It’s often hit and miss as to the quality of shows one can see at IndyFringe. However, if you’re familiar with the local theater scene, you are more likely to know what you are getting into if you're aware of the work of certain companies, actors or directors. That doesn’t mean, however, that you shouldn’t take a chance on seeing something you are not familiar with; after all, that is one of the best parts of the Fringe adventure — discovering new work and talent. If you’re not a regular theater-goer or hardly ever attend, it is a bit more difficult to ascertain whether a show is worth your time but there are ways you can do some quick research.
Certainly you should read the blurbs about the performers in the Fringe schedule booklets. It helps to take a look at the promotional postcards scattered all over the Mass Ave. and to chat with performers handing them out as the hawk their shows near Fringe venues. Keep in mind, however, that the program descriptions, postcards and performers are all about self-promotion.
In the long run, the best and most effective way to find out what is hot and what is not is to keep your ears perked while you're standing in line to get into shows, because that is where you'll hear the best word of mouth shared. Of course, social media posts, depending on your circle, can be a very good barometer as well. Finally, and in this writer’s humble opinion, reviews are also helpful.
Following are some opinions regarding IndyFringe shows seen during the past few days by Examiner.com. Based on early indicators, this year's Fringe offerings may well be a banner crop.
Since its inception in 1999, ShadowApe Theatre Co. of Indianapolis has come to represent the gold standard for the innovation of its work as a small professional company. An IndyFringe 2013 hit for its production of “Welcome to the Monkey House” and its 2012 smash “Not a Peep,” ShadowApe once again succeeds with its current Fringe show, “Jen/Con.”
“A seriocomic look at what happens when fantasy gaming gets real” is the subtitle of this comedy, written by Bennett Ayres, whose “A Useful Woman” is also an IndyFringe offering. “Jen/Con” stars Jennifer Johansen, Constance Macy (The show’s title Jen/Con derives from the first syllables of their first names) and Bob Johansen, all veteran Indiana Repertory Theatre actors. Macy plays a bookstore employee, Con, a submissive wife to Rob Johansen’s (he also plays Warwick and Gumslee) character Mitch, her immature, unfeeling, inconsiderate computer geek of a husband.
Mitch purchases an emblem named Jenavieve (Jennifer Johansen) in preparation for a gaming competition. Con befriends Jen after a supernatural encounter between them which occurs in Mitch’s absence. The story centers on the relationship between the human entity and the cyber one and the close bond that develops between the two of they as they help each other cope — Con stuck in a dysfunctional relationship with her gaming obsessed husband and Jen a Queen who may have to marry a tyrant named Warwick in order to save her subjects in the kingdom she has inherited from her recently deceased father.
The Johansens (husband and wife) and Macy, each of them adept at comedy, excelled in their roles playing to a packed house Saturday on the Phoenix Theatre Main Stage. Ayres' clever script is, in essence, a light-hearted feminist treatise. Though full of laughs, at times Bennett's script occasionally prompts sadness and anger towards the male figures for their treatment of the female characters.
In the end, however, the story’s abusive males get their comeuppance, so ultimately one is left with the assurance that sisterhood is, indeed, powerful no matter the plane on which it exists.
Get your tickets in advance for this one, folks, and do not tarry because it is definitely an IndyFringe must see.
“Enter The Bro Zone”
Suffice to say, this satirical comedy with music (also seen Saturday at the Phoenix on its Main Stage) is worth seeing, primarily for the good looks, charm, and talent that exudes from Logan Moore, Ryan Ruckman, Davey Pelsue, Adam Tran and Kyle McCord. They play, respectively, Logan, Ryan, Davey, Skyles and Hutch, members of "BroZone,” a boy band trying to make a name for itself in Indy. Struggling to survive, they also have to stave off their vile, threatening, obnoxious landlord, Gasher, played marvelously by Corey Jefferson, who is demanding back rent.
Matt Kramer, the show’s director, is also a member of Three Dollar Bill which is presenting “Indiana! A Hoosierical Musical” (currently receiving rave reviews from those who've seen it) in the Fringe. Kramer also had a hand in writing the catchy music (played on tracks) along with Corey Jefferson, Chris Dobbs and Nolan North; it is typical of the music sung by most boy bands, but in this case with tongue-in-cheek lyrics often of a sexual nature.
Defiance Comedy, which presents “Enter the Bro Zone,” is also credited with writing the goofball script. Filled with mostly sophomoric, yet often hilarious, jokes, along with tons of f-bombs and other expletives thrown around, it is comedy fare that is definitely not family friendly.
Callie Burk, the show’s choreographer, did an outstanding job of replicating the movement style typical of boy bands and the members of this fictional group excelled at executing it. Possessing superb vocal abilities as well, the five actor/singer/dancers, though playing supposedly mediocre performers, in reality, displayed solid showmanship.
Unfortunately hampering "BroZone" were other members of the cast in minor roles whose weak performances slowed the show’s pace. Also a distraction was the inclusion (a sight never before seen by this writer on any Indy stage) of brief commercials on behalf of the show’s four sponsors, delivered by a spokesperson. Perhaps the ads were meant to be part of the show’s entertainment but in the end they actually served as an intrusion. Though I’m sure the show’s sponsors were tickled, God forbid that this advertising approach ever takes hold in live theater here or anywhere. The same individual doing the commercials also held up signs instructing the audience to applaud. Initially it was a fun bit but eventually the joke ran out.
“Out of the Doghouse, Into the Heart”
There is no question that dog and animal lovers in general will identify with Sally Perkins and relate to her loving stories about the three poodles of three separate generations that she and her husband adopted and went on to raise. Her charming one-woman show, “Out of the Doghouse, Into the Heart,” seen on Sunday, was presented in the Frank & Katrina Basile Theatre at the Phoenix.
