“The Laramie Project” at Center Stage Community Theatre

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reviewed by Larry Adams

Laramie sparkles, doesn’t it?”

  • Matthew Shepard (1976-1998)

On the evening of October 6th, 1998, Matthew Shepard, an openly gay university student, was kidnapped, robbed, bound to a fence, beaten, tortured and left for dead in a cold, remote area near Laramie, Wyoming. Discovered comatose and barely clinging to life eighteen hours later, he was rushed to Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie, then transferred to the more advanced trauma unit of Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he died 6 days later, never regaining consciousness. Within 24 hours local police had apprehended the perpetrators, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, but the citizens of Laramie found themselves quickly and reluctantly in the international spotlight, their heads spinning and their beloved town decried worldwide as a symbol of hate and intolerance.

Less than four weeks after the brutal attack, playwright Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project traveled from New York to Laramie, conducting hundreds of interviews with the townspeople. Those interviews, along with news reports, journal entries and court documents, were then fashioned by Kaufman and others into The Laramie Project, first performed in 2000 in Denver. Last night I attended the opening night of its latest incarnation, this time in Lebanon, Indiana.

Center Stage Community Theatre in Lebanon has taken on a weighty and perhaps even risky challenge in bringing The Laramie Project to a local community theater stage. It is not a drama, at least in the colloquial sense of the word. It is not a mystery or a thriller. It is certainly not a crowd-pleasing comedy, though there are several surprisingly humorous moments. It is, in fact, not really a traditional “play” at all. Termed “verbatim theater,” it consists of eight actors portraying over fifty characters in a series of short scenes taken directly from the interviews and other transcripts, mostly presented as monologues delivered directly to the audience. The subject matter is, of course, controversial, heart-rending, and at times utterly uncomfortable to watch.

But it works.

To the credit of the script, the director and the actors, the citizens of Laramie are presented as three dimensional- not, for the most part, simple stereotypes (conservative Christian preachers, predictably, take some hits as the closest to cartoon villain portrayals, but surprisingly not so much as one might expect from modern theater). The play resists descending into the lazy and utterly tiresome demonization that characterizes most of current public discourse on controversial subjects; instead, we see a town full of people much like ourselves and our neighbors: complicated amalgams of prejudice, tolerance, guilt, pride, ambition, joy, pain, and fear- and yes, both good and evil. And we uneasily come to realize over the course of the evening that Laramie is us. That what happened there was not some anomalous horror which could only happen to “them.” That we all have the potential to be these people, perhaps even to be a Matthew- or even, if we dare admit it, an Aaron or a Russel.

Director Matt Trgovac has assembled and shaped a fine cast who, to a person, give heartfelt performances in bringing this tragedy to life in all its shades and permutations. From a strictly technical viewpoint, the talent level on stage is at times uneven (as one must quite frankly expect in any large community theater cast), but this never rises to a level as to be distracting, and in any case is more than offset by the sincere portrayals of the performers. The cast, I suspect at least in part due to the talent and passion of its director, has fully bought into the message of this play, to a degree I seldom see in community theater, and the audience can therefore not help but buy into it as well. The tears shed on stage, I’m quite sure, are genuine, and often matched by those of the audience.

Standout performances are given by Becky Larsen and, somewhat surprisingly, by stage newcomer Tristan Wolf, who displays the widest most developed range of characterizations of all the cast as well as a delivery style so seemingly effortless and natural that I must admit it made me, as a sometime actor, more than a bit jealous. All, however, are more than worthy of the bows which they as a cast have, quite appropriately given the tone of the play, declined to take at the curtain.

My only significant quibbles with the production are directed at the script, and though they are perhaps more a reflection on my limited attention span and lack of theatrical sophistication than the piece itself, they deserve mention. First, an easy fifteen to twenty minutes could be cut from the two-and-a-half-hour runtime with absolutely no loss to the narrative. It takes far too long to slog into a story with which every audience member is surely already familiar, and a number of the brief interview excerpts are wedged in for no discernable reason- vignettes that not only fail to advance the story and emotion, but in fact sap the momentum. Similarly, the documentary style of the piece feels better suited to, well, a documentary than to a stage production. The dearth of character interaction and development would seem to waste one of the major strengths of live theater. Nevertheless, The Laramie Project is a powerful piece that leaves its audience both drained and moved as the curtain figuratively falls at the end of the show.

