Thursday, August 22, 2019

Herod's Song is a snarling ode to a ruler's vanity and cruelty; I turn this back against our similar ruler

Storytelling in three modes: Indy Fringe Fest at the District Theatre

As different as their methods were, three shows I saw Wednesday night at the District Theatre exemplified a major Indy Fringe Fest value: storytelling.

Narrative was even uppermost in the most abstract presentation of the evening: "Our America," a collection of new pieces by members of Dance Kaleidoscope. Seven DK dancers each set a piece upon their colleagues — ranging from three to 14 of them, with a broad range of musical accompaniment.

Artistic director David Hochoy introduced the program by recounting his charge to the choreographers to present their visions of the USA. The representation of the theme of a personalized America used the nonverbal language of contemporary dance to celebrate the country's potential as well as its actuality. Yet each choreographer's spoken introduction to his or her piece outlined aspects of storytelling to their choreographic perspectives.

All seven pieces were worth seeing, in terms of the quality of the dancing, which sometimes outdid the freshness of the choreography. Rather than offering an implied or explicit ranking of the work of Mariel Greenlee, Aaron Steinberg, Jillian Godwin, Paige Robinson, Missy Thompson, Manuel Valdes, and Stuart Coleman, it may be more useful to highlight three works that particularly struck me for the way they wrestled with mixed feelings about American life.

The complexity of Godwin's "A Home for All" was impressive. She mastered the elusive chore of representing multiplicity in the American experience. The well-woven patterns, with nearly unstinting strife threaded amid notes of triumph, were busy but presented in an uncongested manner, making good use of the emotionally featureless music of Philip Glass as a one-color canvas on which to paint.

Thompson's "The Jones Effect" takes its title from the hoary phrase "keeping up with the Joneses," indicating the American desire to conform to the expectation that everyone will be motivated by upward mobility. "Be not the first by whom the new is tried, not yet the last to lay the old aside," Alexander Pope wrote long ago. Thompson used imitation and departure from imitation as polarities of our anxiety about how much to assert ourselves. Should we strike out in new directions that are not already endorsed by the people we're trying to emulate? "The Jones Effect" presented the quandary well.

Although other dances used contrast deliberately, to me the most arresting creativity on that score came with Valdes' "In the Midst of a Storm." Choosing to focus on the confining and liberating roles of women today, he first presented his six female dancers as nearly robotic, costumed in drab overalls and moving with affectless, angular jerks. His way of representing such assigned behavior seemed freshly conceived; when the women cast off their outerwear, they retook the stage as free agents, individualized yet joyfully reinforcing one another's freedom. This was a case where an obvious scenario and its meaning was executed in an unhackneyed way.

Mark Twain was first and foremost a storyteller, an American original in style and subject matter. That classic position of Samuel Clemens in the literary pantheon got good use from Zach&Zack, the team responsible for a few of the city's greatest original hits in and out of the Fringe Festival.  "Yas, Twain" is a madcap romp through the author's life and works. The cast of six has relentless fun with Zack Neiditch's script, loaded with asides and interruptions, the most outsize of which is one participant's insistence that the show should be about Shania Twain.

Producer Zach Rosing's projections, both film clips and still photos often framed with a delightfully antique look, give enough context for some of Mark Twain's inimitable humor and descriptions to shine through. The show has a stunningly dismissive way of dealing with the master's novels, which are problematic either from today's racial perspective or easy to patronize as childish fables.  The one long work of fiction taken seriously, as the show goes through a dark episode, is "The Mysterious Stranger."

Some of Twain's most vivid humor, readily adaptable for stage production, comes from "Roughing It" and "The Innocents Abroad." The show wisely draws on this material, quoting it directly. Its freewheeling high spirits may seem tame today, but a clear line can be drawn from the pioneering aspects of Twain's writing to fit the coordinated multimedia rowdiness of Zach&Zack productions. The shapeshifting cast of Matthew Altman, Christian Condra, Shawnte Gaston, Tiffany Giliam, Mary Margaret Montgomery, and Evan Wallace — often displaying the iconic white-haired, bushy-mustached Twain of his later years — was more than adequate for the realization.

My evening started with Michael Swinford's performance of a suite of one-character playlets on gay themes by Dan Bulter called "The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me." Swinford, artistic director of the fledgling Be Out Loud Theatre, performs the five mini-dramas with stunning virtuosity.

The series mounted in intensity and nuance to the high plateau of the fourth and fifth vignettes. Swinford's eyes were expressive keys to his embodiment of two gay men of contrasting personalities.  In the next-to-last one, he is an intellectual, pausing deliberately to offer jaundiced views on contemporary gay life, before passing into a personal account of his coming out and its persistent trials on his soul. The shadow of self-hatred never entirely goes away, but its roots are starkly shown and our sympathies are engaged.

