“A Grand Night for Singing” at ATI

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reviewed by Ken Klingenmeier

Actors Theatre of Indiana continues their 2017-18 season with A Grand Night for Singing, a musical revue celebrating the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalogue of songs from their wide range of Broadway shows. Conceived by Walter Bobbie, with musical arrangements by Fred Wells, Michael Gibson, and Jonathan Tunick, the production opened on Broadway in November of 1993 and was a modest success with 52 performances.

My research shows that the collection is most often presented in a cabaret style, featuring well-dressed cast members moving song to song with minimal connection. Director/choreographer Carol Worcel has crafted a colorful carnival setting and arranged with designer Stephen Hollenbeck to have her charges in a nifty array of  bright, mid-20th century costumes that more realistically covey the characters that Rodgers and Hammerstein were writing their songs for. It works tremendously well. A narrow story line of love and loss, happiness and dismay, and solos mixed with duets and ensemble work fills the show with a variety of interpretations. Ms. Worcel’s task of choreographing and/or staging 30+ musical numbers is well met with expert level results.

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From left: Don Farrell, Annalee Traeger, Cynthia Collins, Ian Black, and Nathalie Cruz provide the onstage performances for ATI’s “A Grand Night for Singing”.

All this is performed by ATI’s usual lineup of wonderfully talented performers. Don Farrell, hot off his amazing performances in La Cage aux Folles, supplies his customary magic on stage, in both song and dance. Joining him is his co-ATI founder, Cynthia Collins, who provides many of the comic moments in the production as well as a full range of soft and spunky song renditions.

Three ATI newcomers fill out the cast. Ian Black takes the other male role in the show. His strong baritone voice and remarkable dancing abilities makes him a valuable addition in this production and hopefully many others at ATI. Nathalie Cruz is a familiar face for those of us who have noted her many roles around Indy. Her musical talents are obvious here and Ms. Cruz provides her usual striking performance to the proceedings, especially with her sensitive “Do I Love You” in the first act.

Annalee Traeger is a bit of a breakthrough story, I believe. Theatre goers have seen her quite a lot at our local dinner theatre. She has been a member of more than a few dance corps there, with occasion small supporting roles. It is so good to see her front and center in this production. Ms. Traeger’s dancing abilities are no surprise. What we didn’t realize is that she possesses a beautiful solo voice. Her highlights include touching renditions of “If I Loved You” and “It Might as Well Be Spring”.

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From left: Nathalie Cruz, Annalee Traeger, and Ian Black all make their ATI debuts in “A Grand Night for Singing”.

The cast’s polished vocal performances show the hand of musical director Levi Burke, as does the impeccable work by his four piece orchestra. A delightfully vibrant set design by P. Bernard Killian, lights designed by Theresa Bagan and sound by Zach Rosing round off the technical contributions to this ATI offering.

Bottomline: This is a wonderfully relaxing and mild entertainment. The show is full of many interesting arrangements of familiar songs. The performances are strong throughout, and it is great to see the ATI debuts of three talented performers as well as portrayals by the more familiar Ms. Collins and Mr. Farrell.

A Grand Night for Singing continues at ATI’s Studio Theatre in the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel through November 19th. You can get information about the schedule and tickets by calling 317.843.3800 or by logging onto http://www.atistage.org .

  • – photos by Zach Rosing

 

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“The Originalist” at IRT

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reviewed by Mark Kamish

When I began law school in 1996, Antonin Scalia was a third of the way into the almost 30 years he would spend on the bench as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. By then, Scalia had amassed a body of opinions that were becoming legendary. I was assigned to read many of them. They were unparalleled – brilliant in legal analysis, sharp, witty and biting in prose. But the times they were a-changin,’ and Scalia’s words were being more frequently found in dissenting rather than majority opinions. But Scalia held firm. Until his passing in 2016, his career was marked by a conservative ideology and an originalist judicial viewpoint: the belief that the interpretation of the Constitution should be based on what it originally meant to the people who ratified it 230 years ago.

