Theatre Reviews: “Cold-Blooded” and “From Dark Pages”

Playwright James Trofatter and Donna Wing in “Cold-Blooded”

Saturday night, October 18th, I drove to the near north side of Indianapolis to see two “salon theatre” presentations of historical mystery plays.  They took place in two of Indianapolis’ historic landmark attractions: the President Benjamin Harrison Home and the Morris-Butler House.

Each show was a treat in its own way.   As a pairing, they were even better.

First I went to the President Benjamin Harrison Home at 1230 N. Delaware Street to see “Cold-Blooded at Cold Spring: The Third Trial,” by local playwright James Trofatter.  It was presented by Victorian Theatre by Candlelight.

In this piece, General Benjamin Harrison himself (played by Steve Viehweg*) guides the audience from his barn through his rose garden to the various rooms of his house, stopping in each place to introduce us to other real people from history who have information about the murder of a couple named Young.  The Youngs were allegedly murdered by a woman named Nancy E. Clem.  We, the audience, are the jury.  Each of us is given a special pencil with which to take notes. 

(By the way, if you carry a huge Mary Poppins bag like I do and you prefer to take notes with a pen, be sure to remember where you stash the pencil in your bag because you have to give it back at the end!)

It is interesting to see the President Benjamin Harrison Home itself as we move through it and hear from the various witnesses waiting for us in each room.  I want to go back some day and take the tour that tells about the rooms in detail.  The attic, for example, is filled with political memorabilia from a variety of campaigns, not just Harrison’s.

As in a real murder trial, there is a lot of information to take in and it is all fascinating.  The witnesses include servants, neighbors, and more.  At the end, the audience members are cloistered in the parlor to deliberate.  Robin Bankhead, the actor who plays servant Jane Sizemore, told us that this murder and this trial did actually take place while Benjamin Harrison was living in this house.  She said the trial was the “OJ Simpson trial of its time.”

All of the actors** do a good job of conveying their information via their characters’ personalities, but when the accused, Nancy E. Clem (Donna Wing) appeared cautiously before us in the library as the final speaker, with a tear-stained handkerchief clutched in one hand and her face drawn tight with fear, I felt a rush of sympathy for her.  Even though the evidence pointed to her guilt, I couldn’t convict her.  I believed her when she said that she could not have murdered “those two pour souls!  I didn’t even know the Youngs!  I am a simple house woman. I live on Alabama Street not far from here.”

However, not all of my fellow jurors agreed with me.  We had a good jury discussion, led by our foreman, audience member David Wing.  I caught up with him after the show and learned that in real life he is the husband of Donna Wing, the actor who plays the accused.

He told me that he loves this type of “up close and personal theatre.  You’re right there with the actors.”  He also said that he thought this was the only presidential home in the country that offered salon style theatre.

I also got a chance to chat with one of the other jurors, Karen Fitzpatrick.  She told me that she and her husband have enjoyed the interactive productions at the Benjamin Harris house since 2003.

Both Wing and Fitzpatrick urged me to come back in the spring, when the Victorian Theatre by Candlelight presents a collection of short plays in the Harrison Home, again “salon-style.”

In an email conversation, James Trofatter told me:

“In the spring, Victorian Theatre by Candlelight (VTBC) does salon theater in three rooms of the Home. Three half-hour one-act Victorian plays, picked by Donna Wing, the Executive Director of VTBC, are presented simultaneously to three different audiences. After the first round of plays are done, the audiences change rooms and get to see the next play. So each of the three audiences get to see three different shows during the two hours that they are at the Home. The setting is very intimate and the casts usually small. I’ve written one Victorian Ghost Tale for that series call ‘Mister Edward Voorhees.'”

It does sound like fun!

I also asked Trofatter who had directed the “Cold-Blooded” piece and who had designed the beautiful period costumes.   He told me:

“The cast has only three rehearsals in which I give them blocking and direction to work with. I tell them they should try to develop a unique character and use accents liberally, as you saw many did.

Believe it or not, the Harrison Home has a pretty good costume closet since they do a lot of ‘Live Day’ re-enactments throughout the year. If the Home doesn’t have it, we go to one of the costume shops, usually Landes.”