In the last sketch, Leslie, a more clearly "out" man, vain and somewhat self-conscious about his role as a volunteer deliverer of food to people with AIDS, undergoes a conversion of sorts. He's proud of his separateness from the often sordid condition of the dying men he serves, yet finds one of them transformational. He's surprised to experience pure love developing in his relationship to the lonely patient. Swinford carries the portrayal through movingly to Leslie's enduring devotion to a man he never expected to love.

Storytelling inevitably exerts a primal power on us when it is so well done as it is in these three shows.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

"Fallen From the Toy Box" and "A Thousand Words": Conflict and community

The District Theatre is hosting a couple of Indy Fringe Fest shows that have little in common except C. Neil Parsons and his trombone. It's a remarkable turn-on-a-dime versatility that Parsons displays going from "A Thousand Words," a memorial to his combat photographer father Chris Parsons, to "Fallen From the Toy Box," which marks the highly anticipated return of the Fourth Wall, a multifaceted trio, to the Fringe Fest schedule. The shows are a half-hour and a few score feet apart.
C. Neil Parsons lofts his trombone in "A Thousand Words"

I'll get into "A Thousand Words" by raising a side issue, which turns out to be central the more I think about it. At the start, Parsons gives a curtain speech asking for audience indulgence of the script's use of an ethnic slur.  The word is "gooks," a derogatory reference to Vietnamese that had currency among American military during the Vietnam War.

"Gooks" is uttered twice in the course of the play. Chris Parsons, who died several years ago of a disease contracted through exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange, seems to have been remarkably free of the prejudice that word signals, judging from letters home quoted in "A Thousand Words." Instead, the audience meets a Chris Parsons of extraordinary grace, commitment, bravery, and open-mindedness about a role that put him repeatedly in harm's way, armed with a camera and a service rifle (once, notably, without the latter). He also seems to have been just as skillful with words as he was with images, many of which are projected on a screen during the show.

C. Neil Parsons' own graciousness includes the acknowledgment that ethnic slurs should not even be considered all right in their day. This is a matter of considerable vexation today, as it brings up the question of how much history should be sanitized, even mildly, to avoid giving offense. How severely should we judge our forebears, especially the eminent ones, by our standards?

Trigger warnings are a niche genre of speech that's foreign to my generation, which is also Chris Parsons'. We were sensitive to various words that ought not be uttered, but we never thought that they should be prohibited or apologized for even in context: We studied "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," one of the great American novels, in high school; those of us opposed to the Vietnam War admired Muhammad Ali's succinct refusal to serve when he said, "No Vietnamese ever called me nigger." That word is used hundreds of times in the Mark Twain classic.

The performer/creator of "A Thousand Words" is probably justified in finding his curtain speech necessary in 2019. It called attention in a bold way to the show's historical subtext: the Vietnam War, ostensibly fought to check the monolithic menace of international Communism, counted an Asian race as the enemy. When a conflict between nations provides an excuse to maximize the otherness of the foe, it will be exploited to the fullest. "Otherizing" the Vietnamese was further substantiated by the often suppressed fact that America was joining one side in a civil war, and we couldn't always be sure who the enemy was. Such atrocities as My Lai were the result.

"A Thousand Words" acknowledges the pointlessness the war took on for many American soldiers. One of Chris Parsons' 1969 letters mentions the futility of capturing territory or seeing victory in terms of rolling the enemy back, when all that mattered to the military's superiors was "body count." Any  advance could be reversed the next day. His son varies the show's epistolary narrative with a series of set pieces covering such issues as pain and betrayal; they remove us from the specific messiness of war to that of civilian life, notably Neil's. Autobiographical elements are artfully woven into repeated circling back to the combat photographer's visual and verbal impressions.

An electronic score accompanies the performer's exhibition of his artistic skills as dancer and trombonist. The musical and choreographic commentary is abstract but emotionally vivid. A kind of cultural touchstone is provided in Parsons' quotation from the Prologue of Shakespeare's "Henry V."  This does not seem farfetched for two reasons: the theatrical background of both father and son and the status of Shakespeare's play as a landmark of military triumphalism.

Cavorting with childlike abandon: The Fourth Wall's "Fallen from the Toy Box"
Following his sources, Shakespeare has his king order the slaughter of French prisoners, though both stage and movie versions differ on how explicit to make this apparent war crime. Henry's order has made many producers and directors squeamish. When it comes to "otherizing," it may be helpful to remember that European history is replete with deadly examples.

