Monday, October 24, 2016

The other part of "Finding Home": Indiana's bicentennial has a second, closely related celebration at IRT

Jan Lucas and Tim Grimm lead an ensemble song in "Finding Home."
Near the end of John Bartlow Martin's painstaking 1947 study, "Indiana: An Interpretation," the prolific midcentury reporter writes that "America is full of people like the Hoosiers,"and "America is a larger Indiana."

That might seem like the sort of sweeping summary authors use to give their books a more comprehensive stance than they would otherwise have.  But I think it applies particularly to an underlying theme I detected in "Gold," the second of two shows called "Finding Home: Indiana at 200," which premiered at Indiana Repertory Theatre Sunday afternoon.

A tendency embedded in the American experiment to spoil Paradise finds expression in "Hoosier Cannonball," among many deep-grained songs in old-timey style created by Tim Grimm and performed in both shows by him and his family quartet (with the addition of fiddler Katie Burk). The serpent in the American tree has always had a long list of temptations, and Americans dependably keep checking items off.

Madame C.J. Walker (Kim Staunton) exults in her business success.
Even more than its companion "Blue," which opened last Friday, "Gold" emphasizes the difficult search for justice that societies founded upon its promise have to undertake. Yet even as many kinds of unfairness happen and may be exposed, there is likely to emerge the myth of a golden age fiercely tended by the dominant group.

As a title, "Gold" refers to one of the colors of the Indiana flag. But the susceptibility of something precious to tarnish extends a warning against complacency to Hoosiers. When writ large, the warning seems applicable to the whole country. As Robert Frost wrote in his sententious gem of a poem, "Nothing Gold Can Stay": "Nature's first green is gold, / her hardest hue to hold."

Yet the essential optimism of those who fight to assert their place in the American scheme of things indicates their ability to think golden thoughts, too. Shari Wagner's monologue for Madame C.J. Walker, passionately portrayed by Kim Staunton, brims with confidence in the broad meaning of creating and selling hair-care products and other cosmetics to black women. The entrepreneurial spirit, among Hoosiers and their fellow Americans alike, often has a saving idealism to partner with naked ambition.

Mark Goetzinger as Louis Shapiro
Hoosier pride is compounded of many instances of individual pride, like that expressed by Louis Shapiro nearly a century ago as he frets over the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in his beloved adopted hometown. Mark Goetzinger had a winning solo showcase (written by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso) as the delicatessen founder in his shop, touting his corned beef and America with equal verve. This was among many well-judged individual portraits, directed by Peter Amster,  which had pride shading into bravado even as they justify their appeal to our sympathies.

You might feel some of that, surprisingly, in the ingratiating bumptiousness of David Hoppe's portrait of John Dillinger. The perpetual tug of fame and celebrity on Americans often gathered up criminals in the early decades of the last century. Michael Joseph Mitchell was a pepperpot of bravado as he roamed the stage, replicating Dillinger's  fast-paced dash from state to state ahead of the authorities.

They would have to find Dillinger in Chicago indulging in his movie-watching passion before bringing his career to a violent end. Hoppe's way of capturing the glow of fame, in whatever manner it's pursued, displayed the same knack he showed in a full-length one-actor play of recent memory, "After Paul McCartney."

Another writing triumph in "Gold" was the contribution of Dan Wakefield, one of an elite company (is it more than two?) of literary stars from Indianapolis to have a city park named after them. With the loving attention to detail comparable to the James Joyce of "Dubliners," Wakefield made a basketball memoir that proved in performance to be another feather in the cap of cast member Goetzinger, who made the name-and-places-rich monologue seem entirely unaffected and spontaneous.

