February 23, 2017

Indy Actors' Playground

This week I attended the 50th performance of the Indy Actors' Playground. This little gem of an event is held on the third Monday of every month at Indy Reads Books. Fantastic Indianapolis actors get to pick a play and do a live reading. The only requirement is that it is a professional play that has already been produced (not a new work) and that it hasn’t been produced in Indianapolis any time recently (and isn’t in an upcoming season). 

This gives actors the chance to select shows they’ve always wanted to do. The play isn't announced until the show begins. People attending don’t know what they are about to see. This means that the actors don’t have to worry about whether or not it’s an easy production to market.

There are no sets, no costumes, and no elaborate lighting effects. It’s just a simple stage with folding chairs. The actors sit a few feet away from the audience members and read directly from the scripts. The amazing thing is that with excellent actors and scripts, all that other stuff is just window dressing. 

The masterminds behind this passion project, Paul Hansen and the Indianapolis Business Journal’s Lou Harry, decided to offer a special twist to the 50th performance. They chose the play and even the actors didn’t know what they were about to read. Each one opened an envelope once they were seated on stage and got their first glimpse at their character. They were watching the plot unfold along with the audience as they acted out their part.

This week’s play was “Elemeno Pea” by Molly Smith Metzler. I can honestly say that before Monday night, I’d never heard of it, but it was a beautiful choice. I didn’t catch the name of every actor, but a few of my favorites from other shows were there and so I already knew their names. Georgeanna Smith, Devan Mathias, and Carrie Schlatter slide so seamlessly into their characters that I could have sworn they’d been rehearsing for weeks. The credit for that goes equally to Paul Hansen for casting the show and to the actors, who were able to give such depth to characters they’d just met. 

If you’ve never been to this event I can’t recommend it highly enough. It is completely free. If possible, take a few books with you to donate to Indy Reads Books as a thank you for hosting the event. Other than that, just remember it’s at 7 pm on the third Monday of every month. I’m so grateful to live in a city that encourages creative and diverse projects like this one!

For more information about the Indy Actors' Playground or to learn about upcoming events visit their Facebook page here.

February 8, 2017

The Little Mermaid

Like so many others, I grew up watching Disney’s The Little Mermaid. The lyrics of those songs are ingrained on my brain to this day. So seeing Broadway Across America’s current production of the story is bittersweet. It was fun to revisit the characters, but it was impossible not to compare the musical with the movie as I watched.

The show contains quite a few new numbers, but not a single one is a stand out. Instead they feel like efforts to kill time in between the recognizable songs from the movie. “Daddy’s Little Angel” is particularly cringe-worthy. “Positoovity” is another example; Scuttle the seagull didn’t need his own number.
Even when the audience is treated to “Under the Sea” and “Part of your World” they fall a bit flat. It’s not the singing that’s off, but the production as a whole. Though the lead, Diana Huey, can belt out her parts beautifully, it’s hard to concentrate on her singing as she shimmies her way around the stage “swimming” through the set. The show works so hard on perfecting the technical aspects, like dangling swimming actors a dozen feet above the stage, that the emotion of the story is missing. 

If you're hoping for something on par with Broadway's production of the Lion King or Beauty and the Beast, you might want to skip this one. The Little Mermaid just doesn't translate to stage as well. On the other hand, if you're hoping to take your kids to a fun live theatre performance, then this one will be perfect. It's geared towards little ones and they won’t be bothered by an annoying version or Flounder or the lackluster ending.

Don't Miss the Show 

The show runs until Sunday, Feb. 12 at the Old National Centre (Murat Theatre) so hurry to get tickets. Tickets can be purchased at Clowes Memorial Hall, The Murat Theatre, by calling (800)-982-2787 or online here. Shows begin at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday.

Photos courtesy of Broadway Across America

January 23, 2017

How to Use a Knife

I've always been fascinated by the world of restaurant kitchens. The Phoenix Theatre's latest show, How to Use a Knife, takes you behind the scenes and into that frantic world. During open hours things move fast for the chef and his crew. After the restaurant is closed we're able to learn a bit more about the broken man running his employees so hard.

Chef George, played by Ryan Artzberger, is an addict who has fallen from his former glory. The performance reminded me a bit of Artzberger's turn as the cynic Simon Stimson in Our Town at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. The character has the same tone of disillusion and disgust. Ansley Valentine plays Steve, a quiet dishwasher with a mysterious past. He is a tireless workers who isn't interested in small talk.

Bryan Fonseca's direction keeps the show moving at a clipped pace, keeping the audience fully engaged. The casual banter between coworkers feels natural and the set itself feels like an actual restaurant kitchen, complete with a grill, working sinks, and safety signs. The tone of the play shifts dramatically as teasing turns to talk of the Rwandan genocide.

At the show's conclusion it was impossible not to consider how little we know about the experiences of those around us. Without talking to them about their lives it's far too easy to dismiss them based on prejudice, assumption, or ignorance. Whether it's incorrectly guessing someone's ethnicity or underestimating the pain that they've experienced, there's so much to be gained from opening the doors of conversation.

