“Noises Off” at Indiana Repertory Theatre

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reviewed by Adam Crowe

In a previous review, I have written about the excitement of seeing new or rarely performed plays and musicals. Yet, there is something to be said about the joys of getting to see a new production of an old favorite. I had the distinct pleasure to attend Opening Night at Indiana Repertory Theatre for their production of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. A play within a play, Noises Off is a comedic love letter (with a bit of jaundiced eye) to the theatre and especially to the art of the Farce.

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From left: Ryan Artzberger, Rob Riley and Robert Neal in a scene from IRT’s production of “Noises Off”.

Slamming doors and misunderstandings abound, as is required in this genre. In this case, it is a farce about the staging of a farce, and therein lies its genius. At the outset, audiences are treated to a rehearsal of a (pretty bad) British farce titled “Nothing On”, as it prepares to go on a long road tour across England. Archetype characters abound: the aging actress, her latest romantic partner, the talentless bimbo who is trysting with the sleazy director, who is the object of the affections of an overlooked assistant stage manager, who is the object of the affection of the over-worked stage manager. Along for the ride is a notoriously drunken actor who may or may not make it onto the stage. Both on and off “stage”, these characters serve their farcical roles while never becoming anything less than delightful.

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From left: Heidi Kettenring, Hollis Resnik, Jerry Richardson and Robert Neal in a scene from IRT’s production of “Noises Off”.

I should confess that I find Frayn’s play to be just about the perfect farce. In three Acts, audiences are treated to scenes from one rehearsal and two performances of the deliciously awful “Nothing On” – and just about everything that could go wrong does. Frayn is a brilliant playwright and his play Copenhagen is an incredible drama. That makes it so much more impressive to me that he also wrote such a ridiculous, fall-down comedy like Noises Off.

IRT’s cast is, not surprisingly, exactly right. Local talents Ryan Artzberger, Ashley Dillard, and Robert Neal are joined by Hollis Resnik, Jerry Richardson, Mehry Eslaminia, Heide Kettenring, Will Allan, and Rob Riley. All were hilarious and gave exacting and inspired performances. Special mention goes to Heide Kettenring, whose third act was the definition of perfection.

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From left: Hollis Resnik, Ryan Artzberger and Jerry Richardson in a scene from IRT’s production of “Noises Off”.

In a play where precision is called for in nearly every aspect, the technical staff is especially important. Their work here is fantastic. Bill Clarke gets top honors for a set that must do some serious performing of its own. Michael Lincoln’s lighting, Todd Reischman’s sound and Michael Jackson’s lighting do exactly what they must – work perfectly while appearing to be shabby and somewhat failing. In addition, Rachel Anne Healy has created beautifully appropriate costumes for the “Nothing On” cast.

If you’ve never seen Noises Off, get those tickets ASAP. If you have seen it, you already know why I love it and I’ll bet you already have your tickets. IRT’s production, brought to hilarious life by this particular cast and crew, will be splitting sides until May 20th. “Nothing On”, only as seen in Noises Off, is a farce for the ages!! Indiana Repertory Theatre is located at 140 West Washington Street. Tickets may be purchased by visiting the website at http://www.irtlive.com or by calling (317) 635-5252.

  • Banner artwork by Kyle Ragsdale
  • Photos by Zach Rosing
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“Appoggiatura” at Indiana Repertory Theatre

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reviewed by Ken Klingenmeier

Indiana Repertory Theatre continues its 2017-18 season with James Still’s completely wonderful Appoggiatura, directed by Peter Amster, with musical direction and arrangements by Gregg Coffin. This delightfully original piece takes us on a trip to Venice, filled with music, longings, laughter and fresh encounters with the past.

Amster’s superb staging, with significant assists by scenic designer Lee Savage’s immense Venetian set, alongside Alexander Ridgers quite magical lighting design and Tracy Dorman’s perfect costumes, guides us on the outing and its compelling storyline of three travel companions, lost at times, and looking for answers to a variety of important questions.

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from left: Tom Aulino, Casey Hoekstra, Susan Pellegrino, and Andrea San Miguel in in a scene from IRT’s production of “Appoggiatura”.

