Thursday, August 25, 2016

Castanets and tambourines: "Hernando's Hideaway" becomes "Hillary's Hideaway" in this song of worries

Is there any cause to worry about the clout of the Clinton Foundation in the face of a prospective Clinton presidency? This song, with facts from David Folkenflick's NPR reporting and accompaniment by Mantovani, attempts to address certain reasonable anxieties.

IndyFringe Festival, Days Six and Seven: Closing it out with reports on four shows

At least once a year, you can select a local leisure-time activity that is sure to plop you into the cliche of getting out of your comfort zone. That's what the 2016 IndyFringe Fest offers through Sunday, right on schedule. Even if you stick to selections you feel sure you'll like, there will be surprises.

As a self-published critic, I run the risk of looking clueless — maybe even while covering genres I'm supposed to know something about. I invite you to be the judge of that in what follows.

Despite appearances, Act a Foo' doesn't look down at its audiences.
My last show put me in the pretty unfamiliar territory of African-American improvisational comedy, with Act a Foo' Improv Crew's Wednesday evening show at the Phoenix Theatre. Four actors and an emcee kept the audience-participation-intense performance super-busy and a challenge to follow.

 I laughed heartily, if often uncomprehendingly, at the rapid-fire succession of games and sketches. My grasp of pop culture is weak, for one thing, but we all bring personal handicaps to encounters with anything we're not used to. The show is engaging, and the troupe feeds creatively off the audience's raucous goodwill.

I was drawn into the audience-participation format when I was asked to suggest a dream job other than the one I retired from at the Indianapolis Star three years ago last spring. This is improv, so prepare to have your suggestion modified if you are so tapped. When I said, after a long pause, that I'd like to be a pollster for the Libertarians, it was my idea of a dream job only in the ridiculous-fantasy sense: I doubt I'd enjoy spinning interview data for a bunch of smug quasi-anarchists.

So I probably deserved having "pollster" turned into "upholsterer," and the Libertarians disappearing entirely. The couch-repair sketch that resulted was funny. A troupe with Act a Foo's knack for spontaneous comedy knows when some instant revision is advisable, and the emcee was continually alert to challenging and redirecting his actors as well.

Still, I wonder what this group might do with a Libertarian pollster on the job. It could go something like the "Life of Brian" dialogue by Jewish militants about Roman rule: "Apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?" But even to imply that the Act a Foo' men might fashion anything predictable out of a suggestion they in fact didn't take violates the spirit of improv. And this troupe is about as skilled as imaginable at its deliberately slapdash craft. I would not ever take an actual couch to them, but they are great comfort-zone smashers.

The night before, I had to demolish fewer obstacles to appreciate "I'd Like to See More of You: A Vaudevillian Burlesque," the Fringe debut at Theatre on the Square of the often-amazing BOBDIREX Productions, the work of the wizardly Robert W. Harbin. With a wealth of songs and dances, most of them nicely naughty, the well-dressed and -undressed cast provided captivating entertainment. It held my undivided attention from the title song, performed by the multifaceted, adorable Claire Wilcher,  to the finale, an ensemble dance with peekaboo clothing maneuvers to a "Sing, Sing, Sing" that Benny Goodman never imagined.

Speaking of cultural icons, Walt Disney and henchmen created a memorable setting of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" in "Fantasia" that had Mickey Mouse dealing with out-of-control brooms. Everyone remembers that. Harbin reconceives the apprentice's comeuppance as the outgrowth of a disobedient employee (Wilcher) donning a forbidden hat, whose X-rated design inspires a flood of demon-wielded imitations to cavort around the stage. Trigger warning: Anyone who takes in this show (there are three more performances) will  have two sets of images competing for attention whenever he or she hears the Paul Dukas tone poem.
The doctor is in: Claire Wilcher (from left), Stacia Hulen, and Bradley Keiper

I don't want to know whether my eyes were bugging out and my tongue lolling a la Jim Carrey in "The Mask" responding to Cameron Diaz.  I'll simply salute here the striptease aplomb of Drew Bryson, Jenee Michele, and the towel-swapping duo of Lincoln Slentz and Kris Ezra. Kudos as well for a few vocal showcases, ably accompanied by pianist Deb Ward: Stacia Hulen's "Wherever He Ain't," Joi Blalock's double-entendre ode to a secondhand chair, and Bradley Keiper's "You'd Be Surprised."