"Finding Home" is likely to stick in the memory for any number of small details that can stand for great swaths of experience: In "Blue," Madge Obertholtzer's odd timing for trying on hats in Susan Neville's sketch of her victimization by Klan boss D.C. Stephenson.  In "Gold," the scar on black businessman John Freeman's leg, crucial in preventing his being tossed into slavery and decisive in his decision to leave Indianapolis for Canada (Maurice Broaddus' work, starring David Alan Anderson). Also, a double portrait of two brave women by Lucrecia Guerrero and Neville, the lovely Victorian finery (among Ann Sheffield's costume designs) worn by DeLanna Studi and Jan Lucas, lending visual poise to the determination with which Albion Fellows Bacon and May Wright Sewall carried themselves in struggling for social progress.

Writers of distinction are the chief carriers of our cultural and historical memories. They are the basis of "Finding Home"'s success, the foundation upon which the wizards of IRT have conjured this indelible parade of Hoosier distinctiveness. As the Grimms sing simply in a musical portrait about another great Hoosier writer: "We know all about it / because Ernie Pyle was there."

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Sunday, October 23, 2016

'Rocky Horror Show' gathers the faithful at the Athenaeum

Scott Keith as Dr. Frank 'N Furter.
The curtain speech is on the screen high above the Athenaeum's Basile Theatre stage, the iconic scarlet lips mouthing the usual welcome and warnings to turn cellphones to vibrate and place them at the pleasure zones of your choice. Uh...what?

OK, that's not quite the conventional pre-show advisory, but then, the presentation is "The Rocky Horror Show." That perdurable send-up of science fiction and horror movies of a couple of generations ago, linked to a pounding rock score and saturated in pansexualism and the pleasure principle, is back.

Zach Rosing Productions has again brought the Richard O'Brien musical to the downtown landmark designed by Kurt Vonnegut's grandfather, and so it goes. At the second performance Saturday, all cylinders were firing as the sturdy vehicle roared round its twisted track. It is scheduled to continue in that manner through Oct. 29.

The band's volume, with the vocal amplification on top, obscured many of the lyrics. But this is the kind of show where, if the verbal specifics aren't clear, the general sense of them is both well-known and almost instantly catchable. And given the setting, with Rathskeller entertainment thumping through walls and floor from below, dialing up to "11" in the theater is practically mandatory.

Wide-eyed Brad and Janet at the castle entrance.
The technical wizardry is keen and elaborate. As usherettes, Claire Wilcher and Erin Becker introduce the audience to the generating genre as a montage of film clips shudders behind them in retro black-and-white splendor. From then on, the spell is complete, from the wedding party that the innocents Brad and Janet leave to go visit their old science teacher Dr. Scott on into the thunderstorm and car trouble that dump them at the doorstep of Dr. Frank 'N Furter's castle. And that's just the crisply executed first quarter-hour.

We are guided through the story by the narration of Adam O. Crowe on screen, properly portentous, with the gravitas of Eric Sevareid and Vincent Price combined, at the desk of a dark-wood-paneled library. As apt as his solemn presence is, we are never long distracted from the lively unfolding of the onstage action, keyed to Scott Keith's virtuoso impersonation of Frank, cross-dressed and bearish, both needy and commanding. His chief victims, the flashy Eddie and the paraplegic Dr. Scott, had unquenchable vivacity in Joanna Winston's performance.

The mad scientist's household, filled out with adherents (or are they virtual slaves?) outfitted in inspired motley by Peachy Keen Costuming, cavorts around him, usually in the striking patterns of Mariel Greenlee's choreography. Everyone's excited by the imminent debut of Frank's creature on the slab in the lab. Brad and Janet are assured they are uncommonly lucky to be there, as the anthemic "Time Warp" rips from every throat. The nerdy ingenues, played with apple-cheeked earnestness and growing astonishment by Tim Hunt and Betsy Norton, are soon to sink, with their standards in shreds, into the Furter milieu.