And one final comment, a heartfelt word of praise for that ending. I’m not sure who to credit for this, but the final tableau presented on stage, after the actors have exited, the applause has died, and the lights have dimmed, is simultaneously chilling and sad and beautiful and horrible- and, I’m afraid, will both haunt me and impress me for years to come. Whoever you are: well done.

I’ve often remarked that, although community and professional theaters clearly must cater to the popular and “put butts in the seats” to remain solvent, they should each reserve at least one slot in their respective seasons for a piece that will challenge themselves as well as their audiences. It will rarely sell as well, but its impact will be more lasting. This is what elevates theater beyond mere entertainment. The Laramie Project does just that, and I commend Trgovac, his cast, and Center Stage Community Theatre for taking the risk and raising the bar for community theater in central Indiana.

The Laramie Project continues through July 28th,  Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:30 pm at Center Stage’s theatre in Lebanon. You may call 765.894.5587 for reservations and information. Their website is http://www.centerstagetheatre.org .

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Agape Performing Arts Company’s “Newsies”

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reviewed by Ken Klingenmeier

T.C. Howe High School served as the venue for Agape Performing Arts Company’s latest production – Disney’s Newsies – which opened last evening.

The show portrays the 1899 newsboys’ strike in New York City. A conflict arose when publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, among others, raised the price of the newspapers they sold to the boys and girls who peddled them on the streets. The “newsies” refused to pay the increase, subsequently joining together against the publishers and striking.

This story was the basis for the eponymous 1992 film and that effort was adapted into the 2012 Broadway musical from which the Agape production derives.

The cast of Agape Performing Arts Company’s “Newsies”

To start, large kudos must be offered to the show’s director, Kathy Phipps, who somehow manages to regularly transform the raw talents of what must be 50 or so middle school, high school and college thespians into an entertaining undertaking. She shared the effort here with assistant director Ann Lewis. Also, the company’s choreographer, Joel Flynn, deserves high recognition for putting all these young performers through their paces in more than a few rather complicated large production numbers! From what I saw, I’m betting they did not disappoint him. The hard work paid off.

There is so much to love about this show – let me start there:

The Newsies take off in a scene from Agape Performing Arts Company’s “Newsies”

I loved the energy and strength of purpose that lived in every single member of this cast – from the leads to the chorus/ensemble. To wit: choreographer Flynn introduced the cast to some fierce and powerful dance combinations, illuminating their resolve to do their jobs right, or to fight against the injustices they faced, or to celebrate their victories. Each performer gave their all to every note and dance step. And, they all showed us that they were having the time of their lives – which I know they were.

I loved the big production numbers – the vitality of the choreography was matched with fine vocal work, especially when that aspect took on a chorale quality. The blending of these strong, young voices – many compliments to music director April Barnes for this – was most often flawless. I count the Act 2 opener, a tap dance extravaganza, as a full cast highlight of the production – very impressive.

at center, Katherine (Audrey Scrogham) makes a point to Jack Kelly (Jacob Brant) in a scene from Agape Performing Arts Company’s “Newsies”

I loved the quality of acting in the young leads – (I saw the Queens cast in action, one of two crews) – Jacob Brant played a confident Jack Kelly, Alex Bast was vulnerable as Crutchie, Elijan Beasley is a wise, focused Davey, Audrey Scrogham offers up a sweet, smart, and purposeful Katherine, and Claire Scrogham is spunky and cute as little Les. They all work together to good effect.

I loved the versatile set and the plethora of costumes – both the work of Ms. Phipps. The simplicity of the set design was both functional and expedient in moving the story along. And a pat on the back goes to the very busy set crew.

Katherine (Audrey Scrogham) and the Newsies celebrate their success in a scene from Agape Performing Arts Company’s “Newsies”

I loved collegiate music major Audrey Scrogham’s entire, very professional performance. As Katherine, her solo “Watch What Happens” was knocked out of the park and was a definite highlight of the show. Ms. Scrogham’s later duet with Jacob Brant, the tender “Something to Believe In”, was also a high point. She shined in her acting scenes, as well.

Likewise, I loved the solo by Alex Bast as Crutchie – a moody piece which showed off his well-trained vocal talents.

Now – given all the notable highlights of the show – there are still some areas for improvement, I believe. Many words in songs and/or dialogue are lost – not understandable. Whether it is a function of the Howe High School auditorium acoustics, equipment usage, or the expertise of the performers – sound quality and balance are an issue in this production. It is some of each, I am supposing, and these problems are largely correctable.