In the past two decades, that judicial philosophy was at odds with an ever-growing number of Scalia’s more liberal colleagues on the High Court, who viewed the Constitution as a living document – one that was written by its framer in flexible terms that would allow and even encourage an evolving interpretation as society grows and changes. Scalia’s originalist creed informed his legally conservative interpretations – many of them seen as “heartless” – opposition to affirmative action or any law that made distinctions by race, gender or sexual orientation, support of capital punishment, favoring states’ rights over federal authority and police power over Fourth Amendment rights of citizens, to name a few.

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Ayanna Bria Bakari, Henry Woronicz and Jeb Burris in IRT’s 2017 production of “The Originalist”.

But while John Strand’s drama, The Originalist, spotlights this iconic and polarizing figure, the play (100 minutes without intermission) is not biography; it is a question. And that questions is this: Can our fervently-believed and deeply-held “truths” allow us to ever make room for the alternate and opposing “truths” of others (just as fervently believed and deeply held)? Can we “suppress our fear and distrust, take a step toward the middle, and sit down with the monsters?”

This incredibly timely piece (originally produced in 2015) centers on the relationship between Justice Scalia and a fictional left-wing Harvard Law graduate named Cat who, after initially interrupting Scalia at a public presentation and arguing with him, is hired as one of his law clerks. Cat is Scalia’s “counterclerk” – a liberal who serves as his in-chambers sparring partner.

SCALIA: Just how liberal are you anyway?

CAT: Sir, I fall into the ‘flaming’ category.

SCALIA: Probably every liberal’s fate in the afterlife.

The two rant and ramble over a broad range of legal and policy issues, ending with Scalia’s dissent in United States v. Windsor (the 2013 Supreme Court decision holding unconstitutional a federal interpretation of “marriage” and “spouse” as applying only to opposite-sex unions).

And as those heated, soul-revealing debates unfold, something interesting begins to happen. As time is spent together and passionate, intellectual (and often loud) debates take place, trust is developing and defenses are dropping – a little at a time. Soon, inexplicably, polar opposites are attracting, pulling one another toward middle ground.

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Ayanna Bria Bakari and Henry Woronicz in IRT’s 2017 production of “The Originalist”.

Despite Scalia’s belief that the heart has no role in constitutional interpretation (“Cat, you’re arguing from emotion. Words have meaning. And their meaning doesn’t change. Emotion is what you had for breakfast yesterday.”), his law clerk draws him to matters of the heart. He reluctantly describes his devastation and the personal, privately-held pain of not being nominated for Chief Justice by President George W. Bush after the death of Scalia’s friend and ideological ally, Chief Justice William Rehnquist. He shares his fondness for and friendship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose contrary views on controversial issues are just as outspoken as his own. And he brings consolation, empathy and fatherly love to his law clerk when Cat is left broken and reeling by a family member’s death.

The arc of Cat’s move to the middle bends, of course, toward “the monster” who is her boss.

SCALIA: Why do you want to work for me?

CAT: Well, you are probably the most polarizing figure in American life.

SCALIA: Probably? I hold the title, thank you. Strike the probably.

The most comical (but representative) depiction of Cat’s evolution in tolerance involves scenes that begin on a Virginia rifle range, with Scalia teaching the gun-control advocate Cat how to fire a semiautomatic AR-10 assault-style rifle.

CAT: <BANG!> Did I hit anything.

SCALIA: Something in Maryland, I’d suspect.

By the end of the show, Cat is scoring bullseyes on the range, as well as on the battlefield of ideas. She admits she has matured in her self-understanding and tells Scalia that when liberals depict him as a monster, they’re just seeing their own fears in the mirror. The English language has words to describe projecting one’s own fears onto ideological and political opponents: “demonization,” “prejudice” and “bigotry,” to name a few.

Of course, the hidden qualities each character reveals as they move toward the center have always been there. Scalia indeed has heart, as well as a weakness for opera and the music of Mozart. And Cat has a great legal mind; the ability to apply law to facts and very effectively write summaries and arguments her boss will use to write opinions that conflict with her personal beliefs and world view.

Plays like The Originalist, comprising almost exclusively monologues and dialogues between two characters, are tricky. If the performances on stage don’t quickly create believable characters the audience cares about, and if those characters don’t as quickly and effectively transport the audience to emotional experiences, it can be a long night. Thankfully, both John Strand’s script and the three talented actors performing it succeed on both counts; an hour-and-forty minutes seems to fly by.