Rocky, his dim-bulb mind compensated for by the radiance of his hair and physique, comes sweetly alive in the performance of Joe Doyel. The title character brings out most of the free-floating lustfulness of his creator, but not all of it, as Brad and Janet are soon to discover. There are no boundaries in this world, except the perennial one of deciding who's in control. That turns out to be the ostensibly loyal servants Riff Raff and Magenta, roles boldly etched and executed by Craig Underwood and Claire Wilcher. The climactic scene of vaporizing violence  is typical of the coordination and verve the production team brings to this show, from director Zack Neiditch on.

Castle denizens celebrate life, both natural and artificial.
The peculiar charm of "Rocky Horror Show," apart from its campy take on the movie subgenres that inspired it, owes a lot to the funhouse-mirror distortion of 1960s idealism in the decade that followed. At its most naive end, there's the boundary-free utopia of John Lennon's "Imagine." I see also in the background the controversial application of Freudianism to modern history by Norman O. Brown in "Life Against Death," once a fashionable intellectual puzzler that suggested universal victory over repression could be achieved.

What Freud identified as the polymorphously perverse sexuality of infants, seeking gratification wherever their developing senses lead them, might be extended into adulthood, Brown proposed in a book he later substantially repudiated.  Nonetheless, such a fatuous dream seems to energize "Rocky Horror," with a sci-fi escape tacked onto the end.

The hold the Frankenstein story continues to exert owes much to Mary Shelley's awareness that evil lies in the vain attempt to engineer life, not just in the experiment's monstrous result. O'Brien's fizzy concoction is rooted in the same awareness, though the audience is spared having its nose rubbed in it. The raucous fun rules, right from the wink-wink, nudge-nudge of the mad scientist's name.

The soporific crooner Perry Como might be rolling over in his grave when I admit here to being reminded of his hit song, the part that goes: "Hot-diggity, hot-diggity-dog, what you do to me, when you're holding me tight." Dr. Frank 'N Furter exerts such a grip in this buoyant production. Don't stop at putting your phone on vibrate. Power it down, and let "The Rocky Horror Show" power you up.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Saturday, October 22, 2016

'Finding Home: Indiana at 200' — IRT displays a Hoosier cornucopia of song and vignettes

The niftiest thing about Indiana Repertory Theatre's bicentennial observance is not that the job of sifting submissions from Hoosier writers has been so smoothly integrated into two shows, but that the balance of celebration and friendly criticism is so keen, affectionate, and deft.

Here I cover only the "Blue" show, which opened the run Friday night. The "Gold" version, with 70 percent new material, opens Sunday afternoon. Mentioning everything even one of these shows contains would be cumbersome, but I will say that all the "Blue" sketches "worked," and that balance of pride and finger-wagging was also carried through in the original songs Tim Grimm performed with his family, plus fiddler Katie Burk.

Through narrative elements as well as his music, Grimm gives "Finding Home" a solid, inviting continuity. Integrating a show emphasizing Indiana's "who-knew?" diversity and friction-filled history must have been a Herculean labor. But what's delivered to the audience is mostly fun, romping around Robert Mark Morgan's detailed, folksy set, including emblems of Hoosier history in a floor collage.

A rousing song led by Tim Grimm is one of many ways the show salutes our 200-year-old state.
What human community doesn't look askance at people who don't seem to belong? The way Indiana shares that trait with people everywhere has an irony rooted in its name. "The land of Indians" had uprooted the native peoples from their land by the 1830s, the show informs us. That's pretty quick work for a state cobbled out of the wilderness (which was also briskly cleared away) in 1816.

"Finding Home" also seems universal in showing how difficult progress is, whether it involves overcoming resistance to using actual science to spur pharmaceutical advances (there's a crisp Eli Lilly/G.H.A. Clowes sketch by Jennifer Blackmer)  or breaking the gender barrier at the Indianapolis 500 (Tom Horan's wonderful ensemble piece about Janet Guthrie for the cast's women).