On the same stage Wednesday evening, the musical-theater side of the festival had me focusing on an ambitious book musical, "Calder," a collaboration of Dustin Klein (music) and Tom Alvarez (book and lyrics). An instrumental trio led by pianist Klein lent hefty accompaniments to the songs. The brio behind the songs' presentation helped make up for some lackluster aspects at the creative level. When the full production takes the IndyFringe Basile stage come November, maybe some gaps in this bio-musical of the larger-than-life Alexander Calder, among the greatest American artists of the 20th century, will be filled in. The need to handle narrative elements and enable time transitions with efficiency was met by giving Calder a wisecracking guardian angel in the form of Thalia, the Greek muse of comedy, played with zest by Nathalie Cruz.

Liberties with a subject's life are fair enough when it comes to creating entertainment, of course. Yet "Calder" cries out for a big song about the mobile, an outgrowth of the wire creatures, including Calder's reputation-forging "Circus," that get a lot of attention in this show. Klein and Alvarez set the tone with "Wires and Pliers," an affectionate duet for "Sandy" as a boy and his loyal big sister Peggy. And Calder "stabiles" are the pride of several civic spaces around the world; there was one at Ground Zero, spookily titled "Bent Propeller," and there's another that's well-known to Hoosiers on the lawn outside the Musical Arts Center at Indiana University.

That Sandy was going his own way from an early age with sturdy family encouragement is well-represented here. My acquaintance with Calder's autobiography, however, suggests that he was not bullied by his peers for being different -- nothing beyond the usual rough-and-tumble scrapes of early 20th-century boyhood. As an adult, the sculptor even recalled his pride at engaging older boys' admiring interest in his budding craft.

Logan Moore and ensemble in the circus scene from "Calder."
Logan Moore plays and sings the mature sculptor with the joie de vivre that Calder expressed in his art, despite an episode of deep discouragement of the kind that seems to be required in shows that emphasize a hero's mastery of all hindrances.

From the Rodgers and Hammerstein of "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "Climb Every Mountain" through "The Impossible Dream" of "Man of La Mancha" to "Defying Gravity" of "Wicked," the American musical theater often bounces upon trampoline anthems of encouragement. Klein and Alvarez set their seal of aspiration and triumph upon two songs: "A Path to Follow," the hero's solo pep talk, and "Prize in the Sky," a Sondheimesque duet for Calder and his wife Louisa (Katie Schuman).

Ben Dobler's projection designs put various evocative scenes on the backdrop, more in pastels than the primary colors Calder favored, yet resonant with Calder's lyricism and whimsy. Ashley Kiefer did the costumes; Mariel Greenlee, the choreography. Both serve the show's atmosphere well, especially in a ragtime-influenced circus song for the ensemble.

There may not have been room to work in a bit of Hoosier bicentennial trivia: Just a few blocks away from "Calder" is the DePew Memorial Fountain in University Park. Between 1915 and 1919, Calder's father, briefly portrayed in this show in unsympathetic terms, completed the work launched by his mentor and ever since enjoyed by Downtown visitors and loiterers.

A concluding report on a one-man show at ComedySportz: "What's a Wedding Got to Do With It?"  Seen Wednesday night, Jeremy Schaefer of Chicago displayed brilliance with a well-delivered monologue on the subject of marriage, in general and particular. He mixed his own experience with "observational" comedy, so that the sociological and cultural values of marriage today meshed with an account of his hard-won acceptance of formally tying the knot.

The staging was astute, with the monologue divided into scenes that often called for slight costuming changes. Schaefer's talk was rich in imagery and satirical quips, yet it was also affirmative in ways that most happily married people can identify with. Some things went by me that I didn't understand -- things that registered with other audience members more than with me.