Susan Pellegrino takes the role of Helen, who is traveling with granddaughter Sylvie – played by Andrea San Miguel, and old friend Chuck (“it’s Charles”) – offered by Tom Aulino, on their grand tour to memories and discoveries. Casey Hoekstra’s native Venetian, Marco, joins the trio as “tour guider”.

Ms. Pelligrino and Mr. Aulino are impeccable as two elder tourists, linked by their love for a common person, Gordon, who first married Helen, then later partnered with Charles. His passing has had a profound effect on them both and they have traveled to Europe in the hope of finding something to perhaps fill that void – an understanding, a recollection, a new consciousness. Andrea San Miguel tenders her Sylvie as a lively and open-to-anything type traveler: different for her companions – younger, freer, while discovering she is not quite ready for a commitment at home. She handles well a dual role, in fact, as she also appears as another Venetian visitor – Helen, who is on a honeymoon trip with her new husband, Gordon.

Mr. Hoekstra’s Marco is both comic relief and truth-sayer. Hoekstra does a complete job with the accented character, making him a sort of lovably earnest man, searching for elusive successes in his worklife and in his lovelife. He also plays a duel role – portraying the honeymooning Gordon as well.

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Helen (Susan Pellegrino) meets honeymooning couple Helen (Andrea San Miguel) and Gordon (Casey Hoekstra) in a scene from IRT’s production of “Appoggiatura”.

An enchanting trio of musicians wanders the streets of Venice for our pleasure – enriching this setting with some exquisite performances with vocals and on violin, guitar and accordion. Talented musicians all – Andrew Mayer, Paul DeBoy, and Katrina Yaukey, offer various minor characterizations as well – everything from an amusing array of international tour guides, to Ms. Yaukey’s plaintive online Kate, DeBoy’s memory-losing Gordon and Mayer’s waiter, gondolier and Vivaldi.

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from left: musician/actors Paul DeBoy, Katrina Yaukey, and Andrew Mayer in IRT’s production of “Appoggiatura”.

“Appoggiatura” is a term for the musical technique of adding a tone, usually sustained, which delays the cadence and often leads to the resolution. It is an unusually hard word to title a play with, but it entirely suits its purpose – labeling exactly what is happening as the story unfolds.

Bottomline: James Still’s Appoggiatura is magical in its presentation, moving in its story-telling, delightfully charactered, and noteworthy in its production values, with first-rate acting and design. Mrs K recognizes it as “one of the best plays I have seen”. It is undoubtedly a “must-see” – if you can see it, do yourself that favor!

Appoggiatura will continue its run at Indiana Repertory Theatre through March 31st. 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 Ed Stewart

 

“Romeo and Juliet” at IRT UpperStage

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reviewed by Adam Crowe

Scheduling conflicts have made Ken unavailable. That’s lucky for me, as it means I was able to attend Opening Night at the Indiana Repertory Theatre for their production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. IRT’s current adaptation is presented in about 90 minutes, without Intermission. Fear not – all of the well known poetry from this classic remains. This version, partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, is aimed at school audiences. Thanks to the funding, thousands of Hoosier students will be able to experience a classic of Western literature.

My own familiarity with the play leans more towards the cultural rather than the academic. Thus, I cannot really identify what parts of the full length play were omitted from this version. I can attest that, for the most part, the storytelling is clear and brisk.

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Sophia Macías and Aaron Kirby are star-crossed lovers in “Romeo and Juliet” at IRT UpperStage.

As a local actor myself, I am happy to report that the cast is somewhat weighted towards local talent, including Ryan Artzberger, Ashley Dillard, Jeremy Fisher, Constance Macy, Logan Moore, Millicent Wright, and Robert Neal. All excel, with Wright bringing the most delight as the Nurse of the House of Capulet. Aaron Kirby and Sophia Macías provide the exuberance as the titular teenagers in love, while Charles Pasternak rounds out the cast in multiple, pivotal roles.

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Ryan Artzberger as Friar Laurence and Aaron Kirby as Romeo in a scene from IRT’s “Romeo and Juliet”.

