The lighter side of a heavy topic

By Wendy Carson*

Kate Huffman hates her body. I hate my body. In fact, all of the women (and many of the men) reading this hate their bodies. We are taught to do so from the moment we are able to understand the concept of beauty and acceptance. Our society’s definition of female beauty is unattainable, unhealthy and potentially deadly.

“I’m Too Fat For This Show” is a large step in one woman’s journey to come to terms with her OCD, control issues, eating disorder and general neurosis.

She presents both her struggle and unusual outlook by opening with scenes from the video for “No Rain” by Blind Melon (a band, like Huffman, with Indiana roots).

Growing up as a chubby dancing girl, she was often compared to the little “Bee Girl” at the center of the video’s storyline. While she put on a brave face and tried to shake off all of the teasing about her weight, it was a grade-school field trip to Eli Lilly that changed her fate.

She learned about nutrition and how much fat she was actually putting in her body. She vowed to change her habits and began to lose weight. This lead to praise, which reinforced her drive and once her mom introduced her to the concept of counting calories, her fate was sealed.

Her days are filled with logs of calorie intakes, exercise reps, and more data that she and her eating disorder (introduced as her “Best Friend”) use to process her OCD and control her world.

Her Bestie even pops up on the video screen (played by Huffman) to encourage her to “hit her numbers” and remind her she is the only entity that truly cares about her.

This show is a comedy – and quite funny – but obviously also quite dark. It doesn’t hold back on language, or the facts of dealing with multiple disorders and conditions, mental and physical. To give us a perspective on what living with her issues would be like, she plays a scene as her long-time ex-boyfriend. In fact, her talents as an actress and improv performer are on excellent display in the various characters she puts on, including some half-and-half costume work.

Some praise is also due to her director Scout Durwood, and videographers Kenneth and Mariana Lui, for their parts in putting the pieces of this otherwise one-person show together.

It’s a cruel irony that Huffman is actually quite slender, and beautiful, yet only she (and the cruel standards of Hollywood, an issue she also addresses) sees herself as “fat.” But that is the nature of the disorder she and far too many others live with: Irrational impulses are irrational.

Kate Huffman bravely entertains us by sharing her pain, allowing us to admit that, in some ways, we all feel it too.

“I’m Too Fat for this Show” might still have some tickets left for Sunday, Dec. 10, at the IndyFringe Indy Eleven Theatre – see www.indyfringe.org – before she takes the show to Ireland the next week, then to New England stages. See www.KateHuffman.com for more information on the show and future performances.

*(John also contributed to this review. Considering the personal nature of the show, there was a lot of discussion and collaboration, but this is mostly me.)

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Phoenix craftily regifts classic bits in annual Xmas show

By Wendy Carson

Welcome to North Pole University! The students and staff are all here to make sure you are up to speed and ready for the next semester. That is the framing conceit of this year’s installment of Phoenix Theatre’s A Very Phoenix Xmas, “Up to Snow Good.”

The cast members pose as different NPU characters in order to introduce the various scenes making up the show. Since this will be the final presentation in the current location, all of this year’s skits are glowing highlights from past shows.

While you may have seen all of the vignettes before, each one has been carefully reworked in a totally new way. In fact, my all-time favorite number, “The Baby,” has been transformed into an awesome puppet show and I feel that it is a far superior rendition to the original.

Also, since these shows have been going for over a decade, it is easy to forget some of them. “Les Miserabelves” is one such example. I had honestly forgotten the hilarity resulting from blending a certain Christmas classic with a French Revolutionary musical. Needless to say, it stands the test of time.

Devan Mathias’s tender take on “Hard Candy Christmas” is hauntingly beautiful especially as she slowly transforms into a her next skit’s character as she sings.

Paul Collier Hansen’s stirring portion of “Hallelujah Hallelujah” is pure sweet sadness with a tiny touch of hope.

Rob Johansen amazingly transforms from a hard-edged Private Eye in “Christmas Heat” to a sleek acrobat in “You Can Fly”.