Don't Miss the Show
For more information about the Phoenix Theatre, visit www.phoenixtheatre.org. The theater is located at 749 N. Park Ave., Indianapolis, just off Massachusetts Ave. 

Performances: The show runs until Feb. 12 and offers four performances a week. Thursdays begin at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturdays begin at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. 

Tickets: To purchase tickets, call (317) 635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org. Prices range from $27 to $33.

Photos courtesy of the Phoenix Theatre.

January 16, 2017

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

The heartbreaking thing about the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s current show, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, is that it’s still incredibly relevant. I wish that wasn’t the case, but it feels timely in a way that is surprising since it’s set 50 years in the past.

The story revolves around a married couple whose adult daughter, Joanna (Annie Munch), comes home from a trip and announces she’s getting married. The joyous news is met with consternation when her parents discover her betrothed is a black man. Despite the fact that he’s a brilliant doctor and complete gentleman, they are concerned that their daughter doesn’t know how difficult her interracial marriage will be. In a world where Black Lives Matter and racially-driven shootings by police are daily items on the news, it’s a good time to see this play. It creates some awkward conversations; important ones that folks shouldn’t shy away from.

I think one of the most powerful aspects of the plot is that Joanna’s father is not a man you would expect to have reservations about a black man marrying his daughter. He’s long trumpeted the importance of equal rights in his newspaper, but it’s a harder pill to swallow when it arrives on his own doorstep. 

The set, created by the talented scenic designer Robert Koharchik, is just breath-taking. The two-story 1960s home includes a stone fireplace, artwork, open floor plan, and wood paneling. It feels like you’ve stumbled into a real California home, not at all like a set that’s on stage for less than a month. The attention to detail gives an added gravity to the play because the whole thing feels more realistic in that setting.

Mark Goetzinger’s excellent turn as the Monsignor was a highlight. His straight forward nature allows him to speak truth when it’s easier for others to disguise their prejudice in a million different ways. Chiké Johnson plays Dr. John Prentice, Joanna’s fiancé. His performance is beautifully executed. From quiet reserved moments to incredulity to dramatic bursts of anger. He reveals Prentice to the audience slowly and carefully. His 2015 role in the Island was a powerful one, but this role gave him the chance to exhibit and even wider range of emotions.

Although the main focus is racial tension, the play covers so much more ground than that. It’s about marriage, the relationship between a child and their parents, grief and loss, and so much more. It incorporates humor and poignant moments of sweet affection into the show, providing moments of levity. It’s a production that approaches tough topics in a way that opens doors and encourages discussion, instead of shutting them down. That’s something we could all use more of right now. 

Don't Miss the Show
The Indiana Repertory Theatre is located at 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis, one-half block west of the Circle Center Mall between northbound Illinois St. and southbound Capitol Ave. "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner " runs until Feb. 4 on IRT's OneAmerica Mainstage. Times for performances can be found at www.irtlive.com or by calling the IRT box office at (317) 635-5252. To purchase tickets call (317) 635-5252 or order online at www.irtlive.com
Photos courtesy of the IRT

November 28, 2016

A Very Phoenix Xmas 11

It’s that time of year again! Christmas shows are popping up all over town and whether you’re a fan of traditional or playful, there’s something for everyone. The Phoenix Theatre’s annual Xmas show is a mix of song, dance, parody, and poems. My favorite part about it is that it’s different every year. The content is fresh and ever-changing, so while you might not love every skit, at least it’s something new!

The 11th annual show focused on celebrating the holidays internationally. A narrator shared bits about unique traditions around the globe between the scenes. The set utilized multimedia screens that showed song lyrics and photos throughout the show.  During a dance sequence I felt myself appreciating that the Phoenix never constrains itself with meeting every social norm. The dancers were not a uniform body type and it was beautiful. The theatre consistently tries to represents people from many walks of life, instead of just one traditional Midwestern one.

 The tone was much more somber than past years, but there was still plenty of humor. From Stonehenge to Disney World, from an airport to a pharmacy, anything is fair game. Gratefully there were no references to politics. I think all of America is burnt out on that topic right now. I could have done with one less puppet skit, but it didn’t take anything away from the show. 

This year it was the quiet moments that stood out to me. One piece on spending Christmas in the hospital with a loved one was particularly poignant. Another took us to Syria, bringing home the severity of a situation that can sometimes feel far away to us. I also loved the audience interaction for a mad libs sketch. 

As always, the greatest strength of this Phoenix tradition is that it is unpredictable in every way, except that you’re sure to have a good time.

Don't Miss the Show
For more information about the Phoenix Theatre, visit www.phoenixtheatre.org. The theater is located at 749 N. Park Ave., Indianapolis, just off Massachusetts Ave. 

Performances: The show runs until December 23rd and offers five performances a week. Wednesdays and Thursdays begin at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturdays begin at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.
Tickets: To purchase tickets, call (317) 635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org. Prices range from $22 to $35.
Photos courtesy of Zach Rosing.