IRT veteran actor Henry Woronicz (whom I enjoyed in last year’s IRT production of The Mousetrap) more than makes up for what I felt was not a strong physical resemblance of Justice Scalia, with a spellbinding performance that captures the charm, eloquence, wit, self-assuredness and self-awareness (not taking himself too seriously) the late Justice is said to have been blessed with. Woronicz creates the endearing antagonist the Scalia character was surely meant to depict.

Cat was portrayed by IRT newcomer Ayanna Bria Bakari. Her bio expresses excitement in “kicking off” her professional acting career with this role. In this reviewer’s opinion, last night was one hell of a kickoff. For me, memorable performances by a stage actor are not crafted from splendid line delivery, but from the splendid way in which the actor actively listens to the other characters. Perfect reactions in body, face and voice to other characters and to situations seem to follow. Ms. Bakari nails this role – “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances” (as actor and acting coach Sanford Meisner was fond of teaching). Her performance alone is reason to check out this show.

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Jeb Burris in IRT’s 2017 production of “The Originalist”.

The supporting role in this play, a straight-laced, hard right-winged, young Republican sycophant named Brad (another of Scalia’s clerks) does his own sparring with Cat, and seeks to undermine her growing relationship with the boss. Actor Jeb Burris does a great job in portraying a hateful character with no openly-redeeming qualities (including a refusal to let his boss and ideological hero be influenced by the temptress, let alone consider positions contrary to his own). The heated debates between Brad and Cat didn’t work for me as well as the Scalia-Cat exchanges, however. Maybe there seemed to me less depth in smart exchanges between 20-somethings than between characters separated by 50 years of life and experiences; or maybe it was because there seemed little point to hearing the same ideological arguments between two people who the audience knew would never be able to see beyond their differences (especially after a betrayal that shatters the trust needed to come together).

We seem to live in a very divided nation these days. However, as I watch Burns and Novick’s film The Vietnam War, things don’t seem a great deal different from the way they were 50 years ago in this country. I don’t know if there is value in compromising one’s deeply-held convictions and beliefs to reach consensus with the “other side.” But maybe in recognizing those qualities of sameness that connect us as human beings in the very ways our thoughts and ideas divide us . . . , maybe by attempting to do that, we can all become better off for the effort.

The Originalist will continue its run at Indiana Repertory Theatre’s Upperstage through November 12. For more specific information on dates, show times, ticket orders, plus back stories of the play, the cast and crew, visit IRT’s website at http://www.irtlive.com/.

 * – Photos by Zach Rosing

“Annie” at Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre

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reviewed by Ken Klingenmeier

Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre opens its 2017-18 season with a well-crafted production of Annie. This perennial favorite took the Broadway theatre world by storm with its original production in 1977, running for six years. Based on Harold Gray’s depression era comic strip, the musical features music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin, and a book by Thomas Meehan.

Under direction and choreography by Anne Nicole Beck, and musical direction by Brent Marty, Civic Theatre’s offering in a sometimes spectacular presentation. Though it sports an unevenness in some production areas, the show is dotted with numerous impressive performances and musical numbers.

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Daniel Scharbrough (Daddy Warbucks) and Mary Kate Tanselle (Annie) star in Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s production of “Annie”

On the high side, we are treated to Mary Kate Tanselle’s plucky and energetic Annie. Young Miss Tanselle shows an easy talent in her portrayal and lights up the stage with her fine vocal talents. Already a stage veteran in her eighth grade year, Miss Tanselle never wavers in a poised and professional grade performance.

Another shining light, much “like the top of the Chrysler Building”, is provided by Daniel Scharbrough, whose superior Daddy Warbucks reprisal comes off with a smooth confidence that reflects this fine actor’s many years of stage experience. Scharbrough is joined at this high level by relative newcomer Amanda Boldt, who turns in a successfully full portrayal of Warbucks’ faithful secretary, Grace Farrell.

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“It’s a Hard Knock Life” for the orphans in Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s production of “Annie”

 

Ms. Beck’s cadre of orphans gives solid energies in their various appearances in the show. Anna Wagner (Duffy), Nya Beck (Julie), Emily Chrzanowski (Kate), Abigail Judy (Molly), Emily Carlisle (Pepper), and Claire Kauffman (Tessie) are especially wonderful in “Hard Knock Life” with its robust choreography – one of Ms. Beck’s best efforts in that department.