Several performances were untouched by the dilemma. Audrey Scrogham’s first solo can through loud and clear. Alex Bast’s solo was another example of an understandable effort. There are some performers whose enunciation could be much better – there are some who choose at times to speak at an unprojected level and those words are entirely lost. The mikes certainly are an aid to communication, but they are not the only tool that needs to be employed. Diction, projection, intonation – all could be improved by most of the company. In my mind, the primary purpose of being onstage, in a cast, telling a story, is to make that telling clear and understandable to the audience, especially when you have such a wonderful story to tell! Okay, nuff said…

Locked out Newsies in a scene from Agape Performing Arts Company’s “Newsies”

Bottomline: The wonderful stage activities these young people are experiencing are far and beyond what many may have an opportunity to relish with other endeavors in their youth. The pure joy of accomplishment, the endearing friendships and exposures which are such a large part of the undertaking, plus the thrill of performance – all these things will guide these cast members toward confidence, culture and capabilities. I applaud Dr. Phipps and her entire company for what they give the Central Indiana community.

Newsies continues at the T.C. Howe High School auditorium through July 21st. For tickets and information go to https://agapeshows.org. Tickets may also be purchased at the door.

“La Casa Azul – The Musical” at Phoenix Theatre

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reviewed by Ken Klingenmeier

Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre’s evocative production of La Casa Azul – The Musical opened last evening at The Phoenix Theatre Cultural Centre in downtown Indianapolis. As the third incarnation of Gregory Glade’s masterwork, the ambitious restaging features energetic dance, soaring vocals, and searing drama as it reveals the story of the life of noted Mexican visual artist, Frida Kahlo. This new edition may feature a refined resizing of cast and content, but it does not lose the show’s epic strengths of story and mood.

Abilgail Lessaris portrays La Muerte in Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre’s production of “La Casa Azul” (photo by Scott Kinzie)

As choreographer and composer, Mr. Glade, with the valuable assistance of lyricist Kate Ayres and stage director Georgina Escobar, has created a theatre-piece of extraordinary beauty and perception. This very effective telling of a life story filled with much pain and suffering requires a deep understanding of dramatic structure and theatrical practice and Glade and his partners have succeeded here in grand fashion. Themes of love, loss, mortality and persistence come through perceptively.

Visually, the entire piece is unfathomably vivid. The splendid Mexican themed costumes (designed by Mr. Glade) are set to play off one another as dancers sweep and swirl across the stage. These colorful arrangements add much to the feel of the event whether showing festival or fervor. Conversely, other costume themes of muted colors or pure white effectively augment the storytelling.

Orchestrally, the music is near perfection. Its thorough attentions to mood, setting and emotion are a strong feature of the work. Though at times a bit lengthy, the songs are nonetheless properly expressive and meaningful.

Frida Kahlo (Valerie Nuccio, back center) surrounded by La Muerte (Abigail Lessaris, front center) and her minions in Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre’s production of “La Casa Azul” (photo by Julie Curry)

The cast, which includes a purposefully Latinx component, is beyond impressive. Valerie Nuccio is absolutely stunning as Frida Kahlo. Her highly trained vocal skills are an immense pleasure to experience as she provides a superb performance of what must be a dozen or so songs. Her acting conveys the artist’s emotional life-arc with honest and clear features of desire and despair.

Wherever Kahlo is, death – La Muerte – seems most always to be nearby, and dancer Abigail Lessaris does excellent work in that role. Using dance exclusively, she expressively portrays death’s pull and gentle presence with aplomb.

Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera is presented by veteran performer, JL Rey. His performance matches Ms. Nuccio’s in tone and skill. Rey’s operatic voice is strong and pliant, and his acting prowess is noteworthy.

