves the history of the island as well as its struggles for independence from the various countries warring over it. (Cypress is located in the Mediterranean near Greece and Turkey, which both have claims.) The stories begin with recordings of her family in their own words which are then interpreted by her and her partner to show the changes in the landscape of the island throughout the years.

Dionysiou’s partner, Aaron Young, literally illustrates the struggle by painting the backdrop of the ever-changing landscape of her homeland. He also illuminates important points of the story with further drawings and animations to enhance the drama. Plus, the finished landscape is available for sale at the end of each performance so you can acquire a spectacular original piece of artwork to help you remember these bittersweet tales for long afterward.

We also find out the connection to the Greek goddess of the title. She is the deity of love — but, alas, her brother is Aries, God of War, and in their immortal games he’s holding the cards.

Performances are today and tomorrow (Aug. 25-26) at 6 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, at the Indyfringe Indy Eleven Theatre, 719 St. Clair St. (just east of the College and Mass Ave intersection).