Indy Bard Fest’s Band of Sisters

By John Lyle Belden

During World War II, Fort Benjamin Harrison had America’s largest Reception Center for soldiers joining the Allied effort. Meanwhile, the civilians in Lawrence, Ind., adapted to life in wartime. Things were going to be different, but it helps to have something familiar.

This sets the scene for Indy Bard Fest’s production of “Into the Breeches!” by George Brant, at, appropriately, Theater at the Fort through Sunday. 

The Shakespeare-focused Oberon Theater has gone dark as the male actors and crew have gone off to fight, but Maggie Dalton (Madeline Dulabaum) honors her husband’s wish to keep the stage alive by producing the Henriad (Shakespeare’s Henry IV and V plays) with a small cast of women – a thing no one would even imagine trying before 1942. But these are highly unusual times, and Maggie has convinced the Oberon’s legendary Celeste Fielding (Susan Hill) to take a lead role. Still, board chairman Ellsworth Snow (Kelly Keller) isn’t on board until his wife, Winnifred (Tracy Herring), expresses interest in taking a part. 

With the help of stage manager Stuart (Kaya Dorsch) and costumer Ida (Anja Willis), Maggie auditions and casts servicemen’s wives June (Michelle Wafford), who is heavily involved in homefront resource drives, and Grace (Dani Gibbs), who sees this as a way not to dwell on the dangers her husband must be facing.

“We happy few”? Not entirely. For diva Celeste, it’s Prince Hal or nothing; and the company risks it all by the necessity of casting Ida, who is Black, and Stuart coming out of the closet to take the female roles. Mr. Snow is again concerned, to say the least.

This is a wonderful production, with bright optimism tempered by the shadows of war, an excellent snapshot of life on the Homefront, with its own distinct stresses. Performances are heroic, starting with Dulabaum’s portrayal of how stage director is such a varied rank – from the leadership of a field officer to the cunning of that enlisted hand who always comes up with just what the company needs. 

Hill makes Celeste both adorable and unbearable, impossible and essential – her method for helping fellow actors “man up” is a comic high point. Wafford is a “Do your part!” poster at full volume, but also unwavering in her love of the stage. Gibbs is a stellar talent playing one realizing her own potential, and the strength necessary to endure a lack of news from the front. 

Willis gives insight on facing inequality at home in a land fighting for freedom overseas. Dorsch gives us Stuart’s personal dedication and bravery in what was a dangerous time on all fronts. Herring is a delight, especially as Winnifred discovers her inner Falstaff. As for Keller as the frustrated husband, how he has Ellsworth come around is too adorable to spoil here. 

A big salute to director Max Andrew McCreary for putting this together, including stage design, with the help of Natalie Fischer and stage manager Case Jacobus.

For information on this and future Bard Fest productions, visit indybardfest.com.

Vital to war effort, ‘Fly Babies’ remembered on BCP stage

By John Lyle Belden

For any fan of history, especially if your knowledge of the “aviatrix” begins and ends with Amelia Earhardt, you need to see “Fly Babies,” playing through Sunday at Buck Creek Players.

Based on the actual Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) during World War II, this drama by Rusty Harding, directed by Melissa DeVito, features a portrayal of real-world aviation legend Jackie Cochran, who – among numerous accomplishments – started this civilian corps of women pilots that helped deliver military aircraft around the United States, and train (male) pilots and crew members for deployment overseas. The ever-masculine Army Air Corps kept the program under wraps at the time, with the women only getting their due in recent decades.

At Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, Cochran (Sue Kuehnhold) takes under her wing a flock representing the various types of women aviators who trained for WASP wings: Dotty Moore (Sabrina Duprey), who flew with her father as a crop-duster; Pauline Yates (Cass Knowling), a daredevil barnstormer who keeps on flying despite her husband’s death in a crash; Peggy Taylor (Audrey Duprey), a spoiled socialite whose Daddy had her take flying lessons, then apply for this duty, to buff up the family brand; and Hazel Ying (Maria R. Manalang), representing the few minorities allowed into the program, a veteran of action against the Japanese in her parents’ homeland, China.

Mazy Buford (Alicia Sims) represents one of the less honorable aspects of the story: not even allowed in the all-male Tuskegee Airmen, this experienced African American pilot settled for working as a seamstress and cleaning lady to be as close to the aircraft as she could get.

Adding a little levity and charm is Sgt. Louis Lewis (Josh Rooks), the soldier who can get you anything, and despite his non-stop faulty flirting, is a good and likable guy.

Col. Thomas Evans (Tom Smith) is the officer in charge. He’s not thrilled with the program, but sees its necessity in freeing up men to fly in the War. Less understanding is WASP instructor Cpt. John Whitaker (Logan Browning), a man bitter with prejudice – misogynist and racist – and scarred in mind and body from being shot down in the Pacific. The lone survivor of his squadron, Whitaker took out enough of the enemy to earn a Silver Star, but is too damaged to return to action. He takes no pleasure in training “broads” to fly warbirds, but orders are orders, and he grudgingly comes to admit they are pretty good. The women respect his abilities but chafe at his constant meanness; they flip one of his insults – Fly Babies – into a badge of honor.

