Theatre Review: “Midwestern Hemisphere” at the Artsgarden

Frank Shelton, Megan McKinney, Rob Neal, and Kelsie Coughlin in “Midwestern Hemisphere”On Friday, March 28, 2008, “Midwestern Hemisphere,” a smart and funny play written by Lou Harry and Eric Pfeffinger, had the opening night of its world premiere run.  The relatively new but fully professional Heartland Actors’ Repertory Theatre (HART) produced the show, with founding member Michael Shelton as director.  It was the first fully-staged theatrical production at the Indianapolis Artsgarden downtown.

And I was there!  It was even more thrilling than I had imagined it would be. 

I had been invited to sit in on some of the workshop readings along the way to this night, so I already felt a connection to the play from seeing it develop through several re-writes and hearing it with several different sets of actors reading the parts.  The piece started out, basically, as six interwoven monologues. 

Those readings were completely enjoyable on their own.  I like storytelling, I like monologues – especially when they make me laugh and think – so I would have died content without ever having seen a full production.

However, the play in its final version is rounder and even more satisfying.  And a full production makes the already rich writing even richer.  I am very glad that I went to opening night.  I hope to see the show at least once more before it closes here.  When it gets picked up by other theatres (knock on wood!) I will follow the reviews in those places, too, and feel a thrill all over again, knowing I was there at the beginning.

I am partial to beginnings, but “Midwestern Hemisphere” is about endings, too, and about all of the daily life that is compressed in between.  And about how we really don’t know anything about beginnings and endings, but that’s okay.

In “Midwestern Hemisphere,” a huggable uber-geek named Harrison (Sam Fain) writes a computer program from his basement that installs a clear, impermeable dome over his whole neighborhood.  But before he can explore the results of his creation, or even begin to brag about it, he falls down his stairs, hits his head on the corner of a tool box, and dies.  He has lived a pretty monastic life, so no one notices his death.  Therefore no one knows how the dome arrived, or how to get rid of it. 

Not even the deceased Harrison’s spirit can leave the dome.  It is that impenetrable.  He is still able to talk to us, the audience, and he even considers writing a blog from the afterlife, but he is unable to communicate with any of his neighbors, at least at first.

His neighbors include Sue (Megan McKinney), a beautiful businesswoman who has brought home a random guy from her office party.  It was just supposed to be a fling, but now, with the mysterious dome in place, she is stuck with “Tie Guy” drooling on her sofa cushions. 

Another neighbor, the completely self-absorbed Jerry (Robert Neal), had been making arrangements to meet a hot divorce lawyer whose photo he noticed in a local publication.  After the dome appears, Jerry and the lawyer go ahead and meet on either side of its wall.  One of the hot lawyer’s other clients, “Nicole,” is also at the meeting, on Jerry’s side of the dome.  He tells us about her sexy wrists and invites her to join him for coffee.  Never mind about “Fran,” his wife.

Bubbly Rebekka (Claire Wilcher) was watching TV from her wheelchair when the dome materialized.  That’s how she learned about it.  After she went outside to touch the dome for herself, her photo appeared on twelve Internet sites!  Now she is hoping for an interview with People.  “You know they always include at least one normal person in their annual ‘Sexiest People’ list.”

Teenaged Miranda (Kelsie Coughlin) is more concerned with whether or not she should have sex with her boyfriend, “Caleb.”  She and her dad just got back from a virginity festival.  Ew!

An even younger cutie, Tommy (Frank Shelton), is pretty unconcerned about the dome, too.  He and his rascally friend, “Tyler,” are having a great time getting into mischief while the adults’ attention is focused elsewhere.   Who knew it would be so difficult for elementary school students to drive a car?

There are six actors on stage, but many, many more characters in the play.  The excellent actors make all of them come alive by telling us about them.

Everyone stays on stage and in character the whole time.  The whimsical set, designed by Robin Darling, includes a sort of home base for each of the six main characters.  Very gradually and very subtly, they stop talking only to the audience (i.e. – only to themselves) and begin to interact with each other.  

And when they do, the audience, too, feels a sense of relief from a loneliness that we didn’t even know we had.    “You’d be amazed at what you can get used to.”  I love that this play is gently profound as well as funny.

(Thank you, Scot Greenwell, for helping me to articulate this.)

Even before those first interactive moments there is a lot of purposeful and interesting movement on the small stage via director Shelton’s creative and elegant blocking.  The artful lighting, designed by Laura Glover, adds even more layers of movement and action to what are still basically monologues and choral segments.   You get the feeling that you are peering in on a living snow globe, one that has been recently and casually (or perhaps deliberately and divinely?) shaken.  It is a fascinating feeling.

Also, many, many listening rewards are built into the language of the piece right from the beginning.  There are literary references, pop cultural references, and just plain smart-funny lines.  In fact, there are too many for any one person to catch all of them at the first hearing, but this abundance is a good thing.  You don’t have to worry if you miss something that made your seatmate laugh.   There will be something else for you to “get” in just a moment.  

The actors have each incorporated many comic embellishments into their portrayals, too.  Nothing out of place or show-offy, but timings and gestures and facial expressions and so on that deliver extra sparkles of pleasure for the audience.

The Artsgarden itself is a sparkly place, perfectly suited, emotionally, to this piece.  Physically is another matter.  If you have ever walked through there with the rest of the crowds during the day, you are probably wondering, as I did, how it could ever work as a theatre venue. 