Here is the cast of characters from “Cold-Blooded”:

  • Nancy E. Clem – Donna Wing
  • Judge Chapman – Steve Skelton
  • Benjamin Harrison – Jim Trofatter or Steve Viehweg*
  • John A. Drew – Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale
  • Silas “Syke” Hartman – Andy Brand
  • Robert B. Barbee – Daniel C. Brown
  • Dr. Luther D. Waterman – Gary Weir
  • Capt. Benjamin Abrams – Dave Surina
  • Lizzie Henry – Angi Bailey
  • Mary Bell Young – Jill Murrell
  • Robert S. Dorsey – David Pittman
  • Mary Ann Fee – Sue Beecher
  • John Wiley – James Hayes
  • Josephine Stephens – Blaire Viehweg
  • Isaac Sweet – Ron Rose
  • Mrs. Erastus Everson – Pat McKinley
  • Louisa Merchant – Susie Townsend
  • Julia McCarty – Erika Organ
  • Mrs. Nancy Hartman – Trisch Every
  • Jane Sizemore – Robin Bankhead

*Steve Viehweg and Jim Trofatter alternate portraying Benjamin Harrison.

“Cold-Blooded at Cold Spring: The Third Trial” continues at the Benjamin Harrison Home through this Sunday, October 26, 2008.  There are several shows each day.  However, I strongly recommend that you call 317-631-1888 to make a reservation because there is only room for 20 or so audience members and I know that some shows have already sold out.

Several actors (James Trofatter, Donna Wing, Jill Murrell, Steve Viehweg, David Pittman, and Susie Townsend) from “Cold-Blooded” will appear next in “The Murder Room,” presented by the Oaklandon Civic Theatre at the Oaklandon Unitarian Universalist Church November 7-November 22, 2008.  All shows are at 8pm except for November 16, which is at 2 pm.  Please call 317-823-4671, extension 3 for reservations. 

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After seeing “Cold-Blooded,” I hurried over to 1204 North Park Avenue to see “From Dark Pages” at the Morris-Butler House.  This piece is based on a combination of pieces from Victorian literature and people who actually lived during Victorian times, rather than being based on an actual trial.  In other words, it is authentic rather than factual.

However, there is an overall mystery plot based on facts.  We are looking to find out the identity of a real-life killer, Jack the Ripper.

We start in the basement, where a befuddled H. G. Wells (Terry Wetherald) has lost his time machine.  Even without it, however, we are able to journey through time via famous stories.  Sherlock Holmes (Phillip Midkiff) and his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle (Thom Johnson), are our hosts.  They keep up a running schtick with each other and interact with the audience as we move from place to place.

At one point, Holmes asked about the notebook I was carrying.  I couldn’t quickly think of a Victorian answer to play along, so I told the truth: “I write a theatre reviews blog.”

“Oh!” Holmes raised his eyebrows at me.

Doyle leaned over and murmured in Holmes’ ear, “I think she’s American.”

“Ah.”  Holmes looked down his nose at me then and turned away.  What a hoot!

Holmes and Doyle lead us upstairs through various beautifully and authentically decorated rooms where a wide variety of characters are waiting. Here is a list of the characters and actors that I saw (it varies a little bit from night to night):

  • Queen Victoria – Kate Hinman
  • Her grandson, Edward – Michael Lewis
  • Gull – Steve Hermanson
  • Edgar Allen Poe – Robert Willsey
  • Applegate – Martin Hinman
  • Faust – Matt Barron
  • Mina – Heidi Huff
  • Lucy – Dara Ferguson
  • Dracula – Josh Ramsey
  • Burton – Nick Howrey
  • Zombie – Terry Downey
  • Wells – Terry Wetherald
  • The Old Maid – Pat McGhehey
  • Mary Kelly – Sara Hall
  • Mme. Alexandra – Beverly Gray

All of the actors do a good job of embodying their characters with wit and skill.  I’ll just highlight a few performances so as not to give too much away.

I loved the apparent grouchiness of The Old Maid (Pat McGehey), who frowned and shooed us on from room to room, yet who was willing to add a coin from her own pocket to the amount that Holmes and Doyle had to pay Mme. Alexandra (Beverly Gray) in order for her to look into her crystal ball for information about the Ripper. 

I also loved that The Old Maid nodded in sympathy and patted her own heart as Edgar Allen Poe (Robert Willsey) moved crazily from his quill and wadded balls of paper to actually living out the madness of his story, “The Telltale Heart.”   It’s a great story, and Willsey is an excellent storyteller.  He gave me the heebie-jeebies more than once before we were completely away from his area.

I loved that Applegate (Martin Hinman) gave out little business cards as we left his and Dr. Faust’s (Matt Barron’s) kitchen.  I don’t have that card with me to quote it to you, but as he handed them out, he made tempting offers for our souls.

