IndyFringe: Shows with a laserlike focus on people apart

My 10th-anniversary celebration of the Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival opened with a couple of shows offering the kind of intense confrontations only theater affords.

Curtis Shepard rivets our attention.
Focusing on the more successful of the two also means tackling the more difficult first. In style and substance, "UnMasked" brings the audience face to face with an addict's struggles. The imagery in the torrent of words Curtis Shepard unleashes on Theatre on the Square's Stage Two is head-spinning.

Instead of emphasizing the specifics of treatment and detoxification or the mechanics of "scoring" drugs, the audience is welcomed into the phantasmagoria of addiction and the sufferer's groping for a stable identity and a firm purchase on "normal" life.

The hallucinatory presence of friends and family mixes with visions of the afterlife, sometimes hilarious, but mostly disturbing. Shepard is a superb mimic. His romantic caricature, Romeo, and the lost soul "St. Louis" blend with visions of angels. Reflective of an addict's paranoia, the angels are uncertain blends of helpfulness and hazing, rescue and oppression.

At the core of the performance is Shepard's acknowledgment that finger-pointing can never direct a victim on the path toward personal salvation. Manic visions may occasionally exercise near-total control. But as long as a remnant of personal integrity survives, exorcising the demons is possible.

Investment in being clean must be drawn from the deepest reservoirs of the self. Relationship mistakes must be acknowledged: "All she wanted to do was love me, and I called it control," he says at one point. And empathy, even when clothed in drug-induced hallucination, must be nurtured. Other people's experience needs to be respected as true and separate in order for healing to occur.

The addict's solipsistic tendency — believing nothing is real beyond what the addiction dictates — has to be defeated. Without sentimentality, Shepard lays claim to such victories with mesmerizing control and virtuosity.

By the end, we understand that capitalizing the "m" in "UnMasked" is not just the show's branding gimmick. The masks the addict wears are huge and blocking; the negative syllable "un" has its work cut out for it, running up against that "M". The masks we may all wear are not easy to tear off and toss aside. Yet the strangeness of the world Shepard draws us into seems to melt away after an exhausting and oddly fulfilling hour.

The title character of "The Useful Woman" (on the Phoenix Theatre's Main Stage) is a fascinating historical figure — a crusader against addiction who was as single-minded as any addict. Carry Nation, a turn-of-the-last-century fanatic whose purposeful vandalism of saloons made her famous, is portrayed by Jolene Moffatt in Bennett Ayres' play. She is supported by a handful of the city's most capable actors.

Moffatt's eyes shine with the light of her destructive mission. Alcoholism had blighted Nation's life directly. Her Christian faith eventually guided her in a violent battle that eventually bore dubious fruit in Prohibition. The play shows she went far beyond the wide swath of Protestants who campaigned against alcohol and alienated many of those women who were directly linked to her cause. It also presents her in soliloquies that sometimes show her to be fed up with God and doubtful of his support.

But the play is perhaps a little too compact to give breathing room to the actors and do more than sketch in several facets of Carry Nation's crusade. All the cast except Charles Goad as her husband David Nation play more than one role. For the most part, they click instantly with the characters they interpret. On opening night, however, there seemed something amiss with the first scene, a confrontation between Carry and a small-town mayor played by Robert Neal. Otherwise, we were quickly ushered from scene to scene and skillfully presented with the dramatic crux of each.

Sketch comedy is a viable format, of course, but I'm not sure sketch drama works — especially when a narrative thread needs to be sustained. "The Useful Woman" presents us with a capsule of concentrated stage talent without the seasoning and slow cooking the palate craves. Theater fans who follow what actors of the quality of Moffatt, Goad, Neal, Lisa Ermel, and Zachariah Stonerock are up to will be eager to attend, however.


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