Theatre Review: “Yankee Tavern” at the Phoenix

A couple weekends ago, I drove downtown to the Mass-Ave theatre district of downtown Indianapolis to see the opening performance of “Yankee Tavern” at the Phoenix Theatre.  It was written by Steven Dietz and directed by Bryan Fonseca. 

I liked this creepy-funny show so much that I went back to see it a second time this past Thursday night.  (Thursday and Sunday performances are always “Duke Energy Cheap Seats” this season at the Phoenix: tickets are only $15.)

I love that it is a play about conspiracy theories surrounding what happened in and to the United States on September 11, 2001, but also about unusual coincidences and conspiracies in general.  A certain line about a potential Abraham Lincoln conspiracy made me bark with laughter, it was so preposterous, but I also agreed with my friend, Anne, who said as we were leaving the theatre, “I want to know which ones of those are true!”

I also love that “Yankee Tavern” is a play about all forms of communication, including communication with ghosts.  Also, the design elements and everyone in the show are very attractive, which is icing on the layered cake of the story.

Pause for Hugs

I ran into Bryan, the director, a couple weekends ago when we were both at the final performance of “Becky’s New Car” – also written by Steven Dietz – at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.  Bryan was seeing that show for the first time, me for the third.

Can I just stop here and say how great it is for the busy artistic director of an even busier theatre to be seeing shows at other local theatres?  Bryan told me he had been out to Buck Creek Players earlier that day to see “The Brain From Planet X,” too. 

He was surprised when I expressed admiration.  “Well, yeah!” he said.  “I like to support the community.”

Unfortunately, that is not true of every director I know. 

Anyway, I asked Bryan what had drawn him to “Yankee Tavern” in the first place.  It is very different in tone and content from “Becky’s New Car.”  I knew from talking to Scot Greenwell (actor and former literary manager for the Phoenix) on the opening night of “Tavern” that they had heard an excerpt from the script at the National New Play Network’s showcase in Florida last year.

Bryan said that he always likes mysteries, especially with endings where you’re not sure exactly what happened.  However, he also liked that this play addresses both the importance of asking questions and the importance of knowing when to let go of unanswered questions and move on.

The Thick Plot and the Juicy Characters

“Yankee Tavern” is set in a cozy neighborhood bar in New York City on the first floor of a closed hotel that is haunted by the ghosts of former guests, at least according to Ray (Stephen Hunt.)  Ray was best friends with the former owner of the Tavern and is now a self-proclaimed “itinerant homesteader” and a sort of godfather to the former owner’s son and current bartender, Adam (Shane Chuvalas.)  Ray has a lot to say about all kinds of conspiracy theories to anyone who will listen, but in my mind, mystery #1 is: how did Adam’s father really die?

Adam is engaged to be married to Janet (Carrie Schlatter.)  When he completes his work on an advanced degree in international studies, they plan to sell the whole building to developers and leave the ghosts behind.  But first he needs to go to Washington, D.C. to meet with his former professor, who happens to be very sexy.  Mystery #2 is: what does she really want with him and should Janet be worried?

While I am watching and listening to the first three characters interact, a man walks into the bar and asks for two Rolling Rocks, one of which he places in front of the empty barstool next to his.  Mystery #3 is: who is this man who “keeps secrets for a living,” really?  What brought him to this hole-in-the-wall bar, and who is the second beer for?

Actor Doug Johnson gives the man of few words (whose name according to the program is Palmer although I don’t think we ever hear it) a complex inscrutability even after he begins to talk.  There is a tightly-reined-in sadness in his voice and manner as well as clinical determination, and you’re never quite sure if he is one of the “good guys” or not.

Stephen Hunt gives the character of Ray a crazed huggy-bear quality that is both exasperating and endearing.  His character, too, has hidden depths.  “Be good,” he tells Adam.  “Be careful.”

Carrie Schlatter as Janet reminds me of Lois Lane: She is beautiful, smart, loyal, affectionate…and although she is missing all of the facts about Superman’s true identity, she is not completely unaware of the potential dangers in being with him.  I love that we get to see Janet’s struggles with her own kryptonite, too.

But is Adam a super hero, or even an ordinary one?  The way Steven Dietz wrote him and Shane Chuvalas plays him, you never really know about Adam, either.  Adam is sexy, intelligent, kind… He is also tormented, and a liar, and who knows what else.

I love that all four of the characters in “Yankee Tavern” are complex human beings with secrets.  That is ultimately more interesting to me than the complexities of the coincidences (or conspiracies) surrounding “9-11,” although, as I say, those intrigued me, too.

The Design Elements

Speaking of intriguing, Linda Janosko designed the wonderful “Yankee Tavern” set.  In some ways, it is very inviting: it looks lived-in and loved because there are a gazillion signs and post cards and mirrors and things on the walls and there always seems to be a fresh pot of coffee behind the bar along with the bottles of booze.  The intimacy is attractive, too, if you want someone to talk to while you drink: there are only three or four small tables and a handful of barstools.