In the course of their training, Dotty seeks to rectify the injustice done to Mazy, infuriating Cochran, who understands, but also knows pushing the issue could jeopardize the whole program. Meanwhile, some gremlin has been defacing and damaging the WASP training planes. Whitaker insists it’s just harmless “hijinks” by some of the men on the base, but how far will such pranks go?

Dotty in later years is played by Sarah Latimer, in scenes that bookend the story. Stage manager Lauren E. Ruddick steps in as her nurse.

Performances are strong all around. An aviator offstage, Sabrina Duprey adds that confidence to her already impressive talent. Real-world sister Audrey is no slouch either, playing the girl who must become an independent woman who serves not just her family, but her country. Knowling shows no rust in taking her first stage role since high school, giving us one of the more well-rounded characters in the cast. Experienced performer Manalang charms in her first major drama role. Sims brings an important character to life, ranging from expressing the joy of flight to the supreme irritation at how the country she wants to defend treats her. 

Smith plays an apt representative of Army brass, working from tolerating to appreciating to defending the unit he commands. Browning manages to lend some degree of humanity to a very damaged man. Rooks doesn’t take his Radar-esque role too far, projecting a clear sense of duty under the goofy exterior, as well as honest affection. Kuehnhold plays Cochran as both mission-focused and a mama-bear, rock steady always.

In this high-stakes high-pressure environment, the story does take tragic turns. Social attitudes of the era cannot be avoided, either. Appropriate in context, but disturbing to modern ears, there are some racial-ethnic slurs against both Blacks and Asians. DeVito says these parts of the dialogue were discussed with the cast, who agreed it would be more impactful to be true to the period.

Though overall an imagined story, “Fly Babies” is true to the history and shines a light on a nearly forgotten part of America’s effort in winning WWII. Opening-night turnout was surprisingly low. Hopefully more will come out to see this inspiring play, 8 p.m. Friday or Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday (April 8-10) at BCP, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road Exit off I-74), Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at BuckCreekPlayers.com.

Beautiful genius returns to Indy stage

By John Lyle Belden

A couple of things I learned about Hedy Lamarr: Her first name (derived from Hedwig) is supposed to be pronounced with a long “E” – “heedie.” Also, she was not amused at all by her name being used as a running gag in Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles.”

Actually, the “Hedley” joke was all I knew of her growing up, as her classic films like “Samson and Delilah” weren’t in movie houses at the time. By then, the actress had retreated from Hollywood and the world in general. Later, I found out about her invention – “frequency hopping” technology meant to help the military in World War II that now serves everyone in our WiFi and cell phones. So, I always thought of her as a genius first, then a movie star.

For an earlier generation, she was “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World” (a fitting title hung on her by movie mogul Louis B. Meyer), the sexy Austrian in the controversial film “Ecstasy,” and later numerous leading roles with stars including Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart, and as Delilah with Victor Mature. It also seemed there were nearly as many marriages as hit films.

So where did I learn the facts at the top of this story? From the lady herself – sorta.

“HEDY! The Life and Inventions of Hedy Lamarr,” the one-woman show written and performed by Heather Massie, returned to Indianapolis recently for a brief engagement at The District Theatre on Mass. Ave. The original under-an-hour production was featured in the 2016 DivaFest and won the audience award at the 2017 IndyFringe. Massie also performed it to widespread acclaim across the U.S., Europe and Africa. Massie has since added more well-researched material to give us the 90-minute performance Indy audiences saw March 18-20.

From Beyond, Ms. Lamarr comes to visit us. She is drawn by our curiosity – not about all the unsavory elements of her biography (though she gives us a bit of those) but about how a part of her came to live in every person’s pocket or purse.

She tells of childhood in Vienna, where her father Emil would interest his “ugly duckling” in the workings of machines and encourage her to think for herself. Of course, doing so resulted in her headstrong insistence in becoming a film actress. After being “tricked” into an infamous movie nude scene, she sticks to stage work, where she is wooed and wed by a rich arms dealer. Her husband’s customers, including Italian and German officials, ignore the beautiful girl in the room as they talk openly about “the torpedo problem,” something she will remember after escaping Austria, just ahead of the Nazi takeover, to Hollywood, with a new name, glamour and fame.

As for glamour, she says all one has to do is “stand still and look stupid.” She definitely does neither as she tells her story.

Massie also channels notables from Hedy’s life including Mayer, Gable, good friend Stewart, and a starstruck G.I. who dances with her in the Hollywood Canteen – all in entertaining fashion.

We get the story of the Secret Communication System, created with composer George Antheil – it uses 88 radio frequencies, a salute to George’s piano – which is awarded a U.S. Patent that she turns over to the U.S. Navy. The military does use the technology – in the 1960s. During World War II, they thought the pretty starlet was better suited to selling War Bonds, which she also did in genius fashion.