Speaking of choreography, this is one of the areas which, in my opinion, was somewhat variable. Some numbers, such as “Hard Knock Life” and especially “NYC” and “Easy Street” were simply knockouts with remarkable performances of inventive step patterns. A few others, though somewhat creative, lacked that special something I have grown to expect from this choreographer. I know there are more than a few musical numbers to deal with here, but after the inventive creations I saw from Ms. Beck in Civic’s The Music Man,  I was struck by a downturn with what I saw here. Again, merely my observation and opinion…

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One of the many ensemble numbers in Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s production of “Annie”

Civic’s use of set designs based on the work of legendary designer Ming Cho Lee, is certainly among the high points in the show. Soaring skylines, lofty highway bridges, and well-appointed mansion interiors are provided, along with subtly slanted renditions of the orphanage and the oval office. Also high on my list is the wonderful presentation of the score by the Annie orchestra, under the baton of Matthew Konrad Tippel. It is first rate throughout. The costumes by Adrienne Conces also enrich the big-show quality of the production.

Other fine performances are sprinkled throughout: Paige Scott (Miss Hannigan), Jeremy Shivers-Brimm (Rooster Hannigan) and Virginia Vasquez (Lilly St. Regis) have some five star moments in their trio work as well as in their scene work together; Piper Murphy makes the most of her spotlight moment as “Star to Be”; and the rather vast ensemble has moments of spectacular rendition.

Frankly, any disappointment I may have had with this edition of Annie could be the product of several factors. Primarily, I have seen various productions of this piece and that in itself always lends an aspect of familiarity and undeniable comparison. Also, it occurs to me that the show I saw last evening was a second show in the run – which in theatre circles can often mean a letdown in the performers’ energies and efforts after a hellish full week of preparations for the opening night show. I know that feeling well.

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From left: Paige Scott (Miss Hannigan), Virginia Vasquez (Lilly St. Regis) and Jeremy Shivers-Brimm (Rooster Hannigan) provide the villainry in Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s production of “Annie”

Bottomline: I believe if this is the very first production that you have seen of Annie, you will be blown away and delighted by what is offered here. In that light, it was fun to see all the little girls in attendance with Annie-bows in their hair, some in red dresses, all very excited to see this show. As for an old theatre goer like myself, I genuinely appreciate what has been assembled here, and was impressed by many of the choices and performances.

Annie continues at Carmel’s Center for the Performing Arts through October 28th. For ticket information and reservations call 317.843.3800 or go online at http://www.civictheatre.org .

“Ghost The Musical” at Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre

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reviewed by Ken Klingenmeier

Ghosts, those various spirits, apparitions and other-worldly beings we are endlessly fascinated by, have long been “seen” in entertainments. From Hamlet’s father’s ghost, to Marley’s ghost, to George and Marion Kirby in the movie/television series “Topper”, to Casper in cartoon form, to “we ain’t ‘fraid of no ghosts” in “Ghostbusters” and on and on – the spirits of the dead have provided endless story situations in novels, shows, comic books and movies.

In 1990, Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore starred in the film “Ghost” which swept the country as a box-office winner. Ghost The Musical, with book and lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin, and music and lyrics by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard, followed with a West End opening in London in the summer of 2011. Now, this production has found its way to haunting the Beef and Boards stage.

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Molly Jensen (Andrea Laxton) and Sam Wheat (Eddie Egan) in a scene from B&B’s “Ghost The Musical.”

Directed by Douglas E. Stark, with musical staging by Ron Morgan, B&B’s production is a decidedly modern stage offering. Set on Michael Layton’s slick set design, with dynamic lighting effects from designer Ryan Koharchik, everything has the feel of a new era style of theatre, raising the bar in B&B’s production history.