Henry Woronicz, a frequent actor on IRT’s stage, handles the directing duties and is wise enough not to let anything get between his talented cast and the beautiful language. On the technical side, Eric Barker’s set is spare, yet appropriately evocative. Todd Reischman’s sound provides excellent accompaniment and Michael Jackson’s lighting is spot on (pardon the pun). Courtney Foxworthy and Linda Pisano have provided contemporary costuming that fits the Director’s vision.

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Millicent Wright as Nurse in a scene with Sophia Macías as Juliet in IRT’s “Romeo and Juliet”.

If you’ve never seen this classic onstage, IRT’s production gives you a perfect opportunity to experience this timeless love story and its beautiful language, brought fully to life by cast and crew.

Romeo and Juliet runs until March 3rd, but only has a dozen or so public performances, the bulk of the performances being scheduled for aforementioned school groups. As a plus, nearly every public performance has a post-show discussion, allowing the audience to share thoughts and feelings about the show.

Indiana Repertory Theatre is located at 140 West Washington Street. I always find parking at the Circle Centre Mall Garage to be easy and affordable. Tickets may be purchased by visiting the website at irtlive.com or by calling (317) 635-5252.  Ticket prices for those under 18 are very affordable, and this production provides an excellent introduction to the work of the Bard of Avon.

  • Banner artwork by Kyle Ragsdale
  • Photos by Zach Rosing

“A Raisin in the Sun” at IRT

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reviewed by Ken Klingenmeier

Indiana Repertory Theatre continues their 2017-18 season with Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece, A Raisin in the Sun. The play opened to high praise on Broadway in 1959 and went on to win the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award for Best Play of the Year. The IRT production represents the fourth opportunity for Timothy Douglas to direct the iconic play.

The story concerns the Younger family, struggling in the depths of a segregated world, hoping and dreaming for better, happier lives. Every one of the adult family members has a dream that would lift them out of their circumstance – but the times seem to be against them, with civil rights mechanisms having barely started. The expectation of a life insurance windfall seems to complicate matters, but eventually leads to the possibility of a more promising future as the family takes hold of their fates. As the play shows us – idealism is part of life, and dreams are necessary.

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Dorcas Sowunmi (Ruth Younger) and Kim Staunton (Lena Younger) in IRT’s “A Raisin in the Sun”

Presented on Scenic Designer Tony Cisek’s highly detailed rendering of the Younger family’s Chicago tenement apartment, the show is offered by a first-rate team of actors lead by veteran actress Kim Staunton’s portrayal of the matriarchal Lena Younger. Ms. Stauton recreates the role from her LA appearance in the production directed by Phylicia Rashad. Her powerful portrayal on the IRT stage is full of nuance and meaning, showing us how a loving, strong, experienced woman handles the doubts and dreams of her fluid family.

Chiké Johnson takes the role of Lena’s fancifully ambitious son, Walter Lee Younger. Johnson gives an impressive performance, riding his character’s emotional roller coaster with an astute understanding of his turmoil as he makes flawed choices in hopes of securing a better life for his family. Dorcas Sowunmi carries the weight of Walter’s wife Ruth’s disappointments and hopefulness with aplomb, while Stori Ayers shines as his younger sister, Beneatha – full of new ideas and a far more hopeful outlook for the world.

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Lex Lumpkin (Travis Younger) and Chiké Johnson (Walter Lee Younger) in IRT’s “A Raisin in the Sun”

Elisha Lawson and Jordan Bellow handle well the roles of Beneatha’s boyfriends Joseph Asagai, and George Murchison, and D. Alexander is solid as the disappointed business partner, Bobo. Lex Lumpkin does a noteworthy job as Ruth’s young grandson Travis, and Paul Tavianini completes the cast as Karl Lindner.

Kara Harmon’s costumes and Peter Maradudin’s light design add greatly to the realism that director Douglas has overseen here.

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Elisha Lawson (Joseph Asagai) and Stori Ayers (Beneatha Younger) in IRT’s “A Raisin in the Sun”

Bottomline: This script provides an American classic story-line – with a look at a part of our troubled history that is not completely resolved. While the performance I saw seemed to get off track a bit emotionally in the second act, the compelling result of the experience as a whole cannot be denied. There were many moments of strength and truth. This is a moving and important piece of drama; the ideas Ms. Hansberry has laid out in her play are powerful reminders of what we have left to do.