For instance: James K. Polk, 11th president of the United States, is apparently a laugh line. He's one of my least favorite presidents. The comedian's references to him seemed gratuitous as he tried to explain how Polk thematically shaped Schaefer's design of his wedding web site. I guess couples are doing that sort of thing now. Polk drove our first misbegotten war, unless you count the War of 1812. A young congressman named Abraham Lincoln, speaking against the Mexican War, had this to say about Polk's weaselly war policy: "His mind taxed, beyond his power, is running hither and thither, like some tortured creature on a burning surface, finding no position on which it can settle down and be at ease."

Schaefer's mind seems to be like that, but that may help produce good stand-up comedy. He fights against it almost successfully, and the conclusion of "What's a Wedding Got to Do With It?" fortunately indicates he knows how to be at ease when love is in charge.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Indy FringeFest, Day Five: Prophecy, curse, and religion in 'Sleeping Beauty,' ballet off the classical-romantic track, and naughty Las Vegas pizazz

Opportunities for going contrary to expectation on the one hand, reinforcing what you're known for on the other, and surprising and mystifying an audience on the third (an impossibility suggested by the show I'm thinking of) abound at the 12th annual IndyFringe Festival.

The mainstage at Theatre on the Square is a welcoming arena for a dance show, but up to now, I've only caught Dance Kaleidscope on that stage. Monday night it was a pleasure to see the Indianapolis School of Ballet's "Beyond Ballet" there. Victoria Lyras' 10-year-old organization is going from strength to strength, shown most recently in the announcement that the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra will be playing for its "Nutcracker" production in December.

I liked the refreshing application of ballet to classic jazz in "Waitin' for Katie" by Ben Pollack (in whose band Benny Goodman got his start). The "beyond" note was immediately struck as the audience took in the surprising aptness of the ballet vocabulary to 80-year-old popular music. That piece was by William Patrick Dunne, and the program surveyed a host of modern styles, with a nod to tradition in the middle, the Petipa-Minkus "Paquita Suite." Brightly presented and sharply defined, that spiffy work opened with a pas de trois (Entrada) and moved splendidly through three variations, ending in a poised coda.

Noah Trulock, a featured guest dancer from Dance Kaleidoscope, makes his first appearance in the program in Lyras' "Machichis & William," a pas de deux with Alexandra James with a scenario of an encounter between an American Indiana maiden and local settler William Conner. Lyras withheld her creative side from the rest of the program except for the three-part finale, "TangoX3," to music of Astor Piazzola.

It was a triumphant exhibition of how suitable the best tango music is for creative extrapolation beyond the conventional tango movement.  A sensuous pas de deux to  "Oblivion" for Trulock and Hannah Schenk was bookended by ensemble pieces "Imperial" and "Escualo" to open up the space around Lyras' inspirations, indicating the culturally shared spirit of tango. "Oblivion" was fascinating: crisply articulated, daring, steamy, and elegant.

Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise," to a lush arrangement for strings, was a lyrical ensemble piece, with effective counterpoint between the troupe's two men (Noah Klarck and Luther DeMyer) and nine women. The dramatic scenario of Roberta Wong's "We See Things As We Are" was vivid but a little hard to interpret in the excerpt presented. Finally, I have to confess an aversion to John Lennon's song "Imagine," so it's a credit to DeMyer's flair as a tap dancer that I didn't mind it at all in this brilliant performance, where I could interpret the dance as superior to its vehicle.

On the same stage earlier in the evening came the high-energy "Class, Grass & Ass," a Las Vegas-style extravaganza of often naughty song and dance starring Deb Mullins. The show's star has a long performing history in the area, and the loyal, close-to-capacity audience loudly cheered her and her colleagues on.

She had professionally astute support from saucy singer-dancers Jenee Michele, Deb Wims, and Carol Worcel as the "Debutantes." A band adept at styles ranging from novelty items from the Swing Era to pop/rock favorites from 1968 onward provides onstage accompaniment. Troye Kinnett leads the  instrumental quartet from the keyboard, and is featured with Mullins on accordion for "Squeeze Box."

With Kinnett and his guitar-bass-drums sidemen going all out, professionally snazzy to the core, there was sometimes an imbalance Monday between Mullins' vocals and the accompaniment. Some of this had to do with her face mic's cutting out (especially during "My Eye on You"). Whether she was being temporarily covered or not, she held her own with a trouper's aplomb.