This show is gloriously entertaining and inspiring, while presenting a very human woman with her own flaws and setbacks. Even showing this side of Hedy, Massie manages to make endearing. Whether you have never heard of Lamarr, or been a lifetime fan, you will adore “HEDY!”

For more information on the show and upcoming performances, visit www.HeatherMassie.com. In a continuing salute to women in science, Massie is also working on a show on the life of astronaut Sally Ride (the first American woman in space). Given her good relationship with Indianapolis, here’s hoping we will be seeing it soon.

IndyFringe: And Then They Came For Me

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

The Carmel High School theater program — practically a professional company, considering the quality of its shows — presents this historical drama, written by James Still (playwright-in-residence at the Indiana Repertory Theatre).

Consider it a companion piece to “The Diary of Anne Frank,” as it relates the stories of people who knew her, but with events she couldn’t have known about while in hiding. The focus is on two young people — Eva Geiringer and Helmuth Silberberg — whom we know much about because they survived the Holocaust. The acted scenes are intercut with audio and video footage of these two from recent interviews.

The student actors give stunning performances: Maddie Nagel as Eva, with Austin Audia, Kelsey McShay and Luke Vreeman as her family; Ryan Yauger as “Hello” Silberberg, with Kate Barthuly and Jack Sullivan as his parents; and Emily Chrzanowski as Anne, looking like she just stepped out of one of the old photographs. Sullivan also has the unfortunate but important role of a Nazi Youth, showing the contrast of the regular German’s life of indoctrination and exploitation of his naive faith in the Reich.

The narrative itself is riveting, with events of miraculous survival, as well as stories of those who perished so close to their potential liberation.

Direction is by Maggie Cassidy, with student assistants Madi Diehl (sound), Delaney Kibler (costumes and lights) and Gabrielle Marshall (projection, poster and logo design).

To see both the future of Indiana theatre, and a stark reminder of humanity’s past, remaining performances are 10:30 p.m. Saturday and 6 p.m. Sunday at the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair.

‘Yank!’ — A different kind of bravery

By John Lyle Belden

Emotions run high during war — excitement, anger, patriotic fervor, devotion, and love. For some soldiers thrown into the crucible that was World War II, the ones they wanted to embrace with all their might weren’t the pin-up girls.

This is the world of “Yank!” the musical making its Indianapolis premiere at the District Theatre.

Stuart (Jonathan Krouse) answered the call to join the fight against Hitler and Tojo, but first he has to fit in with Charlie Company. He can barely hold a rifle, and he’s not sure about his feelings towards his fellow soldiers, especially Mitch (Tanner Brunson), the only one to treat him with kindness. The others suspect he’s different, and even call him “Light-Loafers,” but they come to accept him, because “your squad is your squad.”

On the way to the front, two things happen: Stuart and Mitch start to explore their feelings for each other, and Stuart meets Artie (D. Scott Robinson), a photographer for Yank! magazine, wise to and willing part of the gay underground just outside the U.S. Army’s notice. While Charlie Company goes to combat, Stuart — an aspiring writer, keeping a detailed journal — joins Artie as reporters behind the lines.

Stu is doing well out of harm’s way, but he still has feelings for Mitch. Then he gets the assignment to write about his old unit, and how war has changed them. More changes are coming for Stu, and he will discover how war is especially hell for a gay soldier — facing danger from his own people as well as the enemy.

The cast includes Isaac Becker, Dominic Piedmonte, Scott Fleshood, Joshua Cox and Bryant Mehay as fellow soldiers. Jerry Beasley, Lance Gray and Kevin Bell play hardened officers and NCOs, as well as somewhat softer characters. Jessica Hawkins wonderfully portrays “every woman,” from radio entertainers to a lesbian WAC working for Gen. MacArthur.  

Krouse and Brunson turn in wonderful performances, one constantly feeling deeply, the other deeply conflicted. The supporting cast is solid; Beasley earns his stripes. And with us usually seeing Robinson these days behind the scenes as producer or director, it’s good to see him show his excellence as an actor.

This is a different kind of love story, but still touching — love is love, after all — and an eye-opening look at a hidden part of our history. While the characters are fictional, there was a Yank! Magazine, and playwright David Zellnik thoroughly researched the secret lives of gay soldiers and sailors of the era.

The songs, by David and his brother Joseph Zellnik, are snappy and sentimental in a style befitting the 1940s setting, including some interesting harmony.

Had this been a boy-meets-girl rather than boy-meets-boy, “Yank!” would look like the cinema hit of 1945. But it’s 2019, and LGBTQ GIs are only now living out of the closet. Thus, this show is equal parts entertaining and important. Director Tim Spradlin deserves praise for bringing this gem to downtown Indy, as well as IndyFringe for hosting it at the District (former site of Theatre on the Square), 627 Massachusetts Ave.

This production runs through March 24; get info and tickets at indyfringe.org.