OnyxFest: Majesties

This play is part of OnyxFest 2022, a production of Africana Repertory Theatre of IUPUI (ARTI) and IndyFringe, “Indy’s First and Only Theater Festival Dedicated to the Stories of Black Playwrights.” Initial performances were the weekend of Nov. 3-6 at the Basile Theatre in the IndyFringe building. The second weekend of performances are Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 10-12, at the IUPUI Campus Center Theater, 420 University Boulevard, Indianapolis. Recordings of performances will be available at ButlerArtsCenter.org. For more information, see OnyxFest.com.

By Wendy Carson

Women are creatures of spectacular power and ability. They can raise up or tear down those around them. Yet so many get caught up in the fallacy that their own worth is tangled up within their relationships with men. This was the message that I took away from “Majesties,” Charla Booth’s tale of three generations of women struggling with their past.

Leslie Moliere (Megan Simonton) is an aging singer, no longer booking performance dates as she’s considered by club owners to be past her prime. She also deals with the realization that she is alone because she has always been in love with one man and although they were almost married, he has done his best to torture her while knowing her feelings for him.

Andre (Daniel Martin) is not only the object of Leslie’s heart but also the father of Andrea (Shandrea Funnye), the product of a past fling who left them, whom he claims is only his niece, thus creating sorrow in her heart as well.

Gloria Jean (Katherine Adamou), a past schoolmate of Leslie and Andre, is dealing with her own lack of a man in her life, especially the negligent father of her own daughter.

Through careful calculation by a wise Wellness Center owner (Jamillah Gonzalez) and Gloria’s Mother (Brittany Taylor) these three women are brought together for a spa day in order to resolve their issues with each other as well as their own internal conflicts.

Simonton ably takes Leslie from haughty but sadly regretful of the choices that have led her to this end, while Adamou embodies the conflict of her constant love for her ex and well as the realization that this is a major part of why she can’t find someone new.

Martin, as adept at drama as his frequent comic turns, keeps his character aloof and slimy as Andre mentally abuses every woman in his path.

Taylor does a great job of managing to keep her character’s machinations subtle to make her presence almost a surprise when she shows up at the end, and Gonzalez perfectly embodies her shaman role.

Funnye amazes us by bringing forth the most heart-wrenching story of all, while showing the bravery and power of her character to overcome it all and persist in finding happiness. She also directs, superbly bringing these actors together to give us a show that brings you to tears, enrages you, and inspires you – without being overbearing or preachy.

Orange is the new Bard

This is part of Indy Bard Fest 2022, the annual Indianapolis area Shakespeare Festival. For information and tickets, visit indybardfest.com.

By John Lyle Belden

Welcome to a secure common room at a local women’s prison. The ladies of D Block present for the visitors (us) the fruits of their fine arts program, a staging of William Shakespeare’s “Richard II,” adapted by the company with director Glenn Dobbs.

For those like me who sometimes struggle to keep all the Histories straight, Richard II (1377-1399) rules England over 150 years after the fall of King John – who was brother to Richard I (Lionheart), among the first Plantagenet Kings, and the unfortunate subject of another Bard Fest offering this year. Richard will end his reign childless (no obvious heir) as the Plantagenets fracture into the Houses of Lancaster and York in the Wars of the Roses. Also, like John, he is not regarded well by history and lore, considered a tyrant especially as he was a big believer in a king’s absolute power by Divine Right.

As presented by these orange-clad thespians, we easily accept that the mostly-male characters will all have feminine voices. This cast of local actors (not real felons, but play along) get to engage in two levels of character work. Aside from portraying the machinations of the 14th Century English Court, they are also women forged in difficult circumstance, feeling a familiarity to this treacherous culture. At any moment, your blood could be on the floor. To emphasize a challenge, a pack of premium smokes cast down is your gauntlet. Which boss inmate you follow can be a matter of life or death, and that crown – whether metal or bandana – is never fully secure.

Outstanding talents take the lead: Afton Shepard as Richard and Rayanna Bibbs as cousin/rival/successor Bolingbroke; with Damick Lalioff as the Duke of York, Evangeline Bouw as Richard’s faithful noble Aumerle, Savannah Scarborough as Bolingbroke’s right hand Northumberland, Nan Macy as John of Gaunt and the Duchess of York, and Sofy Vida as the banished Mowbray and secretive Bishop of Carlisle. Great contributions as well by Missy Rump, Genna Sever, Gracie Streib, Rachel Kelso, Jamie Devine, Gillian Bennett, Gillian Lintz, and a special shout-out to young Ellie Richart as Richard at coronation.