It's tempting to see those outfoxed or set aside by history as villains in retrospect. Some can be fairly identified as such, though the nastiest of them (in a sly stroke) is the Kentuckian who seeks to disrupt the Underground Railroad in Bennett Ayres' sketch. But you also have to see resisters as defenders of good, settled ways of life slow to innovate, like the young farmer tempted to join the Ku Klux Klan in Donna L. Reynolds' piece.

You may have to examine times when you chose closed-mindedness in your own life. The thoughtfulness threaded throughout this long show is as integral to it as the fun, such as the high-spirited ensemble kudos for Hoosier food and the Indy 500 in songs by Tim Grimm and Jan Lucas.

Finding home with difficulty: James Dean visits his high-school drama teacher in Fairmount.
The profoundest of the thought-provoking sketches is Sarah Layden's description of the ostracism Ryan White suffered dealing with AIDS acquired through a blood transfusion in the early days of the scourge. David Alan Anderson plays a high-school classmate of the Kokomo teenager, whose valiant struggle attracted worldwide attention and brought celebrities to his Indianapolis funeral in 1990.

Anderson's performance captured the halting self-appraisal a searing, guilty memory often arouses in us. He seemed to float above Layden's words in an atmosphere of reminiscence and regret that felt fully authentic. I mean this in the best sense: The actor was engaged with the text, responsive to its narrative element, while also transcending it as the speaker seeks atonement for his youthful lack of empathy and support.

Ensemble shout-out to food includes Jackson Grimm and Jan Lucas.
You know how in a dream you are sometimes lifted out of yourself, observing, while also being inside your skin doing something (usually trivial, silly or puzzling)? This was like that, but on the most serious, real-world level. I won't soon forget how well-judged Anderson's management of talk and pauses was, how precisely he expressed the anguish of assessing a past moral failure without chewing the scenery.

That made his final gesture —  of placing a hand gently on Ryan's jacket, draped over a pizza parlor chair, then sitting down —  a mute blessing that ennobled all the words that had gone before. The cliche of being able to hear a pin drop applies to the silence of the IRT Upper Stage crowd here; the sketch was well-placed before the comforting and upbeat finale.

There is so much else that could be praised about this bicentennial hootenanny and history lesson — and such commitment and skill in the parade of portrayals directed by Peter Amster, but I want to mention only three more: DeLanna Studi's performances in James Still and Anne Garcia-Romero's riveting story of Princess Mishawaka and Bruce Hetrick's narrative of the Deer Lick Creek Massacre, genuine Hoosier episodes in the dreary, depressing advance of injustice toward native peoples across the continent; and Michael Joseph Mitchell (Eugene V. Debs) and Mark Goetzinger (James Whitcomb Riley) in Dan Carpenter's uproarious flight of fancy involving two Hoosier icons in their cups.

Some of the Hoosiers I have known since coming here in 1986 are no longer among us to enjoy
"Finding Home." I have put together an imaginary guest list to occupy some of the seats between now and Nov. 13. At the top of it are the names of Lawrence "Bo" Connor, who hired me at The Star, and Frances Linthecome, on whose memories Still drew for one of his evocative Indiana plays and whom I got to know at church.

You will have your own list, I'm sure.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Friday, October 21, 2016

Dance Kaleidoscope opens its season with 'Moving Sculptures'

"Pictures": Statuesque, with a soupcon of risk
The Dance Kaleidoscope program title really popped for me in the final appearance of the "Promenade" in Maurice Ravel's orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." That's the episode where the recurrent theme of the suite is recast in a spooky minor mode. In David Hochoy's choreography, there is a stunning parade of couples — the men lifting the women — that moves slowly and individually across the Upper Stage of Indiana Repertory Theatre, where "Moving Sculptures" continues through Sunday.

The three-dimensionality of the paired dancers is vivid and monumental under Laura E. Glover's lighting. The movement is stately yet loaded with tension, because the lifts are formed so as to look precarious. They are actually more secure than they appear, given the troupe's usual professional aplomb.