The show — divided into four parts after each rhyming word of the title, with "class" first and last — was directed  and choreographed by Worcel, who also designed eye-catching costumes. Songs touting recreational drugs and sex give a "blue" tint to the production.

There is never a dull moment, yet there's enough ebb and flow in the intensity to allow for frequent, undisruptive  costume changes by the star and the Debutantes. In a final display of community zest, "Class, Grass & Ass" concludes with a stand-up-and-sing-along reprise of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together."

For a much darker, even menacing sense of spectacle, you might want to visit "Sleeping Beauty," an adaptation of the famous fairy tale being presented by The 7th Artistry of Zionsville at the IndyFringe Basile Theater. Seen Monday night, the show struck me with its elaborate and arresting visual design, as well as the poise of its young cast in conveying the work's mixture of dramatic dialogue and performance-art tableaux and gestures, set to a booming soundtrack.

The familiar fairy tale of the curse upon an infant princess is blended in this version with an early American setting and the hysteria with which unchecked evil was feared and fought, particularly in late-17th-century Salem, Massachusetts, by the religiously orthodox. The split among four supernaturally powered sisters between Do No Evil and the other three — Speak, Hear, and See No Evil — is at the center of the scenario.

Sacrifice of the innocent to satisfy the demands of overwhelming power is always heart-wrenching, whether in our everyday world or in the special one of "Sleeping Beauty." Curses are emblematic of tragically unmet needs for justice, which neither world ever guarantees.The struggle for young souls is perpetual, and takes many forms. In this show, the desire to break the chain of accusation, suspicion, control, and punishment is elevated to a position of mythic weight.

The costumes are stunning, the light and sound design thoroughly at the service of the fragmented but ultimately coherent story.  If you have a taste for fairy tales, the more outlandish the better, or the dark symbolism of stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Sleeping Beauty" will play upon your mind as well as your nerve ends indelibly.

Monday, August 22, 2016

"Who's Sorry Now?": With apologies to the shade of Connie Francis, here's my response to Donald Trump's difficulty with apologies

IndyFringe Fest, Day Four: Tapping into history, macabre verse, and performance art

My Sunday visit to the 2016 Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival let me nibble around the edges of the typical gingerbread hut of stage performance. (Invited inside, I usually resist the urge to shove the resident crone into the oven.)

I sampled classic light verse brought to life, cutting-edge testimony from the spoken-word and standup comedy scenes, and the art of tap dance historically considered.

It's been decades since the verse of Robert W. Service, James Whitcomb Riley, Hilaire Belloc and Alfred Noyes has jangled around in my head. At the Phoenix Underground, "A Darkly Humorous Evening with Stephen Vincent Giles" rang those bells all over again with a flair I was never able to manage.
Stephen Vincent Giles: Drenched in the comical macabre.

Giles, with some funky wardrobe changes and low-tech projected title and author identification to one side, brings into fresh perspective the sounds of poetry meant to be understood and enjoyed at first hearing.

This is the genre that Edward Lear perfected on the plain of nonsense, G.K. Chesterton in the arenas of war and religion,  and Rudyard Kipling at sea and the far reaches of the British Empire. The multifaceted Indianapolis performer focuses on the subgenre of verse narratives, with humorously doleful limericks by the inimitable Edward Gorey interpolated, that tend toward the macabre and ghostly.

The climax of the show is a vivid, increasingly despairing, reciting of "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe. It's a poem so famous it even provided the name of the football team that just edged the Colts in a preseason game. And to think Poe never did much for the Ravens' home city (originally the Colts') except die there. That's poetic influence writ large!

Though Giles' program consisted of pieces with a strong "tum-ta-tum-ta-tum" metric stress, he was never metronomic in performing them. Letting meter and rhyme take care of themselves, thanks to his poets' adept prosody, Giles went for the expressive content of the selections, from "The Raven" to the drolly gruesome "Ballad of Blasphemous Bill" by the Anglo-Canadian versifier Service. In the latter case, the recitation was supplemented by simple projected illustrations of the frozen protagonist and the coffin the narrator made for him. In getting the former to fit the latter, some disassembly is required, which the poem amusingly frets over.