Yet Neil Parsons' use of the Prologue emphasizes taking the largest possible view of both war and peace. It asks indulgence in a different way from his curtain speech. With Shakespeare's help, we are urged to accept that something very complex and confusing has been distilled to present an artistic representation of real events.

And the Prologue ends with a phrase that Parsons has adopted as a mantra, producing buttons that his show's attendees can take with them. The buttons urge everybody "gently to hear, kindly to judge." I hope I have lived up to those words in responding to such a strong filial tribute and unique creative monument to a regrettable war and one of the men who served in it and suffered because of it.

Perhaps one of the strongest ways of overcoming fear of "the other" is the mystical view that our lives may overlap with previous ones on a spiritual plane. This has existed in Western culture from the ancient Greeks as the transmigration of souls, or metempsychosis. Something similar is an imaginatively staged part of "Fallen from the Toy Box," the Fourth Wall show in place just down the hall from "A Thousand Words."

If I understood percussionist Greg Jukes' oral program note correctly, the  Iranian concept of  "rulakam" deals with the superimposition of a dead soul upon a living one. A folk tale about the impression of a deceased mother's lullaby transfiguring a girl's memory as she wanders into the forest at night is the subject of Bahar Roayaee's musical setting. The patient unfolding of the scenario through mime, music and movement demonstrated that the fitness of the Fourth Wall in all respects works with serious as well as light-hearted topics. The trio's construction of a supernatural tree made for a breathtaking conclusion.

Most of its program followed the more comical sides of Fourth Wall wizardry. It was fitting, however, that after the soul-stirring "Rulakam," the show ended with a staged setting of Debussy's "Clair de Lune." To calming effect, the personas Parsons and flutist Hilary Abigana had assumed in the program-opener, "The Toy Soldier's Tale," were briefly reprised. The eloquently staged opener, with music by Brett Abigana, poses an ethereal ballerina, played by the flutist, as an object of affection vied for by the title character (Parsons) and a sly, lively jack-in-the-box (Jukes). The tale's conclusion provides the happy ending expected, but without excessive sentimentality. As the story proceeded, instruments were played in the group's patented manner — with the members in constant motion, accurately and with no bumps or burps.

Games with balloons, using the sort of audience participation the Fourth Wall has always managed deftly, occupied the climax of "On a Spring Morning," which included a delightful episode of the trio playing ragtime with hollow tubes whacked on the floor. Slide projections of toddlers' and one first-grader's "Refrigerator Art" were the backdrop for choreography and music that looked appropriately random and spontaneous but obviously proceeded from careful planning. Parsons wrote the apt score.

Whether caught up in percussive modernism, using a hide-and-seek scenario (for Xenakis' "Rebonds"), or in the gliding nostalgia of Vince Guaraldi's "Skating," the Fourth Wall invariably provoked amazement at the blithe expertness of its accident-free music-making and the agility with which its fey (and occasionally dead-earnest) performances are carried out. Any further return visit to Indianapolis by the ensemble would be welcome.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Indy Fringe Festival: A pre-Warren reminder of the benefits of persistence — pacifist/suffragist Jeannette Rankin

The redoubtable progressive Jeannette Rankin
American history is loaded with mavericks who went against the grain, but few had the staying power — with an odd combination of great influence and marginalization — of Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973).

A member of Congress for just two widely separated terms, the resolute Montanan wielded clout for several progressive causes over many  decades. In the 2019 Indy Fringe Festival,  J. Emily Peabody impersonates the outstanding suffragist/pacifist in "Jeannette Rankin: Champion of Persistence."

Seen Sunday night as a thunderstorm raged outside, the rage on the District Theatre's Cabaret Stage was controlled and self-contained in Peabody's performance. Yet Rankin's life exemplified continual outreach and activism, and Peabody's show (based on her own heavily researched text) never flagged in detailing her heroine's grit and determination, her curiosity and compassion.  These qualities, honed on the frontier with encouraging parents, prodded her into tireless defense of the rights of labor and women, as well as in agitation for world peace.

With slide projections coordinated with the narrative, the audience is able to see the places and people that were important in Rankin's story as the performer ranges across the stage. The patriarchy the heroine had to fight gets stunning visual realization in photographs of some of the men who stood in her way, from captains of industry to rock-ribbed, granite-jawed politicians.
J. Emily Peabody in performance as suffragist Rankin.

The actress changes costume periodically to match the period being described, starting with her fight for female suffrage and extending through her activities as an elder stateswoman campaigning against the Vietnam War.