The show is very well cast. Eddie Egan and Andrea Laxton make their Beef and Boards debuts starring as Sam Wheat and Molly Jensen, young lovers on the verge of taking the next big step in their relationship when a street confrontation turns everything around. Sam dies, but is left in a phantom state where he cannot leave Molly until he has taken care of the many loose ends his demise has brought about. Egan is impressive in his portrayal of the ghostly Sam. He covers all the emotional bases in his arc with sensitivity and, when necessary, good humor. Ms. Laxton skillfully weathers her emotionally charged course as she is left to lament her fate, highlighted by her mournful “With You” and the hopeful “Nothing Stops Another Day”. These two performers’ voices blend extremely well on a number of shared tunes, and Ms. Laxton, especially, has a smooth vocal quality one could listen to all day.

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Carl Bruner (Patrick Michael Joyce), center, and ensemble members in a scene from B&B’s “Ghost The Musical.”

Patrick Michael Joyce takes the part of antagonist Carl Bruner, a friend of the couple who has dug an ever deepening hole for himself at his job. Joyce is a perfect choice for the crooked Carl and is well up to the task for all levels of his role. Likewise, Renée Jackson is ideal as psychic medium Oda Mae Brown, who forms a communication connection with Sam and helps solve the problems he has left behind. Ms. Jackson’s far-fetched Oda Mae is delightful, and exquisitely extreme, adding a comic touch to a most often poignant story.

A superb group of supporting ensemble members completes the cast list. B&B veteran John Vessels is brilliant in his characterizations of both the Hospital Ghost and Lionel Ferguson. Joshua L.K. Patterson creates a fierce and psychotic Subway Ghost with unfettered aplomb. Kelly Teal Goyette has great fun as a duped psychic client of Oda Mae Brown, Logan Moore is deadly and intimidating as gunman Willie Lopez,  and Ayana Bey and Christine Zavaskos deftly pair up in their various secondary roles.  Furthermore, this group is charged with skillfully performing the precision-like Ron Morgan choreography on a number of occasions.

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Storefront psychic Oda Mae Brown (Renée Jackson) in a scene from B&B’s “Ghost The Musical.”

Jill Kelly Howe’s rich costume designs and Zach Rosings’ visual effects design (just wait until you see the comeuppances in store for the bad guys) complete the picture. And the entire show is enhanced by Terry Woods’ musical direction and the B&B orchestra which features the tear-inspiring work of violinist Kara Day. (Nice job, Ms. Day!)

Bottomline – a refreshingly modern approach to this boy-girl story makes Ghost The Musical a highly worthwhile production. Strong performances by all involved, both onstage and behind the scenes, are noteworthy.

Ghost The Musical continues at Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre through November 18th. Show times and reservations can be viewed at http://www.beefandboards.com or you may call the box office at  317-872-9664.

  • – Photos by Julie Curry

 

Storefront Theatre’s “INFINITY” at IndyFringe Theatre/Indy Eleven

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reviewed by Vickie Cornelius Phipps

I had the privilege of seeing the U.S. premiere production of INFINITY on opening night for Storefront Theatre of Indianapolis, performed at Indy Fringe Theatre/Indy Eleven. INFINITY is the first production of their inaugural season – written by Canadian playwright, Hannah Moscovitch, with original music by Njo Kong Kie, and directed by Storefront founder and Artistic Director, Ronan Marra.

How does a new Theory of Time change everything we know about ourselves?  In this case, it’s the relationship between three brilliant minds. Carmen (Melanie Keller) is a musician, violinist and composer, Elliot (Ryan Ruckman) is a theoretical physicist, and as the result of the laws of chemistry, they fall in love, resulting in an unplanned pregnancy and a neglected marriage. Sarah Jean (Andrea Heiden), a mathematic scholar and the couple’s daughter, addresses the audience about her string of unsatisfying sexual experiences. Thought provoking and emotionally moving, for me the play is about the messiness of life choices and the pursuit of obtaining love and acceptance through passion and perfection. It is the mixture of philosophy, physics, and music. It is a revelation about love, sex, and math.

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Melanie Keller (Carmen) and Ryan Ruckman (Elliot) in a scene from Storefront Theatre’s “INFINITY”.

Visually, set designer Ivana Vukomanovic gives us straight lines for a simple set resembling strings of instruments flowing down from the ceiling like rays of light. From the perspective of the audience, these stringed paths appear to intersect with each other suggesting conflict that the characters themselves may not perceive, but they keep moving forward. Live violinist (Allison Kelley) plays masterfully during scene changes and delivers the characters’ emotions to our senses in an extremely effective way. Well executed – the actors, the direction, and a great script communicate brilliantly what we all struggle with: What is real? Are we attracted to the people who help us confront unresolved issues? Does this mean there’s a fine line between love and hate? This play stimulates nothing if not self-reflection.