La Muerte (Abigail Lessaris) stands by as Alejandro (Johnathon Contreras, center) tends to Frida (Valerie Nuccio) after “The Accident” in Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre’s production of “La Casa Azul” (photo by Scott Kinzie)

The supporting cast is highly skillful, as well. Alyssa Lopez, as Frida’s sister Cristina, has a wonderfully expressive solo – her “Forgive Me”; Johnathon Contreras is effective as Kahlo’s first love, Alejandro; Bill Book brings his numerous stage skills to bear as Kahlo’s father, Guillermo; Jessica Crum Hawkins (who originated the Kahlo role in the 2015 production of the show) masterfully handles Natalia Trotsky’s lamenting solo, “I Look in the Mirror”; and Rachel Hughey poignantly dances and sings the role of Young Frida. Other noteworthy performances are offered by Tessa Gibbons, Onis Dean, Dick Davis, Ann Martin and Pearl Scott. The entire dance corp deserves notice as well, as they perform a full catalog of variously styled numbers – Hannah Brown, Chloe Holzman, Camden Kruse, Zoe Maish, Erica Steward, and Anna Williamson all provided well-crafted turns.

Technical aspects were well covered by an array of familiar practitioners: Jay Ganz designed the set while Laura E. Glover designed the lights; sound design was done by Zach Rosing, vocal direction by Tammy Anderson, and wigs were the work of Tim Hunt. The aforementioned orchestrations were accomplished by Nicholas Cline.

La Muerte (Abigail Lessaris, right) conveys her vision while Frida (Valerie Nuccio) joins the dance corps in a scene from Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre’s production of “La Casa Azul”(photo by Julie Curry)

Finally, Mrs K and I were extremely moved and pleased with the performance we saw – but there is one area which I feel may need attention. That would be (IMHO) the intensity of the orchestra coming over the speakers. Very often, though not always, the orchestral volume from the speakers was at such a strong level that I could not make out the words of the songs. I will grant that this might have been due to my positioning in the auditorium, but I really feel such magnificent songs and performances should be understood by everyone no matter where they are seated, otherwise – what is the use?

Bottomline: Gregory Glade and his crew have put together a remarkable work. It is full of emotions and beauty, it is moving and forceful, it succeeds in its themes and its depictions and its production values. I hope this work can continue to grow and that its successes are boundless.

La Casa Azul – The Musical continues at The Phoenix Theatre through July 28th. You can find ticket and schedule information by calling 317.635.7529 or by logging on at phoenixtheatre.org.

“Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story” at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre

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reviewed by Ken Klingenmeier

Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story is Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre’s tuneful summertime treat for 2019. The jukebox musical was first presented in 1989 in London’s West End where it played for 12 and a half years. With a storyline written by Alan James and music by the inimitable Buddy Holly, the show provides a touchstone history of the rock n roll artist’s rise, and his fateful demise. We first find Holly and his band – The Crickets – in Lubbock Texas as he pushes against the predominant country style music with a self-possessed passion for rock. After failures in Lubbock and Nashville, the band finds their way to Clovis New Mexico where, in the recording studio of Norman Petty, they are finally able to record their signature sound with a long series of cuts. Eventually, it’s on to Harlem’s Apollo Theatre and further stardom.

Cricket drummer Jerry Allison (Josh McLemore), frontman Buddy Holly (Kyle Jurassic) and bassist Joe Maudlin (James Daley) perform at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem in Beef and Boards’ production of “Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story”.

Although the narrative of the plot follows Holly’s climb to success in a thinly threaded storyline, it is the music that is the show. Studio sessions, an elongated Apollo Theatre show, one privately romantic song for Holly’s wife, and a grand, full blown final concert scene form the true impact of this musician’s journey. And what an outstanding display of talent and energy is offered here by every cast member!

Kyle Jurassic as Buddy Holly in Beef and Boards’ production of “Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story”.

Directed by Jeff Stockberger, Buddy features a full roster of talented musicians and vocalists. Kyle Jurassic takes the title role, in his third opportunity to do so – having played the part at the Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre in Lancaster PA and at Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City. Jurassic shows a tremendous understanding of the man – whose quiet nature in private is coupled with a fierce drive for self-expression and a charismatic stage aura. Jurassic knows how to rock the house, and does so in song after song with an energetic force in both his Holly-mimicking vocals and his fine guitar work. I think we are very fortunate to be the benefactors of his previous encounters with this character. Buddy Holly truly comes alive in Jurassic’s performance on the B&B stage.

The Big Bopper (Chuck Caruso), Buddy Holly (Kyle Jurassic) and Ritchie Valens (Edward LaCardo) rock the house in Beef and Boards’ production of “Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story”.