Peabody kept the narrative stirring and amply expressive, so that the feeling of a lecture was held at arm's length. With a few simple props and some variation of lighting to reflect the prevailing mood, she carries the audience along through major political struggles of the 20th century, some of which remain unsettled today, some of which seem quaint. It's remarkable to realize the breadth of stances that once were possible within the Republican Party, for example. It's also salutary to be reminded that once upon a time members of Congress could vote against war, rather than turn over war powers to the executive branch, thus giving up their constitutional prerogative to send America's sons (and more recently, its daughters) into battle.

"Jeannette Rankin: Champion of Persistence" is a lesson in patriotism from a side of the spectrum that some would exclude from claiming that shopworn word. This presentation puts before the Fringe audience a historical figure whose bravery and ingenuity are qualities that should never go out of style if we are to retain our form of government in all its vigorous health.

He'll Tweet Again — Don't Ask Why! Don't Ask When!

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Crowded third Indy Fringe Festival day: Series of four shows, ending in mind games

The people in "Orgasmo Adulto" are clownishly at odds with the world.
Individuality throbs with lapel-tugging insistence at the Indy Fringe Festival, so it's not untypical that three of the four shows I saw Saturday afternoon and evening were solo showcases.

The exception, which was welcome to me for its boisterous variety and consistent nose-thumbing at social norms, was NoExit Performance's "Orgasmo Adulto Escapes from the Zoo," a collection of short pieces by the late Italian radical couple Dario Fo and Franca Rame.

The troupe is fully invested in the Fo-Rame style of theatrical provocation and stylization of props, gesture, and costuming derived from commedia dell'arte.  There is no character development or nuance; rather, there's character exposure with heavy, thick outlines around the monologues. Carrie Bennett plays "A Woman Alone" who's kind of an oversexed, imprisoned version of Lucille Ball ditsiness. Religion and politics are tossed together and upended from the same apple cart in Am Elliott's portrayal of "The Freak Mommy."

Since the actors differ from piece to piece and are subsumed in production elements, you'll get a strong sense of NoExit's collective achievement even before the show's finale, "We All Have the Same Story." There, director Beverly Roche narrates a fairy tale from an outsize book while a cast of four mimes a liberally scatological story. Messiness is crucial to the action, much of which is meant to be appalling. The line between parturition and defecation is blurred, for one thing. Shape-shifting and juvenile humor abound; the very idea of innocence and happy endings, so crucial to the bedtime story genre, is shattered. The shock to the system is well-earned and well-rendered by this production.

My afternoon began with "Vixen DeVille Revealed," in which comedy burlesque is presented through a mix of performance, searing autobiography, and motivational speaking. Cat LaCohie is a fast-talking, foul-mouthed British comedienne who has fashioned a show that's both uplifting and down-and-dirty. The technical side could have been better in some respects, chiefly the video segments in which images and words on the right side of the screen were missing. Audience participation plays a role in allowing Vixen to deliver lessons in the magic of performance and the performance of magic. Having recently moved through recovery from a shoulder injury, I was particularly touched by the performer's story of the much more serious one she rebounded from.

Fringe solo shows tend to compel us to bond with the performer's story, allowing for whatever degree of tale-spinning works for him or her to keep the entertainment value uppermost. The tension we might feel with memories of strangers bending our ear with personal sagas on long flights is part of what such shows both work with and work against.

With that in mind, I was enthralled by "Adventures While Black in Great Britain," torrentially delivered in Les Kurkendaal-Barrett's monologue. The frame tale of his husband's struggle for approval from an immigration official worked well as a device for placing the performer's sojourn with his new British family in context. The complexity of misadventures and bonding was vividly presented; he made strong narrative order, complete with deft mimicry, out of the disorder of his UK experience. He exulted in the outcome, and he persuaded us to feel the same.

After having my inhibitions shattered by "Orgasmo Adulto Escapes from the Zoo," it was relaxing to end my Fringe day with "Brain-O-Rama: Mentalism and Mischief" by Kevin Burke. Burke paced his show well, and responded expertly to audience participation of both the solicited and the spontaneous kind. Any heckling he got was gentle and basically friendly; I have a feeling he could have readily dispatched the hostile variety.

He projected a guy-next-door persona as an offhand master of magic and mentalism. He played with the audience's reluctance to get involved, yet seemed to draw out the best sort of participation from his ad hoc assistants. The mood stayed buoyant and supportive — and mildly naughty. Just as we often say about gifts that are unwanted: It's the thought that counts. In this case, however, the gift of "Brain-O-Rama"  turned out to be exactly what I wanted.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Second night Indy Fringe Festival 2019: Stunning 'Beyond Ballet' at the District Theatre

Indianapolis Ballet extends a beckoning index finger by titling its Indy Fringe Festival show "Beyond Ballet."

The hint is that whatever the general public's vision of ballet may be, chances are it's too narrow. Perhaps a seductive "come on!" is called for with the promise that the show indeed stretches beyond ballet.