Shepard gives the kind of strong performance we’ve come to expect from her, showing all the various infamous aspects of the King, delivered with an instability that flows from the madness of power to the wilder madness of being without it. Bibbs gives a commanding performance like someone who somehow knows he will be the title character of the next two plays in the series. Bouw gives us a tragic character we can feel for, a young Duke sure he is on the right side – until he isn’t – then all too desperate to redeem himself. Lalioff smartly plays York as shrewd and decisive (things Richard is not), enabling him to ride the changing tides. Macy is again a marvel in her paternal and maternal roles.

It is from this play we get the line, “let us… tell sad stories of the death of kings,” and what a story we are delivered here! Three performances remain, Friday through Sunday, Oct. 28-30, in the Indy Eleven Theatre at the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair, Indianapolis.  

IndyFringe: Women’s Work

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

One may think it odd that the first person on stage at this female-centric show, “Women’s Work,” is a man (Dave Pelsue), but his musical presence helps to mark the flow of the story as well as punctuate the ever-present position of men always existing even in the shadows of a woman’s life.

We are then introduced to a young girl (Pearl Parker) giving a report on what she wants to be when she grows up. Using data from “The Employments of Women: A Cyclopaedia of Women’s Work” by Virginia Penny, as well as interviews from woman she knows, her tale is acted out by an octet of women playing two sides of each of the four career paths we are shown.

The younger counterparts begin each story reflecting the sparse number of opportunities available to women in previous generations. Other actors present the characters’ more mature perspectives.

We begin with Betty, who has chosen to become a teacher. Kallen Ruston portrays her bemoaning how everyone she knows is constantly trying to marry her off, regardless of her own preferences – she has dozens of children each day, so is not lacking for the pangs of motherhood. While standing up for her principles and refusing sexual advances from coworkers cause her to change schools, Beverly Roche keeps her optimistic, continuing Betty’s efforts to show each of her students their true potential.

Anne (Katie Carter) relates the challenges of becoming a nurse. She is excited about the importance of her job, as well as the overwhelming information she must remember. As time progresses, her knowledge grows to the level that she inherently knows a patient’s needs; however, gossip and backbiting by other nurses and condescending doctors keep her from doing her best. Miki Mathioudakis shows how Anne’s aggravation has grown as even the young residents disregard her advice, with deadly consequences.

Turning to Carol, we find the rare woman who dares enter the traditionally male field of business and make herself a success. Anna Zimmerman shows the balance required as we catch her doing affirmations to help relieve her high stress levels. She must also deal with a husband who feels his job is more important than hers, so she should naturally be able to blow off her opportunities to pick up the kids because he doesn’t have the time. Her sexist boss is just another hurdle she must overcome. Karin Stratton keeps Carol on an even keel, especially when dealing with inept temps who refuse to stick with a job long enough to actually learn it. She muses about the two years she took away from her job to devote to her children and clawing her way back up to where she was before – and beyond.

We end on Diane (Michelle Wafford), who feels that just being a mother is all of the fulfillment that she needs. While she wonders if she really loves her husband (he’s certainly no Prince Charming) because the moment she held her baby was the first time she ever truly felt it. She is expecting her second child, whether her husband is on board with the idea or not. Then, Gigi Jennewein injects the solemn bitterness Diane feels when her husband leaves her for a much younger girl, forcing to go to work at a local screw factory just to make ends meet. She misses spending time with her kids and realizes none of the other mothers she sees have any idea how hard her life is.

Liv Keslin gives an insight to the future of our narrator, and is glad that she has so many more opportunities afforded her, but still wonders what all of this means.

To find out the answer, have your heart warmed and your inspiration lit, see “Women’s Work,” presented by Betty Rage Productions, in its remaining performances 9 p.m. Friday and 1:45 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 2 & 4, at the IndyFringe Theatre.

Bard Fest: Scott edit does ‘Measure for Measure’ justice

By John Lyle Belden

“Measure for Measure” is classified by Shakespeare scholars as one of the Bard’s “problem plays,” fitting not quite into the comedies (though using many of the familiar devices) yet not quite a tragedy, as it doesn’t end with someone dying on stage. In adapting the drama for Bard Fest, director Paige Scott lets us know the true “problem” is injustice and misogyny.

In a mythically modern Venice, the Duke (David Mosedale) notes that many laws, especially dealing with vices, have gone unenforced for years. In a bizarre experiment, he charges pious Angelo (Zachariah Stonerock) with taking charge of the Duchy and its ordinances while away on a journey. However, he doubles back, and disguised as a priest, observes how justice is meted out. 