Giles' show displays a masterly command of his material's way of getting under your skin.  Every time Noyes'  Highwayman comes riding, riding, and every time Riley warns that

"the Gobble-uns 'll git you
Ef you
Out" (the Hoosier Poet's lineation and spelling in "Little Orphant Annie") you may get chills running up and down your spine, even if the Underground's air conditioning is responsible for some of them.

"Poems for the People," also an Underground show, flies under the aegis of Greg Deboor of Indianapolis. Every performance differs in participants and, thus, content. The one I experienced had some smoothly managed transitions between types of spoken word, starting with a rapidfire monologue by a young woman with a segue to a male comic's shtick about dating today—the often unavailing, repeated attempts to make contact via social media. The poems emphasized the rattling internal rhymes and chock-a-block imagery of hip-hop rants and reflections, notably on issues of acceptance, gender identity, and body image. The prose humor depended on timing and wry flings of rueful self-revelation. Both were in generally good working order.
The show's vibrant mix of hilarity and pathos, insouciance and anger managed to husband its outsize energy well, though the abundance overshot the festival's stipulated 50-minute span.

"The Rhythm Chronicles" celebrates the variety of tap dance.

Upstairs earlier on the Russell Stage, voice-over guidance to the history of the tap-dance art form gave continuity to "The Rhythm Chronicles," a production of Circle City Tap Company.  From some display of tap's origins in African and Irish dance idioms as they got blended in this country, the exhibition by ensembles of various sizes focused on tap's heyday, largely to music of the Swing Era and early modern jazz. 
It made light sociological commentary along the way that included the gradual ascendancy of female dancers and the revival of tap that spilled over from the modern-dance scene in the late 20th century. On the traditional side, there was a chirpy girl-trio performance, with voice and dance smartly combined, of "Chattanooga Choo-Choo."  Two young men offered a slow-tempo respite from the vigorous display of intricate dance bravado with a number illustrating the elegant "class act" variation of tap on the song "Taking a Chance on Love." A finale brought the art form up past its heyday with an electronica hit featuring a full dozen participants.
"The Rhythm Chronicles" has a genuine all-ages appeal and offers, in costuming and music as well as choreography, an energetic survey of an all-American dance type that hardly anyone can avoid feeling — even if you haven't got the pedal chops to carry that feeling into your feet the way these well-schooled practitioners did Sunday.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

IndyFringe Fest, Day Three: A trio of shows, two emphasizing the personal, one drinking deep in Shakespeare

We know so little about Shakespeare's life that every doubtful bit of gossip has its allure. One of them concerns his death at 52, shortly after the playwright retired to his native Stratford. It's said he got together with a couple of fellow literary stars — Michael Drayton and Ben Jonson — for a night of drinking that took on binge proportions. It proved mortal for the most securely immortal of the illustrious trio.
"Suds fools these mortals be" — tying one on Shakespeare.

In that spirit, EclecticPond Theatre Company is offering IndyFringe Festival patrons a bibulous take on the early romantic tragedy "Romeo and Juliet." It seems like a good choice, though I hope "Drankspeare" won't become one in a series. True, it might explain a lot if King Lear came on drunk in the first scene of his play.

With much of its text intact, the earlier tragedy proceeds from street fighting that could be taken as a consequence of drinking deep on to the fatal misinterpretation of potions by the play's star-crossed lovers. And it's not far-fetched to interpret Mercutio and Tybalt as two different kinds of drunk — the long-winded jester and the roaring boy, respectively. Salut!

EclecticPond has mustered a host of its loudest zanies to turn the small stage of ComedySportz into a den of soused roisterers. They are Frankie Bolda, Chelsea Gill, Michelle Greenwell, Pat Mullen, Paige Scott, Evan Wallace and Matthew Walls. All enter and exit holding beer cans, swigging regularly from them. They punctuate Shakespeare's rhymed couplets with commands of "Drink!" — not that anybody needs the encouragement of a drinking game. The effect goes straight to their heads, bypassing the stomach; granted, I might have missed some belches.

Due to the preponderance of women in the cast, there's lots of looseness about gender. It's more travesty than tragedy. The robustly declaimed Shakespearean text — none of the actors is of the sleepy, mumbling type of inebriate — suffers many modern insults. Some of these are just there to display the perils of DWI (Dramatizing While Intoxicated); others have an apropos sparkle to them.