Of course, given the informal audience poll that founding artistic director Victoria Lyras conducted Friday night, just about everyone occupying seats at the District Theatre Main Stage had previous experience of actual ballet. Presumably, familiarity with the range of dance coming under that heading nowadays is extensive among savvy Fringers.

Nonetheless, the emotional payoff of this year's showcase of brief ballets is vast, given the variety among the half-dozen pieces presented.  The technical virtuosity of the company was as impressive as the dancers' expressive range.

The droll finale of "Mountain Medley" in "Beyond Ballet."
Comic gifts were amply displayed in "Mountain Medley," a piece of deliberately Alpine kitsch in costuming and recorded accompaniment — the yodeling virtuosity of Mary Schneider across familiar excerpts from "Carmen" and the "William Tell" Overture, among other sources. Paul Vitali's choreography implied a scenario of rustic wooing gone amiss (or maybe "gone a-Ms." given the  work's amusing feminist triumphalism).

These high spirits were re-engaged in the program finale, but without as much full-bore zaniness. The point of "Too Darn Hot," the Cole Porter song inspiring the exuberance of Scott Jovovich's choreography, was the collective yearning both to escape and yield to excessive urban heat in the time before air conditioning. The ensemble moved from impersonating wilted subway straphangers to throwing off all restraint as mating-minded young people eager to get their groove on despite the high temperature. The coordination of jitterbugging moves and suggestive poses, flips, and twirls was astonishing and invariably looked all-out and all-in. The buoyancy and athleticism was unceasing and flirted with the audience's nascent apprehension that everything might come apart. It never did.

For more abstract and emotionally conflicted representations of youthful energy, the program offered Roberta Wong's "Strange Idea," choreographed to the pungent guitar-playing of Charlie Ballantine. On Friday, the double-cast piece offered Shea Johnson, Chris Lingner, Jessica Miller, and Kristin Toner in a brief tone poem of movement encompassing both predatory and cooperative movement. The dancers leaped, stalked, and swooped in patterns that seemed to represent aggression partially tamed by an abiding desire for mutual engagement.
Exultant virtuosity in "Don Quixote" pas de deux

The historic ballet legacy of the romantic era got representation in the Marius Petipa "Don Quixote" pas de deux,
in which Lingner indicated this company's versatility at its peak. He partnered Yoshiko Kamikusa in the formal arrangement of a duo introduction and a coda framing two pairs of solo variations. The couple's opening presentation was astonishing enough to draw a sustained ovation, setting up individual showcases of mounting intensity and brilliance. Both dancers managed not only the flair and precision required, but also projected extraordinary joy in their partnership and the astonishment they were creating in the audience.

Lyras had her choreographic acumen on view in two contrasting pieces: the bright "Allegro vivace," to crystalline piano-and-orchestra music of Saint-Saens. The formal interaction of the corps with the featured couple (Kamikusa and Riley Horton in the performance I saw) looked unfailingly natural and presented testimony to the integration of main roles and the ensemble. The romantic costuming was heart-melting and almost mouth-watering, long skirts contrasting aquamarine in half the dancers with a sort of raspberry sherbet hue in the rest.

"Miroirs," Lyras' other "Beyond Ballet" contribution, presented still another aspect of her dancers: the ability to present unwavering steadiness in a slow piece. The music was by the contemporary exponent of "spiritual minimalism," Arvo Pärt. The mesmerizing, sustained flow of the work, with solo cello and harp in the musical foreground, owed much to the ensemble's way of making difficult bends and extensions look as free of tension as the more centered and upright positions. To bring off episodes of muscular stress as naturally as relaxed moments can be entered as evidence of the high level of expertise Indianapolis Ballet has achieved. The Fringe Festival is much richer for its participation.

[Photos by Daniel Axler]

Friday, August 16, 2019

My opening night of Fringe Festival 2019: Approxima Productions' 'Vinny the Pooh'

Most of us can readily come up with favorite first lines of novels we liked. For me, such sentences succeed in catching the attention as well as, retrospectively, hinting which way a work of fiction is headed. They form a kind of aura around the experience that glows to the end.

So, like many people, I admire "Call me Ishmael" ("Moby Dick"), but also a few others that don't seem stagy but are still resonant throughout the adventure of reading. Hence, "They threw me off the hay truck about noon" ("The Postman Always Rings Twice") and "Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo" ("A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man").

That choice brings us neatly to early childhood. Another first sentence that's stuck with me (full disclosure: I returned to the text to get it right) is the way A.A. Milne's "Winnie-the-Pooh" starts: "Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin." It's funnier in German, a translation of which I read aloud with other members of my foreign-study group on a German train in 1965. A nearby passenger had a hard time suppressing his giggles.

