Theatre Review: “Murderers” at the Phoenix

Gayle Steigerwald, Dawn Glover, Shane Chuvalas, photo by Julie Curry

On Friday night, my friend Chris and I drove downtown to the Frank and Katrina Basile underground space at the Phoenix Theatre to see the midwestern premiere of Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Murderers.”  Both of us thought of several friends and family members who would love the humor, the creepiness, and the procedural details in this connected trio of murder mystery monologues.

All three murders take place on the same night and at the same place: the Riddle Key Luxury Senior Retirement Living Center and Golf Course in Riddle, Florida.  Each monologue begins with the same line, too:  “I am a murderer.”

But from there they are deliciously different.

The first story is called “The Man Who Married His Mother-in-Law.”  It was directed by Bryan Fonseca and stars Shane Chuvalas as a man who did what the title says, at her suggestion, in order to allow her to leave her wealth to her daughter tax-free.  The mother-in-law is ill, with only a couple of months left to live, so the newlyweds have come down to Florida to wait things out in comfort.  However, a real gigilo living in Riddle Key throws a wrench into their plans.

Chuvalas looks great in his tux, as most men do, but beyond that, his portrayal of Gerald, an increasingly desperate member of “a generation raised on irony,” is subtly and impressively layered.  There is twist after surprising twist in this first story, and Chuvalas deftly builds the suspense.

The second story is called “Margaret Faydle Comes to Town.”  It was directed by Nicolas Crisafulli and stars Gayle Steigerwald as the hilarious, “I’m no dummy” wife of a man who cheated on her years ago in their old neighborhood and whose former lover has just moved in to their retirement community.  There are wonderful twists in this story as well, which Steigerwald’s character, Lucy, tells from her wicker-filled condo while wearing a satiny peignoir.

Afterwards, when the lights came up for a short intermission, Chris said, “Gayle has been that way for the past twenty years, hasn’t she.  She is full of light.  It just shines from her face.”

I agree.

I also was struck by the fact that Steigerwald, whether she calls herself a storyteller or not, is a master at it.  She completely embodies her role, but she also embraces her audience whole-heartedly and carries us along in a loving way.  She loves the story and she loves us.  In a piece like this, there is no Fourth Wall between us.  The respectful intimacy is a pleasure to experience.

The third story is called “Match Wits with Minka Lupino.”  It was directed by Gigi Jennewein and stars Dawn Glover as the very young, very tiny (skinny), semi-Goth receptionist at the Membership Office of Riddle Key.

Minka wears black polish on her nails, creative eyeliner on her eyes, high heels under her jeans, and a form-fitting, black-and-white striped top that is embellished with a pink skull.  (The program does not say who designed the costumes, so I assume the actors dressed themselves in consultation with their directors.)  Minka also speaks with a high, girlish voice.  It would be easy not to take her seriously, but gradually we realize that she doesn’t miss a thing and that she is a force to be recognized in the face of injustice.

Her inspiration is the famous mystery writer, J. G. Garland.  She shows us her bag filled with colorful editions of his inventively titled books. (Properties by Justin Kidwell, who is also the technical director.)  Imagine Minka’s excitement when she learns that her hero is moving in to Riddle Key!

Glover’s quirky-girl-next-door portrayal makes us shiver and brings us satisfyingly “home” in terms of the story arc of the whole show.

All three actors use a variety of accents, stances, and other devices from their actor tool kits to effectively portray not just their own characters but a wealth of characters in their stories.  The fact that one or two characters appear in all three stories is a hoot.

After the first storyteller, I found myself wondering about each of the others, “Who will SHE kill?”

Each actor occupies his or her own space on the small stage, helped by the flexible set designed by James Gross and constructed by Matt Goodrich, with lighting and sound design by Bryan Fonseca. Dani Norberg is the stage manager and light/sound operator.

Behind all three areas is a huge screen, trimmed in red and gold like in a retirement center’s “formal” community room.

When Chris and I entered the theatre, we didn’t pay much attention to what was playing on the screen.  Chris said later that he thought it had been showing Century-21-type real estate ads.  I vaguely remembered something about people bowling.  We learned later that the ads were part of the show, i.e. – ads showing the luxurious amenities of Riddle key.

But after the show started, the screen served as a sort of silent call-and-response device.  Traditional storytellers in many cultures call something out in the middle of their storytelling as a way of checking in with their audiences and bringing their attention back to the story if need be.  After all, listening is hard work, even with the best of stories!  For example, in the West Indies, a teller will call out “Kric?” (“Are you with me?”) and his or  her audience will call back “Krac!” (“Yes, we are!  Keep telling!”)  I have seen contemporary teller Baba Jamal Koram call out “Ah-goh?” to high school audiences here in Indianapolis and heard them call back “Ah-bay!” willingly, since he had explained ahead of time that this was an African tradition.