Hochoy gives himself the freedom both to stay close to the pictures that inspired Mussorgsky and to move away from them. In this case, the sepulchral nature of this episode, following as it does in the spirit of "Catacombs," is set aside in favor of asserting the majesty of dance in fresh configurations, presented slowly enough to appreciate as a celebration of life (ironically the phrase often used today in ceremonies honoring the deceased).

First performed by the company in 2010, "Pictures at an Exhibition" was a pleasure to revisit. The visual splendor of the production couldn't have been more apt to the topic. The dancers enter slowly to the "Promenade" theme, looking around as if struck by amazement at the exhibition. DK  dancers can even walk in wonder and make you feel it.

The costumes of Cheryl Sparks, with their lavish touches of tattoo art, get a boost into fantasy in the pulse-pounding "Hut of Baba Yaga" miniature, when two caped male dancers acted as deft superheroes, with the rest of the company masked. The movement was spidery and full of sharp-angled turmoil, evoking the nightmarish realms of Hieronymus Bosch. Glover's lighting seemed to draw inspiration from both comic books and the colors of Fauvism.

In the finale, "The Great Gate of Kiev," the protean panache of Glover's lighting for DK reaches a peak. I don't think the recorded sound needed to be so loud, so it's a tribute to what there was to see onstage that I was able mentally to dial that assault back a few notches. In listening to this oft-performed work, I have never been so moved as I was Thursday by the two subdued episodes meant to depict the chanting of priests in the dedication procession. The lighting switches to an all-absorbing purple as the women move in ceremonial fashion, calmly contained in a bubble of piety, before the golden outburst of exultation resumes. Bells herald the theme's final repetition, as dancers rock side to side like giant clappers, the whole stage ablaze.

A couple of episodes that Hochoy has kept close to the description of the original pictures still left him lots of imaginative room. "The Gnome," meant to show a confined, misshapen creature, brought out a display of unhackneyed grotesquerie. It was probably not mistaken to detect some of the trapped postures of love in this episode.

"The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in Their Shells" was suggestive just enough of its subject to feel comic without becoming Disneyesque. The division of the troupe in two, one moving stolidly, one in near-stationary contrast, marvelously suggested the passing of an ox cart in "Bydlo"; Glover had another lighting triumph here, the figures dappled and flecked with earthen tones, with some highlighting evoking the dramatic illumination of Mannerism.

A couple of solos are worth mentioning: Timothy June's in a group setting of "Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle" and Noah Trulock in a version of the Promenade that he danced with as much flair as I remember ever seeing from him.

I thought he was spectacular all evening, frankly. His acting chops were the focus in "Lake Effect Snow," a 2014 work for DK by Brock Clawson. The work, a kind of Bildungsroman of a young man's adjustment to and acceptance of his uniqueness, uses the motif of Trulock on a bench facing upstage and the gesture of an around-the-shoulder embrace, with his or another's arm occasionally extended around the empty space beside him. A variety of partners encounter the protagonist, and something like a Greek chorus of dance commentary comes into and out of view. There are striking blackouts and the use of isolating light patterns.

Stuart Coleman in "Lake Effect Snow," a reprise of 2015 DK premiere.
Dance is not naturally suited to opening up the interior life, though Clawson's work has plenty of precedents in that regard. Nonetheless, "Lake Effect Snow" is a notable example of  how choreography can be as sensitive to mental and emotional intimacy as related dramatic arts.

His language for the dancers is replete with torso twists, abrupt downward plunges, arms flung outward at the elbow, and other sudden changes of angle. The solitary character seems to be both dreaming these people and experiencing them physically. Other people's relationship to the protagonist is often kept in suspense or presented as shaded by ambiguity and double-mindedness. The outlook seems to me skillfully balanced between pessimism and optimism. That makes the mystery at the heart of "Lake Effect Snow" rewarding to come to terms with.