Perkins’ sincerity and kindness shone through as she shared tales regarding her dogs’ sibling rivalries with one another, training challenges, illnesses, quirks, misadventures and even there heartbreaking deaths. Never standing in one spot, Perkins utilized the stage as she effectively mimed and employed vocal sounds to help the audience visualize her tales.
More a storyteller, than an actress, Perkins’ weak delivery caused her monotone to possess a one-note quality which slowed its pace. Still, her stories, which were often touching and even inspirational, will be of interest to anyone who is now experiencing or has ever had the pleasure of living with a treasured pet.
“Live On Air with Poet Laureate Telia Nevile”
No doubt IndyFringe executive director Pauline Moffat had a lot to do with it, but the Festival couldn’t be more blessed than to have its leader’s fellow Aussie, Telia Nevile, participating in this year’s 10th edition.
Also seen Sunday, at the Theatre on the Square’s Stage Two, Nevile was a pure delight as the bright suburban wallflower with a gift for language who broadcasts a pirate radio show from her bedroom. Throughout her show within a show, Nevile offered segments featuring clever poems, haikus and storytelling, about such subject matter as rejection and correct punctuation, all the while playing background music, which she selected from her iPhone.
What was most striking about Nevile’s comedy was not only her well-honed, funny material with its topical humor and pop cultural references but also her droll delivery of stories about the most unlikely subject matter. Who, for instance, could have predicted her reading an episode from a “West Wing” TV show script about a male character giving another man a blow job in the White House situation room while President Josiah Bartlett is cooking chili upstairs in the family quarters. It’s nearly impossible to believe that such a story could have come from an almost demure looking individual, speaking in a charming Australian accent, who appeared so sweet but then again that was the genius of Nevile’s character.
The deadpan expression worn by Nevile’s onstage character masked a comic provocateur and in turns revealed a writer and actor who is a master of both crafts. Watching and listening to Neville’s “on air” persona, it was easy to imagine how successful she and her character would be as true radio personality if the engaging, erudite performer ever decided to actually broadcast for real. This writer would be a regular listener for sure.
“Ghosts are Frightening and Instructive”
Charismatic Cody Melcher is one stand-up comedian who not only makes you laugh but fills you with empathy for the challenges and hardships he has endured. Playing to a captivated audience, Melcher presented his pathos-filled act Sunday at the Frank and Katrina Basile Theatre at the Phoenix Theatre.
Melcher, who is originally from Houston, Texas, related stories about growing up gay in a conservative environment but mostly focused on how his eccentricities (which he now prides himself on) caused him to be bullied more than his sexuality. Identifying with the character of Niles Crane from “Frasier,” Melcher struggled with becoming comfortable in his own skin as he navigated both highs and extreme lows in his younger years, including a suicide attempt which caused him to identify strongly with Robin Williams who recently took his own life.
The host of “Tomfoolery,” a podcast in Chicago, where he now resides, Melcher’s jokes tended towards the bizarre. His admission that he had transplanted gums in his mouth that came “from a dead man” and a story about a man he dated who was related to a Nazi brought gales of laughter from the audience, bringing glee to Melcher who obviously enjoyed the audience’s appreciation of his irony.
Melcher, looking sartorial in a black tux and wearing patent leather shoes, hinted at his flamboyant side through his colorful necktie and pocket square and the purple tinted hair at the top of his head. Sharing with the audience that he was one of those kids who came off like he was 40 when he was actually ten, the likeable Melcher endeared himself to an audience that clearly appreciated his quirkiness.
In the end, Melcher, despite the obstacles he endured in his past, did not paint himself as a victim but rather a courageous survivor. Like many comedians whose comedy derives from their pain, Melcher, who did it with a twinkle in his eye, offered hope that if you can manage to stay true to yourself, you too may just have the last laugh.
This writer is hesitant about using the sometimes clichéd phrase “tour de force,” but simply cannot resist using it to describe Selina Jenkins’ performance as “Beau Heartbreaker” at IndyFringe Basile Theatre—also seen Sunday.
Jenkins, another Australian, is a character comedian with a true gift for storytelling, not to mention a superb singer and guitar player.
Her extremely well developed and executed persona in the show is Beau Heartbreaker, a country boy from the Australian Outback whose family has owned and operated a dairy farm for multiple generations. To pull off the illusion Jenkins wore a beard and mustache to cover her attractive facial features, which in turn made Beau look baby-faced and boyish. To complete the convincing drag, she wore a cowboy hat, plaid shirt with rolled up sleeves, undershirt, work pants and cowboy boots.
Beau’s songs, which he plays on an electric acoustic guitar, are a mix of country and jazz—a genre which displayed Jenkins’ beautiful high vocal register to great advantage. Filled with humorous lyrics, his songs deal with such subjects as his beard, climate change, and eating a marmot. The eating of the rodent occurs when Beau goes off on a journey of self-discovery to Mongolia where he spends a month on horseback, visiting the nomadic locals. To illustrate his stories, Beau holds up large photos between songs as he joyfully shares his adventures with the audience.
Throughout Beau’s show, during which he speaks in a thick Australian accent, he hints that there is something about himself that he will eventually reveal. Using questionnaires that were handed out in advance to the audience, he eventually helps the audience understand that there are some things none of us have a choice at determining.
It takes a few days for word of mouth to travel about shows such as “Beau Heartbreaker,” particularly when presented by out of towners, but hopefully, by the time this review is published, the news about Jenkins’ performance will have spread and the houses for her remaining shows on Saturday, Aug. 23 and Sunday, Aug. 24 will be full. The Jenkins/Heartbreaker duo is not to be missed. It really is a triumph.
For show descriptions, tickets and scheduling information for the 2014 IndyFringe, visit indyfringe.org.
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