Nathan Robbins gives a solemn turn in the sweetly insightful “A Requiem for Shermy,” with Gail Payne as another nearly-forgotten character, a scene which will leave you reassessing how you watch a certain popular Christmas classic.

These, along with Jean Arnold, Andrea Heiden and Carlos Medina Maldonado, are all such standout talents. And with such great material, under the direction of Phoenix boss Bryan Fonseca, they all work together so well without chewing the scenery or stealing scenes.

Given the Phoenix’s well-earned reputation for edgy and controversial fare, we’re happy to note that even with their tongue in cheek, there is nothing too over-the-top (though the creche catapult in the War on Christmas scene comes close).

So pull on your ugliest Christmas sweater, gather your loved ones and snuggle up at the Phoenix Theater, 749 N. Park Ave. in downtown Indy, with a spirited take on the holidays as we know them, on the main stage through Dec. 23. Get info and tickets at www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Cute cooperative game has surprising depth

As Black Friday approaches, we switch from reviewing plays to reviewing playtime — one of the games we picked up at last summer’s GenCon Game Fair.

By Wendy Carson

When John and I attended GenCon in 2016, we noticed a few of the new games debuting were cooperative games, where everyone has to work together in order to win, rather than traditional game systems where everyone plays against each other and only one player becomes the victor. This year, that number seems to have exploded.

The game company Peaceable Kingdom specializes mainly in cooperative games with a learning slant, aimed at younger players. However, we quickly discovered that these game dynamics are challenging enough for adults as well.

In fact, one of our most favorite new games is “Mole Rats in Space,” designed to be played by two to four players, ages 7 and up.

The game takes place aboard a spaceship manned by four valiant mole rats (not “naked,” as the hairless burrowing mammals are in the wild, as they have space suits) whose ship has been invaded by hungry snakes. Players control the rats in their quest to get to the escape capsule, stopping to gather a few provisions along the way. However, the snakes are also on the move and could prevent the rats’ escape. Adding to the drama are various tubes and ladders around the ship that must be used and/or avoided in this race for survival.

For the players to win, they must move all the rats and four provision cards into the escape capsule without being bitten by a snake or having a snake enter the capsule. And remember, everyone wins or nobody wins!

Movement is by cards that show movement of the rats, snakes or both. There is also the possibility of new snakes spawning as well. However, it is in the resolution of the cards’ effects where a lot of the complex strategy comes in.

You can choose to reveal each card one at a time in player order, reveal all of the players’ cards at once, then resolving them in player order, or reveal all cards and resolve them in whatever order you choose. No matter which option is chosen, in cards depicting movement for both snakes and rats, the player chooses which creature’s movement to resolve first.

One additional note, in order to help our brave mole rats out in their quest, each one begins the game with a medical kit that will allow it to survive ONE snakebite. However, a second bite will end the game not only for the player, but for everyone.

The last time we played this game, the four players were “assisted” with three other observers adding their advice. We opted to reveal all cards at once and resolve the movement in the order we chose. Though it felt like the cards were stacked against us, we barely managed to survive and get our mole rats to safety. Also, note that all seven of the people involved were adults.

While we did win that game, at least half of the times John and I have played, the snakes have been victorious.

This game is sure to be a family favorite. It provides long-term playability and re-playability for a variety of ages. It teaches strategy, long-term planning, cooperation, and complex visualization.

It can also give curious minds inspiration to find out about the critters that inspired the game.

Peaceable Kingdom games are sold at game shops and stores including Target. Find them online at their Facebook page.

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.

Bardfest: ‘Cymbeline’ so much more than a princess-in-peril story

By Wendy Carson

I confess that I was entirely unaware of the story of “Cymbeline” prior to Indy Bardfest. Even though the script has been trimmed greatly, the three-hour running time and complexity of plot is daunting. However, Garfield Shakespeare Company director Anthony Johnson’s decision to place the setting in Civil War-era America helps the audience identify with the motivations behind many of the characters and the plight of their “kingdom.”

Fortunately, Guy Grubbs and Manny Casillas are perfectly engaging in the opening scene, providing the exposition needed to follow the story.

