My fourth IndyFringe day (with a straggler from Saturday): The joy of close quarters

Of the six places where IndyFringe Festival shows are available this year, my favorite may well be the IndyEleven theater. That's the addition to the church-building focal point of the Fringe operation at 719 E. St. Clair St.

Audrey Johnson sings her way through women's struggle to vote.

Whether attendance in that small space is full or sparse, the venue conveys the sense that your presence is special, that the intimacy of the experience is welcome (though less so to the performer if there are lots of empty seats). Fitting the scope of the production in two instances on the first festival weekend were performances I saw of "Breakneck Romeo and Juliet" and "We've Come a Long Way, Ladies: A Musical Celebration of the Women's Suffrage Movement."

Both solo shows connect with aspects of our cultural heritage that are likely to be familiar to festival patrons. The historical impact of the fight for the 19th Amendment to the U.S. constitution registers on the collective nerves of Americans, because voting rights continue to be a vexing issue. And in both the original play and in the theme of true love contending against long-running feuds and "tribal" animosity, Shakespeare's romantic tragedy will forever resonate.

Tim Mooney is well-known from past festival appearances for his signature high-speed reduction of Shakespeare plays through a combination of brisk, irreverent narration and quoted passages enacted from the drama reprised within the hour time limit. "Breakneck Romeo and Juliet" is a little less notable for pinpoint characterizations on the fly than what I remember of its predecessors, but still an engaging treatment of the classic.

On Saturday, his impersonation of the Nurse was the best, followed closely by his self-absorbed, bossy Lord Capulet. Though the Queen Mab speech is substantially rendered, Mercutio was rather dashed off. I disagree with Mooney's interpretation of Capulet's calming of nephew Tybalt at the ball. To me, the paterfamilias is not so much tired of the feud as certain that temporary peace suits his vanity as party host, and thus the hothead's impulsiveness must be curbed. 

More all-embracing in Mooney's commentary is an emphasis on the speed of the action and the confusion caused by Romeo's sudden passion, returned with a greater show of prudence by Juliet, and the consequence of the feud's fatal renewal, resulting in Romeo's banishment. Perhaps it's a salutary dash of irreverence by which Mooney takes the series of mishaps and cross-purposes to the edge of farce. 

This is admittedly territory that seems foreign to a romantic tragedy that has stirred empathy for centuries. But seen from such an angle, "Romeo and Juliet" becomes arguably a tangle of avoidable mix-ups, and the character of Friar Laurence, who secretly marries the young couple and bungles their reunion, approaches villainy. No wonder that, in the interest of efficiency, Mooney drops the priest's loving paean to horticulture. 

Audrey Johnson traces, with the help of projected historical photographs, the seven-decade struggle to accord American women the right to vote. The beautiful vehicle for telling the story is her performance of songs written to boost morale and, when necessary, mock men's resistance to the movement. She is a mezzo-soprano of admirable purity of tone and diction. 

The songs are delightful, moving, and trenchant. She weaves in audience participation, once in the form of a comb-and-tissue-paper refrain (the instrument is supplied) and at another place for a sing-along of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," an early 20th-century hymn linked to the multifaceted struggle for equality, sustained to the present day by African-Americans.

The narrative is succinct and well-supported by the photos and by Johnson's smoothly synchronized costume changes. The story varies from a quaint, humorous depiction of the fad for bloomers, which relaxed standards of dress for women, to a sobering recounting of the brutality suffragists endured when men lost patience with the agitation in the 20th century's second decade. 

The dramatic, post-war passage of the 19th Amendment, with one Tennessee legislator's pushing the cause over the top because of a pleading letter from his mother, was recounted in song and story. "We've Come a Long Way, Ladies" succeeds not only as a reminder of the cultural importance of social-justice struggles, but also for the light it sheds on bygone vocal styles that were often enlisted to inspire the warriors.


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