So it's a bright touch of anachronism when at the start of the balcony scene, the "Drankspeare" Romeo says the line "She speaks, yet she says nothing; what of that?" in response to Juliet's fiddling with her iPhone above, muttering, "What's the WiFi password here?"

It would be fatuous to guess whether Shakespeare would have enjoyed this. When it's a matter of dispute whether he was Catholic or Protestant, it's beyond silly to be certain of his taste for outrageous parody. Yet there's a profusion of slapstick in the canon. Besides, the bloody-minded early tragedy "Titus Andronicus" ("R&J"'s immediate predecessor in that genre) has been credibly interpreted as parody.

Like the social-media intrusions in "Drankspeare," Shakespeare occasionally makes fun of contemporary tastes and fashions: In "Romeo and Juliet," Mercutio greets the wandering lover with "bon jour," then adds: "There's a French salutation to your French slop," alluding to Romeo's baggy breeches. Cultural chauvinism, a staple of the history plays, is the subject of jibes and indifference elsewhere among the dramas. Hamlet disdains his uncle's carousals with the comment: "Tis a custom more honored in the breach than the observance."

Accordingly, Shakespearean custom may occasionally be honored most when it is not strictly observed. Into the breach staggers "Drankspeare," sozzled and disheveled, topped by a surprise happy ending that teases final-scene alliances in the comedies. Indulge — you won't hate yourself in the morning.

Probing and interpreting one's past is a lifelong project for just about anyone unwilling to undertake the thankless labor of disowning it. Most of us are better off facing up to it, even the cringe-worthy bits. Loren Niemi and James Solomon Benn shoulder the task head-on, in vastly different ways, in their Fringe shows.

Loren Niemi was deemed a "Bad Brother."
Niemi carries impressive professional laurels and academic credentials into his storytelling craft. The title of his Phoenix Underground show, "Bad Brother: Religion and Politics in '69," provides an immediate focus. The "brother" part has nothing to do with siblings, but Niemi's membership in the Christian Brothers, a worldwide Catholic religious community, and his eventual dismissal from the order.

The clarity and suspense of his personal narrative, hitting upon some of the most vexed social and political issues of America in the Sixties, rivets the attention. Niemi is a master of the well-judged pause. He plays judiciously with different time levels and significant persons in this autobiographical account of a young man's spiritual and political involvement, its fulcrum being the trial of "the Milwaukee 14" in 1969, the result of some of the Brothers' destruction of draft-board files.

At the very end, he suggests parallels between activism in the 1960s and early '70s and a couple of today's raging issues. But he's never heavy-handed about it. Like all good storytellers, he exhibits narrative craft at a high level and leaves it to the listener to apply the lessons. Not only those who are roughly Niemi's contemporaries, as I am, will be fascinated by "Bad Brother."

In "Little Butchie Sings! A Cockamamie Colored Cabaret" in the IndyFringe Basile Theater, Benn combines song and anecdote with a bit of dancing to tell the story of his self-discovery and adjustment to life growing up in Indianapolis with three counts against him: being black, fat, and gay (in his concise description).

He heads a cast consisting of Sandy Lomax and Paul Nicely, who contribute to the vocals – the most hilarious of which is a spiritual-influenced harmonization of "All God's Chillun."  And what they all got here is issues, not shoes or wings. Benn knows he's not alone.

Backing up the singers is a keyboardist with flair, Roger W. Smith, whose musical direction contributes polish and coordination to the performance. Musicals the show's creator loves — "Eubie," "Purlie," "Chicago," "South Pacific" among them — are spotlighted in the song selection, tied in to sketches and narration.

Benn is ingratiating and thorough in making his youthful psychic wounds explicit, re-creating them in an entertaining and finally uplifting way with the help of Smith and the cast. A spoken-word preface by Cornelius "Preacher C" Shaw puts the playwright-star's struggles into a wider context and echoes forceful pulpit messages that usually proclaim values other than the ones this hero supports and lives every day.

Well-known as a professional actor around Indianapolis, Benn in this revealing cabaret show wins the audience over with boisterous humor and the underlying tenderness of his storytelling and personal testimony.