The plot revolves around Cymbeline (John Mortell), a “King” trying to keep the world on track with his ideals, and his daughter, Imogen (Elisabeth Speckman), who secretly married Posthumous (Chris Burton) against her father’s wishes. Cymbeline therefore banishes Posthumous and keeps Imogen a prisoner until he can find her a more suitable husband. Meanwhile, Imogen’s stepmother (Ashley Chase Elliott), only referred to as “Queen,” wants her arrogant son Cloten (Jarrett Yates) to be Imogen’s groom, cementing her power – especially once she dispatches Imogen & Cymbeline.

Posthumous meets a boisterous rake, Iachamo (Jake Peacock), who wagers he can bed the hero’s virtuous bride. But finding Posthumous correct in his assertions of Imogen’s devotion, Iachamo sneaks into the sleeping girl’s bedroom and uses what he finds to win the bet. This throws Posthumous into a state of such sadness that he sends word for his loyal servant, Pisanio (Sabrina Duprey), to kill Imogen.

Having been close to the princess, Pisanio refuses to obey the order and persuades Imogen to escape, disguised as a boy. But Cloten takes her disappearance personally and sets out to take her back. Then we meet local backwoods people, led by Morgan (Matt Anderson) – yes, they become important to the plot as well.

Another complication is that the Republic, represented by Caius Lucius (Abigail Johnson) wants its tribute from this little West-Virginia-esque kingdom so that Cymbeline can keep his throne. But the power-hungry Queen would rather have war.

Mortell does an excellent job of showing the king’s desperation as everything spins out of his control, while Elliott encompasses every Disney villain at their evil plotting best. Speaking of evil, Peacock’s Iachamo is perfectly slimy.

Speckman’s take on Imogene seems slightly stilted at first, but she deftly weaves experience and pure gumption into the role by the end. Burton as noble Posthumous is sheer passion and fire, no matter what mood he is in.

Duprey looks natural in Pisanio’s boots, an excellent supporting player. Anderson, for his part, barely reins in his charisma, channeling it to hint at how important he (a soldier in exile) and his two wards (secretly royal children, played smartly by Elysia Rohn and Tyler Marx) are to the story. Emily Bohn mixes well in dual roles as the bartender/host in Postumous’s exile and as the Queen’s slyly heroic court physician.

Shakespeare based this complex play – having elements of both the Tragedies and the Comedies – on the legend of an ancient king. While it’s not easy for us, in 2017 Indiana, to imagine life in Roman Britain (or to remember that England was even part of the Empire), we can easily conjure up the world of the 1860s, thanks to things such as “Gone With the Wind.” In fact, the play’s Queen comes across as a sort of unscrupulous Scarlett O’Hara. In an environment with the unspoken subtext of people as property, Imogene’s struggle for personal freedom takes on more importance.

Bardfest typically takes on a less-produced play, and once again polishes up a gem worth discovering. Remaining performances are Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 28-29, at the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair. For more information, visit www.indyfringe.org.

‘Cabaret Poe’ returns with new site, fresh look and familiar chills

By John L. Belden and Wendy Carson

Quoth Wendy:

You always know that Halloween is approaching when Q Artistry launches its annual production of “Cabaret Poe.” This is not to disparage the show in any way – even after almost 10 years of shows, the audiences are still enthralled by it. In fact, a patron behind me was proudly seeing the show for the sixth time and still loved it just as much as the first.

This year’s show does mark another change of venue, this time in a small alcove on the fourth floor of Circle Centre Mall (in the heart of downtown Indy). Upon first entering the space, it seems very cramped and awkward. However, the company has turned this on its ear with inventive staging.

No longer do cast members leave the stage when not actively performing; instead they seat themselves throughout the crowd and become part of the audience, observering of the spectacle themselves. By utilizing the whole space as their stage, and with the addition of projection screens, they assure that there is not a bad seat in the house.

I was also quite impressed by the unique lighting effects utilized by designer Brent Wunderlich. From innovatively turning their black and grey hues to purples, to bathing the audience in a rainbow of colors during “Masque of the Red Death.”