Things get serious quickly, as Claudio (Bradford Riley) is arrested for fornication with now-pregnant Juliette (Brittany Magee) and Angelo coldly sentences the man to death. But when the condemned man’s sister, novice nun Isabella (Morgan Morton) goes to plead for his life, Angelo agrees to do so only in exchange for the woman’s virginity. Appalled, but desperate, Isabella finds herself torn between bad options. Fortunately, a kindly priest offers a solution.

We also have a sense of Angelo’s character in the way he treats his loyal assistant Escalus (Miranda Nehrig), who takes her bruises against the glass ceiling with grin-and-bear-it frustration. 

Magee also plays sex-worker Mistress Overdone, as well as Angelo’s nearly-forgotten fiance Marianna. Further good performances from Aaron Henze as Lucio – a good friend to Claudio, but a flair for exaggeration is his undoing – and Daryl Hollonquest Jr. as Pompey, a “bawd” barely a step ahead of dogged constable Elbow (Tracy Herring).

Stonerock plays his calculating villany chillingly straight, his contemporary suit and tie reminding us that not much has changed in the last 400 years with men in charge. Morton bristles as a woman in a conflict she should never have to endure, finding her Churchly authority useless, cheapened to a powerful man’s fetish. 

There is humor and an imperfect happy ending, but Scott’s skillful edit leaves us appropriately unsettled, focused on three women bravely looking for their fair “measure.” 

This stunning, conversation-starting production has performances Friday through Sunday, Oct. 29-31, at IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, Indianapolis. Info and tickets at indybardfest.com.

Scars and healing in ‘Alabaster’

By John Lyle Belden

“I’m not polite company,” says June, the lone survivor of a tornado that ripped through her family’s farm a few years ago. She was left with countless scars, many of which are on her body. 

This has brought a renowned photographer to rural Alabama — famous for celebrity portraits, Alice has taken on a project to feature the scars on various brave women, showing their defiant beauty. But then, she has deep wounds of her own.

Also on the farm is Weezy, a common goat gifted with insight she shares verbally with June, and compassion for her mother Bib, an old nanny-goat without long to live.

This is “Alabaster,” by Audrey Cefaly, the long-awaited drama that re-opens the Russell main stage of the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indy. Originally part of the 2019-20 season, the play is directed by Jolene Mentink Moffat, with brilliant performances by Maria Argentina Souza (June), Lauren Briggeman (Alice), Joanne Kehoe (Weezy), and Jan Lucas (Bib).

There are many themes at play here — loss, mourning, pain, recovery, holding on, letting go, and facing what comes next. There is also a constant stream of gentle humor, as one would expect when the narrator is a talking goat. Cefaly says in her program note that Weezy is “an instrument of the Divine.” I like to think of it as, “What if Jiminy Cricket were a goat?” Regardless, Kehoe takes on the role with a determined smile, giving the animal’s natural traits a sage quality.

It’s become routine in these reviews to dwell on how completely and comfortably Briggeman embodies her every role, and this is no exception. However, Souza matches her in a skillful portrayal of a character with spiky walls, a soft interior, and a mood that turns on a dime. June, who spends her days painting artworks on broken barn wood, is a soul both standing in the eye of her storm and still caught in its vortex; taking her outside these two states is Weezy’s wish, and becomes Alice’s mission — but is it a directive from her worried brain or her healing heart? 

Though Bib only speaks “goat,” Lucas can still communicate so much with a single look, as her character bides her time until her catalyst moment.

To stay a step ahead of pop-culture trivia experts in the audience, there are references to a certain popular book-based movie — which this play is kinda like, but kinda not — but only the goat truly goes meta (in a scene that even involves yoga). 

Perhaps we can all use a barnyard animal to talk to. Performances of “Alabaster” run through Oct. 31, see www.phoenixtheatre.org for info and tickets.

Historical heroes share power of friendship in ‘Agitators’

By John Lyle Belden

One interesting bit of American history is that two of the most influential civil rights figures of the 19th century, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, were also close friends. That relationship is explored in “The Agitators,” by Mat Smart, now at the Phoenix Theatre.

Douglass (played by Jerome Beck) was a former slave who spoke out on the evils of that institution. He meets Anthony (Lauren Briggeman) through her activist Quaker father. The initial meeting is a little rough, but Douglass tells her, “I am your friend.” “Though I put you off?” Anthony replies. “It is a trait I most admire in a friend,” he responds.

Indeed, the play’s title is not only apt, but embraced. “Agitate, agitate, agitate!” Douglass advises. And they do, both to end slavery and to secure equal rights for women. At first it is abolition that is the cause. They host a stop on the Underground Railroad, making beds with books — the seeds of knowledge denied to slaves — as pillows. They approach the oncoming war with hope and worry for the nation’s future. Then, in Reconstruction, the spectre of compromise raises up as it appears that black men will receive the vote ahead of women.