The program opens with a setting of Rimsky-Korsakov's stirring "Capriccio Espagnol" for about a dozen of Indianapolis School of Ballet's female dancers. Victoria Lyras' choreography had an agreeable in-and-out flow of ensemble and solo movement. The soloists replicated the score's wealth of instrumental solos. The well-known work gathers orchestral force through sweeping triple-meter variations into an intense double-time stretto, by which stage these excellently trained young dancers didn't appear to have much left. But the showcase for them was worthwhile, and they acquitted themselves well.

[Photos by Chris Crawl and Freddie Kelvin]

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Recipe for excitement: The Cookers play the Jazz Kitchen

What a delicious thing to contemplate and enjoy! — The Cookers at the Jazz Kitchen. I almost had the idea that maybe Jolene Ketzenberger or Liz Biro should be covering the gig. But there I was, so

Decades of experience come together around original charts, first-rate together and singly.
we'll go with a translation of the appetizing names over to the music right away here. In the first set, while a torrential thunderstorm presided outside, the septet that has energized small-group acoustic jazz anew set out a compact feast for a decent-sized crowd, considering the weather.

In his opening statement to the band's enthusiasts, spokesman and trumpeter David Weiss called it "the smallest crowd we've ever played for," which seemed an unnecessarily dour way to begin. It was like a preacher opening his sermon complaining about sparsely filled pews. What are the people in attendance supposed to think? "Are we being bawled out for those who stayed away?"

The Cookers deserve to bring in housefuls of fans, of course. Besides Weiss, there is a personnel list of head-spinning authority and experience: tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison joining Weiss in the front line, and a rhythm section consisting of veterans George Cables, piano; Cecil McBee, bass, and Billy Hart, drums.

At first, Hart's drums were too high in the mix: You rarely hear drums covering a tenor-sax solo!  The situation was brought into balance by the second number,"Beyond Forever," a piece by Cables, and it was a pleasure to re-encounter his characteristic blend of down-home feeling and lyricism  (with some fine in-the-pocket drive in Hart's playing) and also the fluidity and note-spinning agility of Harrison.

A Billy Harper composition, "Croquet Ballet," touched on the refined pulse associated with the second word in the title, and featured ensemble passages in between the solos.  The coda settled into a repeated figure for just the four horns, always precisely timed, with variations in notes dropping out without disturbing the pattern's contour. It was witty, beautifully harmonized, and a further sign of the band's excellence and internal rapport.

The set finale, Freddie Hubbard's "The Core," presented the first solo opportunity for the thick-toned but ever adroit McBee (though his role in the rhythm section was always worth noticing) as he introduced the rambunctious theme. The propulsive Hart, a relentless generator of dense textures nimbly set down, got an extensive solo into which he poured a wealth of ideas, astonishingly accented and presented with consistent focus.

The next-to-last piece, Harper's "If One Could Only See," was introduced by a limpid Cables solo.  This rendition centered on a showcase solo by Henderson, who showed off his ability to maintain a line even while he found ways to shake it up consistently to let any hint of cliche fly away.

It was typical of how these adept players approach their work. They made the boundary between tight ensemble and pungent soloing seamless. It's no wonder that there's more than all-star status to explain the Cookers' stature: They are making new music that keeps extending the legacy that can already be credited to them as individuals.

One just doesn't get the chance to hear a seven-piece touring band of major players often. The Cookers would be welcome back to Indianapolis anytime; perhaps with better weather and fewer folks settling in at home for a presidential debate, they'd pack the house.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

"Everybody Must Get Trumped (Rainy Day Women #8 and #28)": a pre-debate special, interpolating "A Trump Portrait" and a salute to the Nobel lit prize winner

Is there anything the Republican presidential candidate and his adherents won't take offense at? This song runs through a considerable list of how you can get "Trumped," but -- heaven help us! -- it could have been even longer.