Quoth John:

Oops, sorry Ben!  — Show creator Ben Asaykwee likes keeping it a surprise which of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and poems he has adapted for the evening’s Cabaret, and in which order. But it won’t give too much away to say that some pieces can be expected to appear, like the one about a heart that tells tales, or the quest for a rare cask of Spanish wine, or a certain obnoxious black bird…

Asaykwee presents it all with his catchy inventive songs, infused with dark humor, such as “Buried Alive,” “Dark (The Pit and the Pendulum),” and the recurring title theme. He also stars as one of three performer/narrators, the smugly sour Zoilus. His accomplices are two women, Morella and Berenice. On opening night, they were played by Julie Lyn Barber, a Cabaret Poe player since its first year, and Gerogeanna Smith Wade, a first-timer in this revue, but no stranger to the strange as a major player in the NoExit troupe. Some performances feature Q Artistry veterans Renae Stone and Jaddy Ciucci in the ladies’ roles. In addition, a ghostly dancing shadow is perfectly silently executed by Rebekah Taylor – she even gets a solo scene.

The lighting effects, projections, and shadow puppetry are new for this year, fitting seamlessly into the narratives and reducing the need for physical props. But then, the players do have us, the audience, to play with.

Quoth Wendy:

With the changes made, this was my favorite version of the show. “Cabaret” implies an intimacy different from other kinds of productions, and this presented it more effectively that in past shows.

Concludeth John:

So, it’s both old and new, familiar and surprising – like a 21st-century musical based on a nineteenth century writer. Performances run through Oct. 29. Get info and tickets at qartistry.org.

Satisfy your ‘Curious’ity at IRT

By Wendy Carson

Christopher John Francis Boone is 15, a mathematical genius but he finds all social and physical interactions to be terrifying. This is because Christopher is autistic. He lives alone with his father, who told Christopher that his mother died of a heart attack two years ago.

His great love of animals causes him to go out one night to visit the neighbor’s poodle, Wellington, only to find it murdered. Since he’s found kneeling with the dog, he is initially accused of its death. When the policeman tries to calm him down, the touch causes Christopher to lash out and be arrested. The misunderstanding is cleared up, but he is left with a warning on his permanent record.

Discovering that others think the murder of a dog is too irrelevant to be investigated, Christopher decides, against his father’s strong wishes, to do so himself. This results in him having to talk to his neighbors, who to him are strangers, but he is determined to overcome his fears and solve this mystery.

While he does eventually find out the murderer’s identity, the journey to that information has him discover a huge family secret and embark on a journey that tests his resolve and the very limits of his abilities, challenging his autistic limitations.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” opening the 2017-18 season at Indiana Repertory Theatre, is based on Mark Haddon’s critically-acclaimed 2003 novel of the same name. It won the 2015 Tony for Best Play. However, due to the novel being written in first-person and the production of it needing to have the various characters fleshed out and enacted, many technical alterations were made to bring the tale to the stage.

Shiobhan (played by Elizabeth Ledo), one of Christopher’s teachers, reads much of his inner dialogue from a notebook. He has written the story there in hopes of turning it into a book once it has concluded.

Much of the cast morphs from one character to another while also voicing the self-doubts and thoughts of Christopher. The medium of stage allows for non-linear and abstract elements required to tell the story, and even briefly goes “meta” with the cast discussing the play as themselves with Christopher.

This production includes IRT’s landmark casting of Mickey Rowe as Christopher, making him the first American actor with autism in the role. Familiar faces Robert Neal and Constance Macy portray his father and mother.

The entire cast, which also includes David Alan Anderson, Margaret Daly, Mehry Eslaminia, Eric Parks, Gail Rastorfer and Landon G. Woodson, do an impeccable job, true to the standards of an IRT performance.

Thought-provoking and surprisingly relatable, this drama brings you on an unusual journey through a unique mind, as well as through the English countryside and heart of London. And when you go, be sure to stay after the curtain call for a unique, and highly entertaining, mathematical encore.

No dogs were actually harmed in the making of this play, which runs through Oct. 14. Find the IRT at 140 W. Washington St. downtown or online at irtlive.com.