The supporting cast is rife with accomplished players and singers. Edward LaCardo does an impressive high octane rendering of “La Bamba” as Ritchie Valens. Chuck Caruso is superb as The Big Bopper (J.P.Richardson), offering an authentically slick version of the Bopper’s hit, “Chantilly Lace”. In the Apollo Theatre scene, Tarra Conner Jones blows the roof off as Mama Pearl in her rendition of “Shout”, with a tremendous and lively accompaniment by Joshua L.K. Patterson. James Daley on bass and Josh McLemore on drums form Holly’s band – The Crickets, along with guitarist Christopher Tucker. This trio crushes the Buddy Holly catalog with absolutely dynamic presentations.

Buddy Holly (Kyle Jurassic) reassures his wife Maria Elena (Kelly Powers-Figueroa) in Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre’s production of “Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story”.

Other highlights include B&B favorite John Vessels as Lubbock C&W DJ, Hipockets Duncan; Justine Figueroa as Holly’s New Mexico producer, Norman Petty; Kelly Powers-Figueroa as Holly’s wife, Maria Elena; and Sarah Hund, showing her extraordinary fiddle chops as a featured musician in several scenes.

The undeniable high point of the show is the second act finale, where the entire cast portrays the final fateful Holly/Valens/Bopper appearances at Cedar Lake Iowa. Consisting of 10 musical numbers, we are entertained with a concert-like event, in which we get to see and feel the unbound talents these noted performers gave to their audience. It’s crazy-good!

On the more technical side, Kristy Templet provided the exceptional musical direction, Michael Layton devised a clever scenic design, Ryan Koharchik’s lighting ideas were perfect, and Jill Kelly Howe once again knocked it out of the park with her costume designs. Chef Odell Ward’s inviting menu featured honey-mustard chicken and cajun cod, along with a good variety of veggies and other dishes.

Bottomline: Even with its rather thin storyline, this show is a rousing portrait of one of the great rock n roll pioneers. The standing ovation for these performers was well-deserved – I daresay, everyone in attendance had a memorable time.

Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story continues at Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre through August 18th. Find show times and reservations at http://www.beefandboards.com or you may call the box office at 317-872-9664.

  • – photos by Julie Curry

Summer Stock Stage’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie” at IRT

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reviewed by Ken Klingenmeier

It’s Summer Stock Stage season again and this summer’s first endeavor is Thoroughly Modern Millie, presented on Indiana Repertory Theatre’s main stage. This company of talented teens from around central Indiana, led by their gifted director – Emily Ristine Holloway, impresses once again with a high caliber production, full of sparkle and sass.

Set in 1920s New York City, the show tells the story of Millie Dillmount, who escapes to NYC from her Kansas hometown, fully intending to go “modern” and lift her status by marrying her boss – whoever he might be. Needing a place to stay, she is directed by a man she bumps into on the street, Jimmy Smith, to a hotel for actresses, where she meets Miss Dorothy Brown, a hopeful from California. Millie lands a job with The Sincere Trust Company and works on “landing” her boss, Trevor Grayden. But alas, Jimmy loves Millie, Grayden and Ms. Brown find each other irresistible and Millie winds up looking for love and being counseled by famous singer Muzzy Van Hossmere to never give up love for money. Throw in the secondary plot line that the hotel owner, Mrs. Meers is kidnapping any of her hotel guests who become orphans and sending them to Hong Kong in a white slavery scheme, and you have a complicated tale full of twists and turns with a good number of large roles – just the right choice to showcase this cast of 35.

Millie (Cynthia Kauffman) leads the cast in the “Thoroughly Modern Millie” number.

Cynthia Kauffman positively glistens as a vibrant Millie. She is more than up to the task in this demanding role. Her full-ranged vocal skills are just one aspect of her talents, and she makes the most of every one of her character’s songs – from the peppy title tune, to the complicated “Jimmy”, and the show-stopping “Forget About the Boy”, which she shares with the Stenogs ensemble. Also in the spotlight, as Jimmy Smith, is SSS veteran Jack Ducat. His smooth delivery in songs is a pleasure to experience and his acting skills have grown since we last saw him as Mr. Cladwell in last year’s hit, Urinetown. Together in numerous scenes, he and Ms. Kauffman light up the stage with their acting, singing and dancing abilities. Their quiet rendition of “I Turned the Corner” provides a very special moment in the program.

from left: Millie (Cythia Kauffman), Trevor Gayden (Nate Schlabach) and Jimmy Smith (Jack Ducat) in a scene from “Thoroughly Modern Millie”

Others who dazzle include Abby Anderson, whose work as veteran performer Muzzy Van Hossmere is totally up to the level of her character’s professional status; Samantha Grace Shelton gracefully covers the Dorothy Brown role, excelling in both the musical and comedic sides of the part; Nate Schlabach does an excellent turn as Millie’s boss, Trevor Grayden – he too shows a lot of comedy skills in his supporting role; Julia Murphy is terrific as office manager Miss Flannery; and Eva Scherrer mixes evil with humor as hotel matron (and white slaver) Mrs. Meers. Christian Barda and Faye Coy, as Mrs. Meers’ henchmen Ching Ho and Bun Foo, respectively, turn in terrific performances.

