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

IndyFringe: The Madwomen’s Late-Nite Cabaret

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

From the moment that Lizzie Borden (Cody Ricks) dashes across stage to take her seat at the piano, you know that this show is anything but serious.

We then welcome our beloved hostess Ethel Merman (Dave Ruark hamming it up at his best) straight from her triumphant turn as “Annie”.

Throughout the night we are privy to songs revealing aspects of these historical icons who are more misunderstood than evil.

Shawnte Gaston has a quick turn as Medusa but spends most of the show co-hosting as Eve, the embodiment of maternal energy and possibly the most misrepresented of them all. She belts out her sentiments in both “What’s the Matter With Kids Today” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

Julie Lyn Barber embodies women as diverse as Typhoid Mary, Amelia Earhart, and Mary Stuart but she really stands out as Sybil singing “I Am My Own Best Friend”.

Georgeanna Smith Wade gives us a hilarious look into the mindset of Procne (most people know her as Medea) but it is her sultry version of Mata Hari performing “Bang, Bang” that really shines.

Add to this Jaddy Ciucci (although on the performance I saw this role was played by Devan Mathius), portraying not only Joan of Arc, Philomela, and Ann Boleyn, but a “Physical Embodiment of a Controlled Substance” (Mary Jane) and pleadingly insisting “I’d Be Good For You”

Needless to say, these women (and characters) deserve to be seen and heard and who knows when you will get another chance to do so. Presented by Main Street Artists, remaining performances are 9 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 Sunday at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair.

IndyFringe: VolleyBrawl

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Welcome to the 2019 Championships of the extremely underground sport of VolleyBrawl.

This year’s lineup is sure to be thrilling and we begin with a rousing match between “Sugar and Spike” (a pair of lunch ladies) and “Clark & Nancy” a couple who seem out of their league as well as out of their wits. While the game seems pretty routine at first, we find out soon that this is literally a duel to the death (all players wear collars that deliver a lethal shock upon losing).

We then meet some of our other teams: “Orphan Twin Force” (a goofy pair of orphans with strange supernatural powers fighting in honor of their Sensei); “Aceholes” (two stereotypically cartoonish Russians); “The Cowpokes” (a couple of yokels in Cowboy hats); “Team Tiffany” (think 80’s style pop-tarts); and “Top Gunz” (every 80’s macho movie cliché in one).

Add to this “Zeros 2 Heroes” which is made up of a very douchey guy trying to make time with his partner (who is definitely NOT an undercover cop who has spent the last three years infiltrating the sport in order to avenge her dead husband who was also undercover investigating the game but got to close and was killed).

The whole show overflows with silliness and 80’s references abound. Musical numbers are tight and enjoyable. Even the volleyball gets its own song during the Memorial Montage to athletes lost on the way to the finals.

In the hands of a less skillful cast, this show would be just okay. However, Matt Kramer and Defiance Comedy have recruited a stellar cast and together they make this one of the funniest offerings of the Festival.

Remaining performances are Friday and Sunday evenings at the IndyFringe Theater, 719 E. St. Clair.

IndyFringe: The Day Penny Drowned

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

A successful playwright, Penny should be on the top of the world. She and Brad are on their way to a romantic getaway to celebrate the success of her Broadway show. However, her family proceeds to force their way into her plans, and she is soon overwhelmed by their presence — as well as their drama.

Ed Faunce is delightful as Brad, Penny’s devoted husband. He does an excellent job of showing us that he will do anything to protect his wife, yet still makes mistakes along the way.

Bridget Schlebecker’s portrayal of Judy, Penny’s overbearingly self-centered sister, gives us some of the much-needed comic relief in the piece. Her character is a force of nature, sweeping in and ensconcing everyone in her own personal drama without a care for anyone else’s feelings, leaving a swath of confused exhaustion in her wake.

Jonathan ‘JB’ Scoble gives a subtle performance as Jeremiah, Judy’s slacker son who has absolutely no clue about anything but eating and getting high.

Kate Hillman does an amazing job with the character of Francis, Penny’s neglectful mom who has just been released from the Fishkill Federal Prison. She brings out all of the redneck trashiness of the character while also sprinkling in some very sharp verbal abuse towards her “neglectful” daughter.

Rounding out the cast is Nancy Picket as Penny. She manages to show us the devotion the character has for all those around her to the detriment of her own self. However, she becomes so overwhelmed by it, she jumps into the lake just to get away from it all.

Can she find a balance between all of the forces demanding her time and energy? Will her family just give her a day or two alone to regain herself and sanity? Is she in over her head and if so, will she sink or swim?

Find out for yourself.

A play by local author Elizabeth Young-Collins, Remaining performances are today and Saturday (Aug. 22&24) at the District Theater (former TOTS location), 627 Massachusetts Ave.