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Allison Kepley (Violinist) and Andrea Heiden (Sarah Jean) in a scene from Storefront Theatre’s “INFINITY”.

I especially enjoyed Andrea Heiden in her portrayal of Sarah Jean evolving from the frustrated 8-year-old, having to grow up too fast into the sexually obsessed adult who cannot possibly believe the love she receives is real. A special nod to Ryan Ruckman, who explains scientific theories which roll off his tongue as if he really understood them. And Melanie Keller, who made me scream inside “Yes you can do it alone, girl!”

I think Storefront has found a niche within the Indianapolis theatre community. The production of fine new works by female, minority, and foreign playwrights – in an intimate setting  – is just what this city needs.

INFINITY continues through Oct 15th. For more information, go to the Storefront web site – http://www.storefrontindy.com .

  • – Photos by Tom McGrath

 

 

 

Eye surgery follow up #2

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Ken clay eyepatch

Some of my readers may recall that I had an eye operation in 2013 to take care of a serious condition that had occured in my left eye – an ocular melanoma had developed from a “freckle” on my retina, which my optometrist had noticed during an eye exam.

Recently, a theatre acquaintance contacted me to see how I had been effected long-term by the circumstance, as she had just gone through the procedure with the same doctor I had used. I directed her to my original post about the operation, at this link: https://asota.wordpress.com/2013/04/14/eye-surgery-did-that/ as well as my one year follow up: https://asota.wordpress.com/2014/04/08/eye-surgery-the-journey-continues/ .

She said these links helped her a great deal to understand what I have been going through, but she still had questions, since I had not touched on the matter in the blog since writing about it in 2014. Lots has happened since then.

The original piece I wrote on 2013 is viewed by one or more people nearly every day. (As of today it has been read over 1500 times and last month saw the most reads EVER with 86 views). Someone Googles “ocular melanoma” and finds the listing for the entry. So in order to promote better understanding about what to expect with this surgery, I thought I would do another update.

It took about two years from the time of the surgery for my left eye to be what I would call “useless”. That is to say, I could not use it to distinguish much else but light. There was a small area at the top of my periphery where I could make out how many fingers a person held up, but that did not constitute functionality. This loss was not a surprise, as Dr. Minturn, my surgeon, had said that that was what I could expect to have happen.

In truth, the doctor had administered several injections in my eye during 6 or 7 of my quad-annual visits to delay rapid sight-loss and he seemed pleased with the results.

About injections into an eye: this is not nearly as awful as you might expect. The eye surface is deadened and the shot itself results in the tiniest pinch. It is worse to think about than it is to endure.

By the third year, the loss of sight had furthered but it had little change in my everyday vision – the biggest loss being my peripheral vision on my left side. I still drive, with the help of “blind-spot” aiding mirrors. The biggest problem that occurs is that when walking in a crowd, I will sometimes bump into people, if I do not remember to scan left as I move along. No one has been injured in these mishaps, but a lot of apologies have occurred.

I had given some thought to wearing an eye patch and getting a contact lens for my right eye, but Dr. Minturn shot that down pointing out how glasses afforded some valuable shielding for my one good eye. I chose to go with his recommendation.

If anything, I can enjoy my monocular sight better now that my left eye has lost all sharp imaging. (What I do see with that bad eye now, I liken to looking up at the overcast sky and noting the glow of the sunlight and of the sun itself. That cloudy and indistinct presence of light matches what I see.) Before the loss, I had had trouble reading or watching television because my bad eye had added its blurry image to the mix of signals that my brain was trying to comprehend. Much of the time my brain could filter that blurry stuff out, but if my eyes got tired, it would be less choosey and add the blur in. I would try to overcome that distraction by covering that eye or winking out the fuzzy image. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not. Now if my left eye adds data to my vision, all it adds is a fogginess.

