Thursday was opening night of the 2014 IndyFringe featuring 384 shows, presented on eight stages in or near Indianapolis’ downtown Arts & Theatre district. The annual theater festival, celebrating its 10th anniversary, runs through Aug. 24. Hoping to review 15 Fringe shows during the festival’s run, Examiner.com got off to a running start, seeing three shows—all of them representative of the Fringe’s offbeat and edgy offerings. Be sure to include them on your schedule as you peruse one of the marvelously designed Festival programs available in most of the venues and at the festival headquarters located at 733 Mass. Ave.
“The Great Bike Race”
It’s easy for this writer to go out on a limb to predict that “The Great Bike Race” may well turn out to be one of, if not the most popular Fringe shows this year. Written by Directed by Zack Neiditch and produced by theatrical jack-of-all trades Zach Rosing, the comedy with music is being presented on the main stage at Theatre on The Square.
The 1904 Bike Race is the inspiration for this very funny, exceedingly clever, farcical romp. Historical accounts indicate that the actual race was plagued with numerous deceptions and shenanigans, so it was an ideal basis for Neitditch’s hilarious embellishments which made for loads of goofy foolishness. From the phony French accents and fake mustaches, to the bicyclers mimicking the riding while on foot, with some holding on to real bicycle handles, to the jokes, one-liners and sight gags, Neitditch’s script and crisp direction of said vehicle made for a rollicking, side-splitting good time.
Responsible for the execution all the ridiculous fun was an ensemble of comic actors, all of whom excelled at broad physical comedy and were impressive in their timing. They included Frankie Bolda, Carrie Bennet Fedor, Benjamin Schuetz, Ramon Hutchins, John Kern, Paige Scott, Arianne Villareal and Evan Wallace.
Standouts for their characterizations of two of the race’s main competitors were Scott (also responsible for some of show’s original songs), a marvel in male drag as the brash Hippolyte Acoutrier and Ramon Hutchins as cheater Maurice Garin.
Though the casts’ impressive performances alone could have carried the show, there is no question that Zach Rosing’s technical contributions gave it a quality that is probably heads above that of anything else one will see at the Fringe. Given that most Fringe productions are typically and, usually out of necessity, low budget affairs, Rosing’s creative sound design, video, and graphic design provide “The Great Bike Race” with a slickness and a sophistication that enhances an already fast-paced, engaging and thoroughly entertaining hour of unbridled madness.
“The Useful Woman”
Jolene Mentink Moffatt, one of Indianapolis’ most formidable actors, turned in a bravura performance in “The Useful Woman,” a fascinating play about Carrie Nation, which was presented on the Phoenix Theatre main stage. An alcohol opponent, Nation was the leader of the temperance movement prior to Prohibition. Also a religious zealot, she was considered a terrorist by many in her day because of her predilection for smashing the contents of taverns with her infamous hatchet.
Playwright Bennett Ayres, who wrote last year’s Fringe hit, a silent films spoof titled “The Beast, The Lady and the Sanguine Man,” has created another absorbing play. This time it’s a compelling study of a controversial historical figure whose destructive fanaticism brought her international notoriety and made her a legend.
Nation, who grew up in a family struggling with financial difficulties and mental illness, was married to an alcoholic, an experience that so embittered her that she responded with a life-long fervor for engaging in illegal anti-alcohol activities, prompting a slogan by bar owners that said “All Nations Welcome but Carrie.”
In addition to Moffatt who appeared recently in Phoenix Theatre’s “Miles and Ellie,” director James Tillet guided a veteran group of actors which included Charles Goad as Carrie’s husband David, along with Robert Neal, Lisa Ermel and Zachariah Stoneroc, who all played multiple roles. Ermel and Zachariah were also in the cast of “Miles and Ellie.”
Moffatt’s performance as the steely-minded, temperance-obsessed Carrie, convinced that she has been called by God to conduct “hatchetations,” (her term) was riveting. As Nation, she was especially mesmerizing during those moments when Carrie would converse with God, who she was convinced directly guided her actions.
Throughout various scenes with her fellow actors who convincingly played her husband, daughter, a jail custodian, a sheriff, a temperance follower and others, Moffat also thoroughly conveyed the complexities of this single-minded yet broken woman carrying her share of emotional baggage. Though claiming righteousness and moral superiority, Nation’s behavior indicated someone who was actually a self-absorbed narcissist who craved the limelight. In the end, based on Ayres’ script and Moffat’s sometimes chilling depiction, one is left to wonder whether Nation had, indeed, like her mother and daughter, inherited the family’s mental illness.
Playwright Ayres, who is employed at the Indiana State Museum and the Indiana Historical Society, through “A Useful Woman” has written more than a mere period piece about an historic oddity. His work is also a good reminder and testament to the fact that terrorism. or extremism in any form should ever be the solution to any problem or issue, no matter the gravity, nor should one’s personal agenda ever preclude or endanger the rights of others.
“Alice vs. Wonderland”
No Exit Performance, one of Indy’s most innovative theater companies, continued to live up to its reputation for quirky originality with its production of “Alice vs. Wonderland” which was presented on the Cook Theatre stage at the historic Indiana Landmarks Center.
Ryan Mullins wrote the script,which is based on Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Mullin’s version, however, is anything but a traditional treatment of the beloved children’s story. Instead his retelling of Alice’s adventures after she falls into a rabbit hole and enters a fantasy world is staged as if it were a computer game with audience members controlling the story through smartphones
The story is told with actors costumed as avatars performing in front of a large screen on which various images and graphics are projected. In the foreground on the floor is a huge video game console.
Mullin’s “Alice vs. Wonderland” claims to be more than merely interactive by its involvement of the audience, who participate in assisting Alice escape her sometimes dangerous circumstances and emerge unharmed, and ultimately control the story. During opening remarks the White Rabbit explained the show’s concept and asked the audience to use their smartphones in order to go onto a website where they would find instructions on how to become involved in the game. Early on, audience members were asked to choose different options for Alice to pursue but the request was only made a few times and not for the entire show, leaving this writer to wonder why the gimmick wasn’t sustained. Nevertheless, it was a novel idea, if not totally achievable.
Directed by Michael Burke, the cast included many of No Exit’s regular company performers including Georgeanna Smith as Queen of Hearts, Mullins as the White Rabbit, Beverly Roche as the Duchess, and Bill Wilkinson as the Caterpillar—all of them superb—as was Valerie Stoffer as the sweet, yet spunky Alice.
The production, which, in its effort to replicate the pace, movement within, and sound effects of a computer game, dragged at times, particularly during the scene involving Alice and the Caterpillar. Otherwise it managed to maintain interest, especially during the mad tea party and Queen’s croquet match scenes. Also problematic was the size of the “computer” screen which left very little room for the actors playing area, causing them to appear overly-crowded during certain scenes, particularly the ones mentioned above.
The show’s fantastical production elements, which included the hair and makeup design of Daniel Klinger; Michael Burkes projection, costume and sound design; Ryan Mullins lighting design; and Beverly Roche’s props design, all combined to create a cyber-world treatment worthy of Carroll’s indelible tale.
For show descriptions, tickets and scheduling information for the 2014 IndyFringe, visit indyfringe.com.
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