I groaned – and laughed – at Explorer Burton’s (Nick Howrey’s) horrendous (in a good way) puns, and laughed out loud when the Zombie (Terry Downey) that was chasing him caught up with us.

Kate Hinman was exactly like what I imagine Queen Victoria to be: very stiff and proper.  I worried what her reaction would be when I didn’t bow before her as instructed, but I just couldn’t do it.  Doyle was right: I am American!

When Dracula swooped out of a closet in Mina and Lucy’s bedroom, I thought, “Hey! I know that vampire!”  Josh Ramsey portrays Count Dracula here with subtle differences from his portrayal of the title character in ArtBox Productions’ “Dracula” last month, but he is equally hypnotic. 

Oh, I really do want to tell you about each character, because they were all delightful, from costumes to acting.

Each scene was thrilling and well composed as well.  Each room in the Morris-Butler house is beautifully decorated.  I could spend hours just looking at the chandeliers!  Some of the scenes included recorded sound effects, which added another layer of interest.  Director Joan Rapkin told me in an email conversation that the show is refreshed and changed each year.  When I asked for some more background, she replied:

“The show has been performed almost every year since 1992.  The original script was written by a group of people and new rooms have been written since then by various other people.  I don’t have the names of all the people who have written for ‘From Dark Pages’ but I can definitely tell you that the Faust room and the Burton room were new this year and were written by Li Rapkin, and all the rooms this year were edited by me.  I believe that the people at the Morris Butler House have the names of at least some of the original authors and I also believe that Lee Horn wrote some of it.”

The ending is the most exciting of all, but all I will tell you is that you do get to find out who Jack the Ripper really was, at least according to “From Dark Pages.”  You get to applaud the actors via a “curtain” call at the end as well.  Both of these aspects make the ending very satisfying.

By the way, in my “From Dark Pages” audience group, there were a few people dressed in costume, including a young woman in a beautiful, long, satin gown.  I thought she and the others were part of the show, but no.  They had just felt like coming in costume.  It was fun to have them with us.

“From Dark Pages” continues at the Morris-Butler House through October 30, 2008.  Please call 317-636-5409 to make a reservation.  Several show slots are already full.

On December 6, 13, and 20, 2008, there will be a “Victorian Holiday Tea” there.  Tour all three floors of the lavishly decorated 1865 landmark and learn the Victorian origins of our modern-day holiday traditions, followed by a traditional Victorian tea, and the making of an ornament to take home.  Reservations are required. Please call 317-636-5409.

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Tonight is the last night to go to both “Cold-Blooded” and “From Dark Pages” in one night.  Either order would be fun.

“Cold-Blooded” is a more cerebral piece.  It engages you the way that being a juror at a trial is engaging.  “Dark Pages” is more dramatic.  It engages you the way that being at a haunted house attraction is engaging.  If you see them in this order, you do the harder mental work when you’re fresh.

On the other hand, in “Cold-Blooded” you get to sit down three times – twice to hear witnesses and then to deliberate with the other jurors at the end.  In “Dark Pages” you stand and walk and climb stairs pretty much the whole 45 minutes (but with lots of pauses for scenes, and never both sets of stairs in one go.)  If you see “Dark Pages” first, you do the harder physical work when you’re fresh.

Either show would be a fun evening by itself, too.

At both shows, in addition to standing and walking a fair bit, you are very intimate with the actors and your audience mates.  Therefore I recommend that you travel lightly:  wear very comfortable shoes, tuck your ID and your keys into your bra or pocket, and leave your big purse or knapsack in the trunk of your car.

Also, be sure to give yourself plenty of time to find a parking spot, especially around the Benjamin Harrison Home.  You will probably have to park on the street (for free) and walk a little bit.

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

5 thoughts on “Theatre Reviews: “Cold-Blooded” and “From Dark Pages””

  1. Mr Applegate was the character name of the Devil in “Damn Yankees”.

    This is what was on the card:Don’t call us , we’ll call you
    Mr. Applegate
    666 South Street

    We know where you live

    Glad to hear that your dad is doing Ok.

  2. Great news about your father, Hope.
    Can someone tell me how many years Pat McGehey
    has done the silent maid role? Every one?
    I’m guessing she
    has the longest tenure on the cast.

  3. Two things.

    1. Edward was Victoria’s grandson, not her son.

    2. We really do welcome Americans to the show.

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