Presently, I have learned to accommodate the loss of one side of vision without much trouble. I barely think about it. I still see Dr. Minturn every 6 months, and I have to get annual x-rays and scans to ensure that cancer cells have not spread to other organs, particularly my liver. But for the most part, being “half-blind” causes little distress and no discomfort.

If you have had this procedure or condition, I suggest you follow your doctor’s orders and proceed through the steps of loss and recovery with his or her guidance.

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at IRT

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reviewed by Larry Adams

Does that mean I can do anything?”

  • Christopher, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Shortly before his untimely death some years ago, famed local pediatric neurologist Dr. Brad Hale stopped me in the hall of our office and handed me a thin, red book. “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” the title proclaimed, complemented on the cover by a simple silhouette of a dead poodle. The present sat on my desk for some weeks amidst piles of papers and journals, but for some reason refused to go away on its own. I could not imagine why such an odd little book had caught the attention of one of the smartest, funniest men I had ever known, and so, if for no other reason than that, I finally opened the cover and turned to the first chapter:

“2.”

I was hooked from the start, and thus began my long love affair with this strange, first-person account of an unusual adolescent’s quest to “do detecting” and venture into a frightening and confusing world, a book I in turn have recommended to as many as I can. Any attempt to turn it into a play, I felt certain, could not possibly do it justice.

That wasn’t just a play. That was an experience!”

(Overheard from a patron leaving the theater)

The Indiana Repertory Theatre has started its 46th season with an authentic feat of theater: the Tony Award-winning Curious Incident is a star vehicle for the leading man to be sure, yet it is also a true “ensemble” piece- one that stretches the meaning of the word to its limits to include the music, the set, the props and even the choreography of the play, each interacting with the other to enhance the themes and emotions at work. It is indeed “an experience,” and one not to be missed in its four-weekend run in downtown Indy.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time follows the struggle of Christopher Francis Boone, age “15 years and 3 months and 2 days,” as he attempts to solve the murder of a neighborhood dog. The dog, a black poodle named Wellington, is nearly- but not quite- a McGuffin in the story, as the audience slowly learns that there is so much more to this tale- the depths of loss, the limits of relationships, the cruel and arbitrary unfairness of life, and the drive for independence and accomplishment. If all that seems a bit heavy for a weekend entertainment, fear not: the Dog in the Night-Time boasts numerous surprisingly large and refreshing doses of humor to help the audience catch its breath- humor that is, with one notable exception, neither forced nor out of place in this emotionally exhausting show.

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Christopher (Mickey Rowe) with his father Ed (Robert Neal) in a scene from IRT’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”

Leading the cast as Christopher, “a mathematician with behavioral problems” (his condition is purposefully neither named nor fully delineated in either the book or the play) is Seattle-based actor, Mickey Rowe, “the first American actor with autism” to take on the role. I must admit, IRT’s rather blatant and frequent parading of his condition in their promotional pieces initially made this casting seem more a self-congratulatory gimmick than an artistic choice, but Mr. Rowe quickly and easily sweeps such impressions aside. In what could have been an unsympathetic and emotionally one-note role (think Dustin Hoffman in Rainman – and, yes, I know he won an Academy Award, but really now), Rowe’s portrayal of Christopher almost immediately has the audience eating out of his hand, simultaneously rooting for him, put off by him, admiring him and pitying him as he struggles to conquer a world he cannot truly comprehend. Through voice and manner, the 28-year-old Mr. Rowe pulls off a surprisingly convincing 15-year-old on stage (though I must admit that he appeared just as young in a brief conversation I had with him after the show- maybe everybody just looks young to me these days), while his attention to the details of physicality- the lack of eye contact and his frequent finger fidgeting- signal both the character’s discomfort and his disability to the audience. Mr. Rowe’s evident experience in choreography and his nearly acrobatic skills are used heavily here, though with somewhat uneven results. While his graceful contortions contribute greatly to the mood and tone of an extended sequence in which he imagines being weightless as an astronaut, at other times they seem rather pointlessly added into the action, as if during rehearsals the director said, “Hey, this guy can do circus moves! Let’s throw some more in!” This at times has the unfortunate effect of distracting from what is otherwise a mesmerizing and nearly flawless performance.