Anyway, the screen Friday night was dark much of the time, but occasionally it would light up with a funny, cut-and-pasted photo of one of the characters or locations being described in the monologues.  Even though this didn’t require a spoken response from us, it served to startle us just a tiny bit, just enough to pull our attention back to the present while not pulling us out of the story.

The cut-and-pasted quality of the images also reminded me of cut-and-pasted ransom notes, which fit the mystery theme.

Sometimes the people in the pictures did not look like the descriptions in the monologues, which was a little distracting but also funny.  One woman, for example, was described as having a huge nose, but the woman in the accompanying photo had a normal-sized nose.  One man was described as having “Rumpelstiltskin-gold hair” but it was obvious that the gleaming hair in the photo had been cut out from something else and then stuck on, like making paper dolls from magazines.

The skillful acting would have carried the three monologues perfectly well by themselves, but the screen images give the show a zine-art quality that makes it even more enjoyable and interesting.  (Slide show produced by Shane Chuvalas.)

If you go, be sure to stick around for a few moments after the curtain call to read the screen credits and see who played the people in the screen images.  Many are Phoenix board members!  I laughed out loud when I realized this, and applauded again to show my appreciation.  Does the Phoenix have a devoted board or what?!

Be sure, also, to give yourself several moments to view the art that is hanging on the walls of the Frank and Katrina Basile underground space.  The paintings are by Kyle Ragsdale.  I saw one of his pieces in a “Visual Fringe” exhibit at last year’s Indy Fringe Festival, pre-blog.  I wrote about it on IndianaAuditions.com at the time, and went back to look at it again and again because it haunted me so.  The pieces now on display at the Phoenix are beautiful, too.  I wish I could afford to buy one!

This play is the fourth of Jeffery Hatcher’s to be produced by the Phoenix.  Chris and I got to chat with one of the directors, Bryan Fonseca, who is also the Phoenix’ producing director, for a bit after the show.  He told us that one of the many things he admires about Hatcher’s work is his ability to layer a story and build suspense using lots of nice details.  “It’s a gift,” Fonseca told us.  “People sometimes tell me I should write a play, but (I know that writing is not my gift.)”

Fonseca also told us that Hatcher is “a great guy” in person, too.  He wrote “Mother Russia” for the Phoenix a few years ago and included a role that he based on Gayle Steigerwald after meeting her.  I wish I could have seen that show!  Actually, I wish I could have seen all four Phoenix/Hatcher productions.  Steigerwald was in three of them.

On our way out, Chris and I lingered in the upstairs lobby to look at the timeline that is on display there to celebrate the Phoenix’ first twenty-five years.  This was the first show for Chris and me to see together, but we have independently been Phoenix fans off and on almost since the beginning.  Chris told me that seeing “Murderers” reminded him how much he had enjoyed getting season tickets with friends in the past.

“Murderers” continues downstairs at the Phoenix through Saturday, August 16, 2008, with no Sunday performances.  Jessica will be behind the bar, as usual, serving decadent home-made sweets and tasy microbrewed beers.

By the way, beginning with the next show, “Novembers,” there will be no more “cheap seats weekends.”  However, every Thursday night will be “cheap seats night,” which is even better.  For more information, or to make a reservation for “Murderers” and/or to buy season tickets, please call 317-635-PLAY.

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

3 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “Murderers” at the Phoenix”

  1. Spot on! I can’t wait to take my mom and some friends to see this again. Like Hope said, each segment allowed the audience to be present in the telling, especially Gayle’s – not just as spectators – like Riddle Key residents stopping by for a glass of tea and a bit of a gossip.

  2. “People sometimes tell me I should write a play, but (I know that writing is not my gift.)”
    Hope YOU HAVE the gift of writing! There is no doubt about that. I always enjoy reading everything you write. I’m sure the play would HOT, involve sex, lust along with a few surprises. You have great intuition and insight to characters. Actually I think you would be an amazing director! You seem to always “get it”! I am serious when I say this. Just curious have you ever thought about it? I can tell you Martinsville is always looking for someone to submit a show. Give it is shot, I would audition!
    Phyllis

  3. Phyllis, thank you very much for your kind words!

    I have no free time right now, but if I ever do write a play, I will put parts for lots of hot men in it. If I am also the director, I will cast you as the woman who juggles them all, and then I will just get out of the way!

    🙂

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