These two share a deep friendship, and fiery yet eloquent arguments — “Don’t quote me to me!” — but never stay apart long, standing steadfast for each other. Beck and Briggeman portray these very human heroes with excellence, helping us to feel their ongoing struggles against society, injustice, politics, and occasionally each other. Though it is just these two we see, the Phoenix mainstage is barely big enough to contain them, on a creative stage design by Inseung Park, with lighting by Zac Hunter. Mikael Burke, who also captained the IRT’s “Watson’s Go To Birmingham,” directs.

As Black History Month has given way to Women’s History Month, we still have so much to learn of both. As Douglass implores at a critical moment in the play, “Look at what is before you, and see what I see.” 

Performances of “The Agitators” run through March 22 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois in downtown Indianapolis. Free tickets for students are available. Call 317-635-7529 or visit PhoenixTheatre.org.

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 Mathias), 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: Jeannette Rankin: Champion of Persistence

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 John Lyle Belden

You might not have heard of her, but after you see this one-woman show you won’t forget her. Jeannette Rankin campaigned nationwide for women’s suffrage, helping to bring it about in her native Montana. She was also elected twice to the U.S. House of Representatives, where she pushed for peace and various reforms.

At times she seemed on the wrong side of history — she could not bring herself to vote for America’s entry into World War II — but especially with her resistance to war in Vietnam, she mainly proved to be a woman ahead of her time.

Written and performed by J. Emily Peabody for Thorn Productions, she puts an irresistible energy into her portrayal of Rankin. What could have been a dry recitation of history comes across more like a rally.

To help spread knowledge of this persistent American hero, Peabody offers copies of her script, with details beyond what she presents in the Fringe-length show, for sale after each performance. She will be at the District Theater (former TOTS location), 627 Massachusetts Ave. on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday (Aug. 22, 24 & 25).

IndyFringe: ‘Broadway’s Leading Ladies: A Tribute’

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 John Lyle Belden

Presented by Dustin Klein and Tom Alvarez and their Magic Thread Cabaret, “Broadway’s Leading Ladies” is a rousing revue sung by local divas Shelbi Berry, Rayanna Bibbs and Virginia Vasquez.

From the moment the trio get to “work” on a hit from “Hamilton,” we are treated to one powerful performance after another. You’ll want Vasquez to “Gimme, Gimme” more, see Berry “Defying Gravity,” and be reassured that Bibbs is “…Not Going.” Yes, as the latter song says, you’re gonna love them.

Kudos also to the three-piece band of Klein, Greg Gegogeine and Greg Wolff, as well as Austin Schlenz for his on-stage assistance.

No tables at this cabaret, on the third floor of the Firehouse union hall (748 Mass Ave.), but we don’t care — they would only get in the way of the standing ovation.

IndyFringe: ‘Intrusion’

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 John Lyle Belden

In an America where one of the horrors of civilization is believed to be long vanquished, an insomniac looks across the street at the nearby hospital to see an injured woman enter. Curious, she goes closer and hears a word that chills her — Rape!

In the utopia of “Intrusion,” (now also an Off-Broadway show) written and performed by Qurrat Ann Kadwani, there has been no report of sexual assault in 20 years. This first person — a bystander who becomes an activist — is one of eight characters Kadwani presents coming to terms with this new world that is starting to feel like the old one — a/k/a the one we unfortunately live in now. Among them, a reporter feels the chill of getting the story of a generation, a prosecutor worries the rape trial will be a career killer, a psychologist tries to address such an emotionally fraught topic with clinical detachment, a politician laments that this is coming up during an election year, and a third-grader just wants to be told what’s going on.

Can something so insidiously imbedded in our culture be “cured, like polio”? Kadwani easily slips from one persona to another, as the mood gets more and more uneasy. A lone “outlier” rape accusation inspires more women speaking up. Many more. While some are concerned for public safety, still others don’t like these events upsetting — perhaps negating — the status quo they invested so much in. The fragile nature of our social construction is revealed in a popular game.

Kadwani brings us an excellently written and executed one-woman show. My more critical inner voice couldn’t help but consider that this was just one more “issue play.” The stories of personal pain, the stark statistics of the pervasiveness of sexual assault in America and worldwide — I have heard them all before, so many times. But to our horror and shame, that fact is very much the point.

Make this New Yorker feel welcome; performances are in the first floor of the Firehouse union hall, 748 Mass Ave.