However, it does work.  At night there is much less foot traffic.  Barriers with “performance in progress – please be quiet” signs are moved into place to better contain the performance space.  Ushers are employed to politely “shush” the occasional passer-by as well.

Also, Brian G. Hartz’ clever sound design includes a recording at the beginning that sets up a subliminal expectation of, and permission for, other random noises.   A noise that would be a distraction to me in other settings is not in this one.

And it really is neat to watch this play with the trees growing up through the floor and the city’s skyscrapers, distant helicopters, and even more distant stars visible through all that glass overhead.  I am sure that I would enjoy this play in a more traditional space, too, but seeing it in the Artsgarden is a special treat.  I felt as if I were inside Harrison’s dome along with the characters.

I could hear all of the actors quite clearly, except for Frank Shelton.   Sometimes I just couldn’t understand what he was saying.  This was more a problem with enunciation rather than volume or microphones.  The lines I could understand were a hoot – both the lines themselves and his delivery of them – and I wished that I could understand all of them.  However, even when I couldn’t understand what he was saying, I still enjoyed the twinkle in his eyes as he spoke.  I learned later that although he has a lot of performance experience, this was his first time acting in a show in which he is on stage the whole time.  As playwright Lou Harry says, “This is a very challenging play for actors” – even adult actors, let alone a fourth grader!   I was impressed by Frank’s acting ability and by the natural way in which he held for laughs.  I also admired his ability to deliver lines while making a remote control car do what he wanted it to do.

There is no costume designer listed in the program, so I assume that the actors dressed themselves with the help of the director.  There are some funny touches here as well.  Sue, for example, wears heels and sexy business clothes in the first act, but by the second act she is in comfy sweats.  Harrison wears a shirt advertising the Simpsons’ movie.  I have not seen that movie yet, but doesn’t Homer find himself stuck in a dome in that, too?

I wondered how a person in a wheelchair would feel, watching this play.  Some of the lines seem to poke fun at Rebekka, the character who is in a wheelchair.  However, they actually poke fun at – in fact, they slam – the insensitivity of the people saying the lines.  In any case, it is refreshing to find a wheelchaired character that is complex and fully human, rather than stereotypically and one-dimensionally noble, superhuman, depressed, or helpless.

I was curious what it was like to run a show in this space.  The stage manager, Ben Tebbe, told me that the facility has one of the nicest green rooms in town.

He also told me that he runs the lights as well as calling all of the cues.  Jeff Mountjoy, the Technical Director for the Artsgarden, runs the sound.   I think they make a good team.  Both the sound design and the light design for this show require precision.  Both were excellent Friday night.

The stage manager and the director have to strike the set every night because other groups use the space during the day.   This made me think, “Yikes!” but when Tebbe told me about this, he wasn’t complaining.

Tebbe and Shelton, in their curtain talk, thanked the Indianapolis Foundation, Barnes & Thornburg, and Frank and Katrina Basile for sponsoring this production.  I saw the Basiles in the audience, and one of the people from Barnes and Thornburg was sitting right next to me!   I really appreciate the sponsors’ help in giving me the opportunity to enjoy this new piece of art.

The director and stage manager also invited everyone to a party after the show at RAM, a restaurant that was in walking distance away on South Illinois.  After the show, I gathered my courage and went…outside, where shyness overwhelmed me.  However, just as I was heading for my car, Brian Hartz, Amanda Lane, and some other people scooped me up (figuratively) and took me to the restaurant with them.  Eeep!

I’m glad they did, though, because the party was so much fun!  I met some new people, got to know some acquaintances better, confirmed a few gossip items, and learned that Dave Ruark’s gangster character in “Victor Victoria” (opening next month at the American Cabaret Theatre) sings in the stage version, even though he didn’t in the movie version.  I was delighted to learn this.  I love to hear Ruark sing!

I also learned that Chuck Goad will soon start rehearsals for “The Fantasticks” at a theatre in Syracuse, New York.  I am looking forward to seeing that same production when it opens here at the IRT at the end of May.  I would like to learn more about the partnership between the two theatres.

It was also fun to talk some more with the cast, crew, and playwright Lou Harry of “Midwestern Hemisphere.”   I had hoped to meet the other playwright, Eric Pfeffinger, too, but he lives in Ohio and couldn’t be here on opening night.   I will look forward to meeting him, maybe, next August.  According to the “Midwestern Hemisphere” program, he will have a play in the IndyFringe Festival.

The best thing about the party was that I was connecting with my fellow human beings.  Because of  “Midwestern Hemisphere,” I came out from under my own dome a bit and lived to tell about it.

The world premiere of “Midwestern Hemisphere: A Suburban Metaphysical Comedy” has an unusual run:  the next performances will be Thursday, April 3-Sunday, April 6 and then Wednesday, April 9-Sunday, April 13, all at 8:00 pm.  Please call 317-796-2222 to make a reservation.

Hope Baugh –

2 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “Midwestern Hemisphere” at the Artsgarden”

  1. Greetings from Florida.
    I’ll be seeing Midwestern Hem. 4/4.
    Till then – to heck with the professionals,
    with the storytelling, with the production.
    How was “our” video?
    How were you?
    How was I?
    Will agents be calling us soon?


  2. (laughing)

    Hi, Adrienne! I am delighted to hear from you!

    We were great, if I do say so myself!

    Tiny, but great. (laughing again)

    Have a safe trip home…

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