The line-up for a trenchant spoof of a children's classic.
The opening of "Winnie-the-Pooh" provides the only clue you'll need to know how "Vinny the Pooh," an edgy romp that debuted at the Indy Fringe Basile Theatre Thursday night, comes out. The bond between Christopher Robin and his teddy bear is upheld. But "Vinny"'s violent, witty progress toward that denouement departs in every respect, mostly stylistic, from the affectionately rendered puzzles and predicaments of Milne's faux-ursine hero. It's comedy tonight from Approxima Productions, but the Milnean whimsy now wears brass knuckles.

Christine Kruze wrote the play in an artfully jumbled reworking of "Godfather" themes pressed into a distorted "Winnie-the-Pooh" mold. For Eeyore's missing tail, for example, we have the missing eye of Eyesore (Clay Mabbitt), who grosses out the hard-bitten assemblage by provocatively raising his eye patch. Rabbit (John Kern as Stagger here) hops about vigorously, but mostly because he's a cokehead. Piglet (Kelsey VanVoorst as Sniglet) is a bear's best buddy, all right, but in the worst way, bitterly overcompensating for being little.

All the characters are twisted toward barbed promotion of their agendas and ruthlessness in carrying them out. As "Vinny-the-Pooh" keeps adjusting its shoulder holster, a sudden lip-locking smooch is as likely as a sucker punch or a savage beating. Alliances are fragile, and, as usual, there is no honor among thieves. The unanticipated arrival of Christa MaBobbin (Morgan Morton) on the scene soon moves the turmoil toward the kind of sorting out that crime fiction dependably provides.

Serenely perplexed by the gangland machinations, yet well aware he's continually in danger, is Vinny. His sweet tooth helps ensure a connection with Milne's Bear of Very Little Brain. He's played to the hilt by Steve Kruze, with a nice blend of cluelessness and apprehensiveness, decked out in shorts that match his sport coat and an East Coast mobster accent that's echoed by his fierce pal Sniglet. The pair are under the maniacally watchful eyes of Franga (Carrie Ann Schlatter) and her intrusive hand puppet, with the warlord unintelligibility of Scowl (a ferocious Joshua C. Ramsey) adding another layer of mystery and menace.

The mob's capers are undercut by ceaseless internal divisions and perpetual rivalry with another gang, whose distinguishing features the playwright has borrowed from "The Wind in the Willows." I had to wonder if Kruze was incapable of trimming out any of her verbal or physical inspirations or simply had to have every last one. But finally I decided that the show works best as an overstuffed pincushion of threat and zaniness. And the cast was certainly up to the writer/director's frenetic pace and forcefulness. Kudos also to Kruze for not literalizing the parodic elements.

In less than an hour, "Vinny the Pooh" skillfully hammers the funny bone. When we strike the one in our elbow, we wonder how the physical funny bone got its name. This play works that odd intersection of painful buzz and wry amusement. And, despite the vast dissimilarities, at the end Edward Bear goes bump, bump, bump back up the stairs behind Christopher Robin.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Brutal, intense '1984' represents full-length debut of Monument Theatre Company

Among dystopian novels, "1984" seems to be the most enduring. The fantasy elements may be more deftly
Nathan Thomas plays the aggrieved victim of state terrorism in '1984.'
brought off in Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and in Yevgeny Zamyatin's "We," but George Orwell's novel of a totalitarianism more widespread than ever has captured the collective imagination better.

True, there's a certain dutifulness about the book's case against oppression and a dearth of pure literary magic in the storytelling. But, as has been commonly asserted, no 20th-century writer more than Orwell has had so thorough a set of insights into politics in the modern era. And all of that vision is bluntly, almost obsessively, detailed in "1984."

The production of a stage adaptation that opened Friday night at Indy Convergence ramps up for the stage the novel's atmosphere of paranoia and all-encompassing oppression, which has wowed countless readers for 70 years.

David Ian Lee directs Michael Gene Sullivan's play in a production for the Monument Theatre Company. a new professional venture based here. There's not much let-up in the intensity as the cast of six represents Orwell's vision of absolutism undergirded at every turn by modern technology. The availability of private lives to the state through constant spying is updated here with the ubiquity of iPhones. These devices we can't seem to do without are under state control, like everything else in the dystopian meganation Orwell dubbed Oceania.

The production's dialogue is rapid-fire and usually thundering, punctuated by four Party Members' throwing of metal chairs and hurling to the floor the trailing shackles that bind Winston Smith, the novel's miserable hero. Nathan Thomas gave a highly keyed-up performance that maximized Smith's aggrievement and fear, his facial expression knotted and his voice quavering, pleading, whining. In the leading actor is concentrated all the dire effects of a menacing, all-powerful government.  Thomas' performance summed up the victimization of everyone, including those ostensibly favored by Big Brother.