A Raisin in the Sun will continue its run at Indiana Repertory Theatre through February 3rd. 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

 

 

IRT’s “A Christmas Carol” – 2017

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reviewed by Vickie Cornelius Phipps

Indiana Repertory Theatre celebrates Christmas 2017 once again with it’s warm, loving stage classic of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, directed by Executive Artistic Director, Janet Allen. The opening night celebration with alumni actors joining the festivities on stage for the final song, and the after show champagne toast was enjoyed by a full house to kick off this timeless tradition for the 25th year. The play, with a single stunning set by Russell Metheny, covered with snow and framed in iron, presents the story through multiple characters’ narration. The raked stage, trap doors, and clever set displays of villages brought in by sleds, add to the scene changes while the cast switches roles seamlessly.

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Joey Collins, Emily Ristine, Maddie Medley, and Ryan Artzberger in IRT’s 2017 production of “A Christmas Carol”.

Dickens’ story, written in 1843, has been called by some a “sledge hammer” against the ills of industrialism and consumerism. Dickens’ own father had been sent to debtors’ prison, and Charles Dickens himself, at the age of 12, bitterly remembered having to leave school and work in a boot blacking factory near Convent Garden. He modeled Bob Cratchit’s lifestyle from his own experiences living in Camden Town, London. Dickens demonstrates that even in poverty, the winter holiday can inspire good will and generosity towards one’s neighbors. He shows that the spirit of Christmas has not been lost in the race to industrialize, but can live on in our world.

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Ashley Dillard, Ryan Artzberger, Charles Pasternak, and Mark Goetzinger in IRT’s 2017 production of “A Christmas Carol”.

My two favorite rituals every Christmas are to watch “It’s A Wonderful Life” and to see a production of A Christmas Carol. IRT has been that tradition. Each performance has its own personality and each of the actors give a little of themselves to the roles. Ebenezer Scrooge, (Ryan Artzberger) returns as a youthful version of the sarcastic character but still possesses the cold hearted, miserly manners of a man who lives in isolation and does not enjoy Christmas. On the eve of Christmas, Scrooge is visited by his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley (Charles Goad), who died seven years prior. Being punished for his own stingy and greedy behavior, he warns Scrooge not to repeat the same behaviors, and to give up his selfishness and instead serve with a good heart so he doesn’t bear the results of his own greed in the afterlife.

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Ryan Artzberger and Charles Goad in IRT’s 2017 production of “A Christmas Carol”.

In serial order, Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, (Emily Ristine) whose delightful voice takes Scrooge on a painful remembrance of life as a boy. Followed by the Ghost of Christmas Present (Milicent Wright), who returns as the feisty and funny spirit showing Scrooge the plight of the Cratchit family led again by Jeremy Fisher and Ms. Ristine as Bob and Mrs. Cratchit. To complete the family, Gideon Roark, Miles M. Morey, Jordan Pecar, Nina R. Morey, Camil McGhee, Aidan Betts, Ali D. Boice, Elise Keliah Benson, Tobin Seiple, and Maddie Medley, share the roles as the Cratchit children. This year, Scott Greenwell portrays the silent Christmas Future who reveals the prospect of demise for Scrooge. I especially enjoyed his subtle comic relief. Jennifer Johansen as Mrs. Fezziwig and Joey Collins, (Schoolmaster, et al.) are creative scene stealers. Ashley Dillard plays the adoring Belle while Charles Pasternak is entertaining and energetic as the nephew Fred and as Young Scrooge. The audience is treated by being surrounded from time to time with acapella singing blended beautifully into the scenes, under the musical direction of Terry Woods. Michael Lincoln’s lighting design and Murell Horton’s costumes are picturesque.

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The cast of IRT’s 2017 production of “A Christmas Carol”.

You revisit the experience because you love the story and the characters. Out of all the versions, A Christmas Carol is best experienced on a live stage. It remains one of the most popular and enduring Christmas stories of all time. Check out IRT’s Special Events for the whole family, A Christmas Carol & Holiday Hoopla. Reserve your tickets soon at www.irtlive.com. This show continues through December 24th.

  • Banner artwork by Kyle Ragsdale
  • Photos by Zach Rosing

“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

“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.

Rowe Daly

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).

Ensemble2

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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