Millie (Cynthia Kauffman, center) and the Stenogs in a scene from “Thoroughly Modern Millie”

The company ensemble takes on a full list of smaller roles, plus an incredible array of music and dance numbers. Beautifully blended voices (the work of musical director Michael Berg Raunick) and precise dance combinations (from the minds of choreographers Cherri Jaffee and Lily Wessel) provide one show-stopper after another in this dazzling production.

Mrs Meers (Eva Scherer, center) with her hotel guests in a scene from “Thoroughly Modern Millie”

A plethora of costumes by Jeanne Bowling and her staff, fills the stage with color and mood. The orchestra, led by the aforementioned Mr. Raunick is sharp and/or smooth, as needed. Sets and lighting by designers Geoffrey Ehrendriech and Michael Moffatt are consistently on the mark.

The only ‘problem’ I had with any of the proceedings was a tendency for the sound quality – in speaking sections – to be a bit muddy. The majority of actors are miked and the levels used away from their songs made it hard for me (and Mrs. K) to understand many spoken lines. There seemed to be zero problem with the sound during songs. I hope this can be looked into and taken into account for the remainder of shows.

The entire cast of “Thoroughly Modern Millie”

Bottomline: this is just a terrific show produced by a terrific theatre company – spectacular from the top on down. Director Holloway has a special set of talents for leading these kids – albeit, very talented individuals – through the process of putting on high level productions. The young peoples’ abilities are used in a most adroit way and in my opinion, the results are a highlight of Indy’s theatre season.

To see this amazing show, you’ll need to move fast. It runs only until June 30th. Find ticket info and make reservations at the company’s website – http://www.summerstockstage.com and click on “Buy Tickets” in the upper right corner. It’s well worth your time and energy to see these gifted performers.

  • photos by Michael Camp

CTC’s “In the Presence of My Enemies” at CAT Theatre

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reviewed by Ken Klingenmeier

Carmel Theatre Company’s production of June McCarty Clair’s newest play, In the Presence of My Enemies opened on the Cat Theatre stage this weekend. The promising script, which is Ms. Clair’s fifth offering – the first four being musicals – is directed by her husband, John Clair, and contains themes of grief and greed with a smattering of chaos.

This is the story of Sarah, recently widowed, who must face the tasks of making choices for her late husband’s funeral, while she deals with the children from his first marriage, whose objectives seem less than totally honorable. There are lessons in proper preparation here, which make the script a worthwhile endeavor, though I feel the writing is not yet in its best and final form.

Though the play is not overly long, in its two-act format it suffers a bit from having a single linear storyline. All the nuances of grief and conflict are done and redone to a point where, to my sensibilities, we begin seeing repetitions that do not score well. Perhaps a secondary storyline of some sort may be in order. If not, the play might have played better in its one hour length, which recently appeared at this year’s Diva Fest. I believe Ms. Clair is onto a valid and worthy examination of these human foibles, grief and greed, but some tweaking of the action might be beneficial.

The presentation likewise suffered from what I sensed was an under-preparedness by the cast. Missed cues, stops and starts, overtalking, line gaps – all appeared at times. It seemed the players were a good 3 or 4 days from readiness, and thus the show was less cohesive and smooth than I expect it will be later in the run.

Carmel Theatre Company’s In the Presence of My Enemies is offered at The CAT through June 30th. Information about tickets can be found at https://tinyurl.com/my-enemies

Note: These comments may seem harsh, and I have a sense of that myself as I read them – but I see my job on these pages not only to boost community theatre and theatre in general in the Indianapolis area, but also to be a resource for improving what is done. I do this at times by giving my personal sense of what I see and what I think might work in problem areas. I truly respect what efforts people put into their productions – believe me, I know the efforts first hand.