That is evident in the performances of Smith's minders and interrogators, who also wander in and out of the hero's almost hallucinatory memories, enacting them in devastating fragments. The playwright thus effectively represents the erasure of private lives in Oceania. The official bullies are played, in an often alarmingly menacing way, by Riley Leonard, Raven Newbolt, Kim Egan, and Deont'a Stark. The Party Members serve the state through constant dehumanizing pressure on Smith, guided by a frequently heard but never seen "telescreen" announcer (Karen Sternberg).

But there is no one more effective among Smith's tormentors than O'Brien, whose appearance in the second act rings with unmistakable authority as Winston Smith is moved to the final stage of forced ideological conversion. This character, whom Smith had taken for a like-minded lover of liberty, was given an authoritative portrayal by Michael R. Tingley. Though this role is  especially crucial to the finishing off of Smith's independence, I would have liked to see its flickers of humanity more evident among the Party Members. One of the fascinating things of any fiction based on a "what-if" premise is how well it makes people caught up in a counterfactual scenario seem like us. Clearly, functionaries of an oppressive state participate in their own dehumanizing, but I think a few more touches of ordinary humanity among the Party Members might have served to make Winston Smith's plight even more moving.

Caleb Clark, who co-founded the company in 2016 with Maverick Schmit, is responsible for "1984"'s design of set, lighting, and sound. All elements worked well together, and were thoroughly taken advantage of in Lee's turbulent but well-knit direction of the show.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Pianist Zach Lapidus pays us a visit and revives the trio format he enjoyed during his time here

Zach Lapidus put together his formerly active local trio for a reunion Wednesday night at the Jazz Kitchen.

Zach Lapidus's brief return to Indianapolis was a welcome highlight.
The New York musician, who spent several years in Indiana (first at Indiana University, then based in Indianapolis) after his youth on the West Coast, always had something original to say at the piano. When he reharmonized familiar pieces, he made alter egos out of the originals. He moved into the front rank of Indiana jazz pianists with two finalist finishes in American Pianists Association competitions.

In reconnecting with the musicians he appeared with regularly at the Chatterbox, the pianist created the impression of a still-active working band. You would never know there'd been an interruption in their collaboration. Bassist Jesse Wittman and drummer Greg Artry displayed instantaneous rapport with the pianist in one set of nine tunes.

"Wig Wise" (known from one of just about everyone's favorite piano-trio albums, the Ellington-Mingus-Roach "Money Jungle") displayed a rapport that included more than capable support for the solos. Solo spots were rather a continuation of true ensemble playing with a foregrounding of the soloist, particularly Wittman. And the convention of exchanges with the drummer was brought off without cliches.

Much-admired for his harmonic acumen, Lapidus is also an extraordinary exponent of melody. He approaches a tune like a singer, stretching that emphasis even through episodes that could only be pianistic.  That was immediately evident Wednesday in the standards "You Go to My Head" and "It Could Happen to You." In the latter song, after an unaccompanied intro, the pianist's solo was fresh and inspired. When he yielded the spotlight to Wittman, Lapidus' accompanying had lively but never intrusive presence. Artry's showcase illustrated that here's a drummer who plays the song, not just the drums.

The vocal instincts behind Lapidus' playing were also prominent in "There's a Lull in My Life," which was  among the ballads featuring a fine, nuanced ending. This trio never seemed to be haphazard about concluding a piece.

Classic bebop was among the styles the group managed with expert familiarity as it offered Charlie Parker's "Scrapple from the Apple" just before the set's one original, "You'll Be Sorry." As a composer, Lapidus here displays a suite-like sensibility: The work was by turns marchlike, rhapsodic, and obliquely melodic. Tempo shifts were part of its smoothly handled variety.

David Berkman's "Fairy Tale" offered Wittman an extensive outing in several episodes, with good interaction between him and his colleagues. The trio managed several shifts in dynamics expertly. The performance also featured Artry's strong, imaginative solo on brushes.

In town to participate with reedman-composer Franklin Glover on a new recording, Lapidus made room for a couple of "live" appearances, and the city's two main jazz rooms and their audiences — the Chatterbox and the Jazz Kitchen — were the beneficiaries.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Summit Performance Indianapolis' 'Mary Jane' displays parenthood put to the ultimate test

Any parent can justly claim that parenthood is challenging, but some who take on that role with the same optimism as their peers find themselves not merely challenged, but in a perpetual iron man contest. There's no victory in sight, and the competition is mainly internal.