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Robert Shears (Eric Parks), Christopher (Mickey Rowe) and Christopher s mother Judy (Constance Macy) in a scene from IRT’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”

Other standouts in the ensemble are Christopher’s father and mother, played by Robert Neal and Constance Macy respectively. These two absolutely shine in their portrayal of the pain of broken relationships and unrequited parental love. There is nothing in this play more heartbreaking than watching Neal’s Mr. Booth desperately try to touch fingertips with a son who will not be hugged, and there is no scene more emotionally charged than Macy’s Judy wrenchingly attempting to explain her abandonment to a child who is all the while trying to shield himself from her feelings.

Though the remainder of the cast masterfully weaves a tapestry of interesting and effectual supporting characters, the one somewhat disappointing thread is Elizabeth Ledo’s portrayal of Christopher’s teacher Siobhan. The perhaps somewhat overly dramatic and personable style Ms. Ledo injects into the character of Siobhan admittedly serves as a nice contrast to Christopher during their scenes together, but seems terribly ill-suited for her mystifyingly frequent role as the play’s narrator; her expressive and enthusiastic recitations of Christopher’s writings unfortunately serve only to diminish the sense of his emotional disconnect and isolation, attributes that are among the most important themes of the book.

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Christopher (Mickey Rowe) confronts Mrs. Alexander (Margaret Daly) in a scene from IRT’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”

It seems a cliché anymore to claim “character” status for sets, lighting, visual effects and music in a review, but in this case the approbation is well-deserved. Designers Russell Metheny, Michael Klaers, Todd Mack Reischman and Katherine Freer, along with the original music of Michelle DiBucci, have created a setting in which scenes flow seamlessly from one to the next, as well as an all-encompassing, almost surreal environment which pulls the audience into the story as it attempts to transcend the written word. In what are typically somewhat thankless jobs in any theater production, these talented individuals deserve a bow at curtain call as much as the fine actors gracing the stage.

No production is perfect, however, and, despite my raves, this one does have its flaws. Playwright Simon Stephens admirably follows the book closely until the opening of the second act, when, from out of nowhere, he derails the story with a “play-within-a-play” gimmick for no apparent purpose other than a few, “winking-at-the-audience” laughs. In a production that tries so hard to bring the audience into the reality of the characters’ world, I cannot for the life of me understand why he would chose to dispel that illusion.

Though the staging of Christopher’s odyssey to London is magnificent (whoever envisioned and then executed the masks for the faceless throngs Christopher encounters is a bloody genius), the second act tends to drag at times, primarily from a lack of the first act’s extended emotional set pieces (though an absolutely ponderously long, nonverbal scene in which one character downs four beers in succession while another listens to static on a radio certainly doesn’t help either).

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The ensemble in a scene from IRT’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”

If the playwright has accomplished one great thing in steering this book to the stage, though (and, in fact, he has accomplished many), it is in the final moments. In the last three lines of his play, Stephens has tacked on a powerful coda which quite frankly tops the book- by adding a question mark to what has frequently been interpreted (erroneously, I think) as a “happy ending.” Unfortunately, after the curtain, a bizarrely energetic, interactive, slap-happy and fanciful staging of the book’s Appendix (which, in the book, consists merely of Christopher’s characteristically dry answer to a particular math problem, illustrating his continued disconnect from personal relationships), pointlessly blunts the emotional impact of these final lines. But if one can erase from one’s mind this final lapse in theatrical judgment, the message remains clear: Christopher’s story is not over. This will not be his last Curious Incident. Life, unlike this mystery, is not so easily solved.

Despite a marvelous cast, a powerful story and an inspired staging, there is one facet of the book which the play simply cannot match. Written in the first person, the book forces the reader to see the world through Christopher’s eyes, experience the world and relationships as Christopher experiences them. This is a place that, watching Christopher as a third person presence on the stage, the theater goer simply cannot reach. So yes, run to your library or Amazon or your Kindle and read this unique, gem of a book that I have treasured for over a decade. But do not pass up this opportunity to see IRT’s production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It’s not just a play. It truly is an experience.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time will continue its run at Indiana Repertory Theatre through October 14. For specific information on dates, show times, and ticket orders, visit IRT’s website at http://www.irtlive.com/.

  • Banner artwork by Kyle Ragsdale
  • Photos by Zach Rosing

 

 

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