“Violet” by Summer Stock Stage’s Eclipse program

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reviewed by Daniel Shock

Violet, this year’s production for Summer Stock Stage’s Eclipse professional program for young adults, tells the musical story of Violet, a young woman on a quest. With Book and Lyrics by Brian Crawley, based on a short story by Doris Betts, and music by Jeanine Tesori – a wonderful mix of country and gospel, the show was originally produced off Broadway in 1997 and revived on Broadway in 2014.   

The story begins in the south. North Carolina. 1964. 

Violet wants something. She wants to be beautiful. This will ease her pain and make her happy, she thinks. She was injured physically in childhood by an accidental flying axe blade and further injured in spirit by a guilt-ridden father who did not know how to seek forgiveness from her or himself. Now a young woman, Violet aims to erase the facial scar by traveling to Tulsa, OK to visit a miracle working TV preacher. She begins her journey by getting on a bus filled with other folks on their own journeys. Two of these are a pair of soldiers, Monty and Flick – one white, one black. Filled with the anxiety and anticipation of the coming conflict in Vietnam, they find themselves drawn to Violet – curious about her injury and amused by her naïve belief that a preacher can remove her scar. 

I wondered throughout the performance why Violet did not actually have a scar.  There is no theatrical make-up. The actress shows no sign that she has a scar at all. She talks about it. Other characters react to it. There are a few possible explanations. The one that seems most likely is that we are supposed to be convinced of the scar through the performances. A quick internet search seems to confirm that this has been the intention of the show since at least the Broadway production. I’m not sure that this works for me. The absence of a scar led me to ponder the weird possibilities, like the Twilight Zone episode where the beautiful girl awakens in a hospital and is pitied by all the other unseen characters – leaving the audience to wonder what is going on until the end reveal. There is no such twist in Violet. Possibly the intent is to place the audience in the omnipotent position of seeing Violet as she is – the physical reality does not matter.  I wouldn’t like that interpretation. I don’t think the Flick character would agree with that position. I think he recognizes that the scar makes her different.  She has been undervalued by society as he has. The physical does matter to Violet. Her worth as a human being along with her capacity to love and to be loved…THOSE do not depend on her physical appearance.  I write this to assure the reader and potential audience members: don’t waste your attention on this matter as I did. It will consume mental resources you should spend appreciating the fine performances of the cast. 

The cast is filled with young adults giving several standout performances.  Elizabeth Hutson plays Violet with confidence and strength. Her Violet is a strong, if naïve, young woman ready to join the world.  John Collins as Monty walks a fine line and gives us a complex character that you can both be repulsed by and have sympathy for. Mark Maxwell as Flick delivers a warm, sweet performance. His Flick connects with fellow outsider Violet, offering steadfast support and affection. Carlos Medina Maldonado must be recognized for his strong work in multiple roles as the Bus Driver and the Preacher. He offers a magnetic performance that draws your attention whenever he is onstage. Leah Broderick’s offering as Young Violet is heartbreaking. Her scenes with her father, well played by Eric J. Olson, are among the best in the show. Amanda Boldt, Gabriel Herzog, Terrence Lambert and Lilly Wessel all distinguished themselves in multiple roles. Finally, Chase Infiniti gave a jaw dropping vocal performance in the gospel number “Raise Me Up”. 

This production, directed by Emily Ristine Holloway, made for a nice evening. The simple set design by Geoffrey Ehrendreich along with the lighting design by Michael Moffatt was effective in evoking multiple locations in both space and time. Costumes designed by Jeanne Bowling were lovely and also fit the period. The music, directed by Ms. Bowling (pulling double duty both in costumes and music!), was enjoyable throughout. There was not a lot of dancing, but choreographer Cherri Jaffee brought out some great moments, notably the gospel choir in the second act. Sound was generally good and Zach Rosing’s sound design served the production adequately. There were a few instances where I felt I lost what the actors were saying or singing. Sometimes that was simply the orchestra overwhelming them and other instances seemed to be a lack of microphone.  

Violet earns my recommendation for some enjoyable performances from a cast that will surely be entertaining us for years to come. I look forward to seeing them in other shows. 

Violet runs through June 15 at the Phoenix Theatre’s Russel Stage, 705 N. Illinois Street, Indianapolis. Tickets are available on the website by clicking HERE or by calling the Phoenix Theatre Box Office at 317.635.7529 

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