Amy Herzog's "Mary Jane," the second full production of Summit Performance Indianapolis, is in the middle of a three-weekend run at Phoenix Theatre. The title character is a single mom to a toddler who can't toddle, a severely disabled boy whose needs are daunting and whose "good days" are a matter of luck and unceasing commitment.

When we first see her, she's talking a mile a minute to her apartment building's super, Ruthie, who's trying to fix a stopped-up kitchen sink. The thought crossed my mind: Oh, watch out!  This is going to be one of those protagonists we need to get over being annoyed with, but she'll grow on us. We'll get used to her. She'll win us over. On and on she goes to Ruthie: something about being fascinated with break-dancers in the subway; this is someone hyperexcited about her observations. Another quirky heroine?

But Herzog has created a character who, in Bridget Haight's performance Friday night, is almost instantly lovable, despite her complexity. Her level of self-sacrifice is a given, yet it's more than the default setting of the drama. The audience constantly learns more about Mary Jane, and our understanding becomes something we feel we've almost lived with. That's an illusion, of course, and harboring it is almost an insult to anyone seeing this show who may actually face the kind of demands Mary Jane responds to so heroically.

Under Lauren Briggeman's direction, the play quickly pulls us into its emotional vortex. There seems to be no manipulation or theatrical arabesques about either the raw material or its handling. Underscored by this production's no-nonsense scenic design, Herzog presents the realities of nurturing a seriously ill child in detail: the constant monitoring, the exigencies of treatment, fine-tuning levels of medication, crisis management, scheduling issues and agendas, the disruption of all other aspects of the primary caretaker's personal life, the extreme difficulty of self-care.

But underlying it all is a mother's love: Alex is never seen in "Mary Jane," but he shapes every aspect of Mary Jane's experience. He draws from her a commitment deeper than most love relationships. Her ex-husband failed
Maura Lisabeth Malloy, Nathalie Cruz, Bridget Haight, Jan Lucas, and Kelsey Johnson.
to adjust to the shock and is long gone. Mute and physically disabled in the extreme, Alex is his mother's anchor and tutor, a perpetual-motion fitness machine for her character, her most enduring test of life's worthiness.

Haight's mastery of the role extends to every facial expression and the moments of awkwardness and frustration that interrupt her relentless interaction with the world. The rest of the cast of course is charged with meeting Mary Jane's ferocity and resolve with portrayals that give her something firm to play against. They are just about flawless at every turn. Each of them takes on two roles apiece, and none of those eight characters is sketchy. All are instrumental in fleshing out Mary Jane's story, whether they are mitigating her challenges, bringing her up short, or putting her through empathy calisthenics.

As Sherry, a home nurse whose devotion to the case extends well beyond her shifts, Nathalie Cruz represented crucial support as someone whose manner is both professional and affectionate. As Kat, a music therapist at the hospital where Alex has become a familiar patient, Kelsey Johnson shifted adroitly from a temperamental flightiness and tendency to treat her work as a job bound by scheduling to bonding with Mary Jane, in one of the show's most intense scenes.

As Chaya, a tough-talking New Yorker in the hospital waiting room, Maura Lisabeth Malloy helped move Mary Jane's pathos onto a more clear-eyed level of compassion as a mother in the same situation, but reliant on her religious community for sustenance as well as an intact family including healthy children. She is an aid to a delicately introduced spiritual dimension in "Mary Jane," which prepares for the final scene, in which Jan Lucas as a newly minted Buddhist monk serving as a hospital chaplain visits the care-worn mother. Someone once said, "If a man learns theology before he learns to be a human being, he will never become a human being." Mary Jane got the order right.

We learn by now Mary Jane has her own health demons to contend with. Plot is not an important element in the play, so I feel somewhat free from the need to avoid spoilers. The last scene is so beautifully staged (with lighting by the ubiquitous genius Laura E. Glover) that I might forgivably at least mention (without detailed description of the symptoms) that the heroine's chief demon is migraine.

The show's finale illustrates an insight that Guy Davenport mentions in his essay on Michel de Montaigne, the great 16th-century French writer. The serendipity of reading brought this to me the day I saw "Mary Jane."  Referencing Montaigne's persistent battle with kidney stones, Davenport observes: "With the occlusion of the body there is an anesthesia of sensibilities." Physically occluded by migraine, her situation administers this anesthesia symptomatically to Mary Jane at the very end.

Nature has come up with a respite for this plucky woman that she fully deserves, despite its disorienting effects. "Mary Jane" deserves our attention as well, continuing the remarkable launch Summit Performance Indianapolis has made with two outstanding productions in just two years.

[Photo by Raincliffs Photography]