And yet it is also easy to believe that there are several floors of haunted, deteriorating old hotel rooms weighing down the place from above.  The cozy feeling could very quickly turn to claustrophobic.  The cigarette machine is ancient, the dartboard is missing, and the jukebox…well, the dingy old jukebox has its own stories to tell.  Mystery #4 is why it shut down on its own in the middle of a song on September 11, 2001, and why it has never worked since.

I could look at that set for hours.

The sound and lighting designs are intriguing, too.  They made me grin with delight because they communicate with the audience at least part of the time on an almost subliminal level.  I mean, they do the usual work of helping to ground us in time and place by providing traffic noises whenever the front door opens, for example.  The light coming in from another doorway looks as if it comes from ordinary light bulbs leading the way to the restrooms and up some stairs to the hotel rooms. 

But the designs are also conspiratorial.  Sometimes the sound design enhances the suspense and anxiety in a scene in a non-musical way without distracting us, for example.  During a scene change, a line of soft up-lights over the bar makes us think, “Hey!  What a great collection of framed album covers!” and pulls our attention away from what is happening on the darker parts of the stage.  It is a theatrical bait-and-switch.

My program lists both Matt Kelly and Bryan Fonseca as the sound designers for this show.  Laura Glover is the lighting designer.  Bryan Fonseca is the stage manager, assisted by Kelli Johnson.  Lauren Batson is the light and sound operator.

Technical director Christopher Hansen is also in charge of a variety of props, including the green-labeled coffee that Janet brings in and which Ray calls “cult in a cup” before he pours it out behind the bar.

Victoria Richardson’s costume designs are just right and very communicative, too.  Palmer’s dark windbreaker does not have “FBI” in huge, block letters across the back, for example, but it could.  When Janet wears a soft yet thick, white sweater, you know it was a deliberate choice.  My favorite accessory is the purple Crown Royal bag that Ray wears around his neck.

Myths, Music, and Orange Blossom Ale

In the theatre lobby there are supplies for audience members to use to jot down and tape up their own favorite urban legends and conspiracy theories on the walls.

A trio called “Monkey Fightin’ Snakes” was making music on the Phoenix stage before the “Yankee Tavern” show this past Thursday night.  I only got to hear their last two or three songs, but I enjoyed their music very much.   I especially loved their last song, which I learned later was “That’s It, I Quit, I’m Movin’ On,” originally by Sam Cooke and covered recently by Adele.  I saw on MFS member Jamison Garrison’s Facebook page that MFS will also play before the opening night performance of “Around the World in 80 Days” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre next week.  Yay!

At intermission on opening night of “Yankee Tavern” I went to Jessica’s pub window in the Phoenix lobby and thought I would ask for a Rolling Rock instead of my usual Diet Coke, to honor the show’s tavern setting and to satisfy my curiosity about what a “Rock” tastes like.  I don’t think they had any Rolling Rock for sale but in any case I remembered that every once in a while I buy an Orange Blossom Cream Ale at the Phoenix.   I can never finish one because the odd flavor gets to me after a while, and I just don’t drink alcohol of any kind that much any more, but I always enjoy the first few sips.

So I asked for an Orange Blossom instead of a Rock.

Jessica told me that Orange Blossom Cream Ale is a seasonal drink and it was too early for this year’s crop, which was disappointing.  But when I went back this past Thursday, there was the pretty orange bottle in Jessica’s beverage line-up!  Phoenix Managing Director Sharon Gamble saw me drinking one and said that the return of the Orange Blossom Cream Ale is one of her favorite signs of spring.

Sharon also mentioned during the curtain talk that the 15th Annual Brew-Ha-Ha event to benefit the Phoenix Theatre will be from 3-7 pm on Saturday, June 26, 2010, right outside the theatre.  Several microbreweries will be represented there.

Box Office

The “Yankee Tavern” press release that I received from Phoenix Marketing & Media Relations Director Lori Raffel says:

Yankee Tavern — written by Dietz in 2007 and recently produced in South Florida, Charlotte and Denver — is really a play about belief.  Belief in ghosts, trust in our loved ones and faith that secret forces steer our destinies. Or it may be a whopping good tale that’s not really about anything more than most thrillers, which is to say it may be about nothing at all. The audience will have to decide.

On the other hand, at some point in the play, one of the characters says, “Until you know what something is, how can you be done with it?” 

I guess I will never be done with “Yankee Tavern,” but that’s okay.   I’m glad I went.

“Yankee Tavern” continues on the main stage at the Phoenix Theatre through Saturday, May 1, 2010.  For more information or to make a reservation, please call 317-635-PLAY (7529) or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

A Couple of Future Phoenix Events

The next play at the Phoenix Theatre will be “Speech & Debate,” written by Steven Karam.  It will run May 20-June 27, 2010 on the underground Basile stage.  Several people have told me recently that “If you love the TV show, ‘Glee,’” (and I do) “you will love this play.”  However, I have been looking forward to “Speech & Debate” ever since I chatted with two of the S&D cast members – Kelli Johnson and Matthew Van Oss –  last fall at the Penrod Arts Festival. 

Before “Speech & Debate,” though, will be an event I hadn’t heard about until I received the press release.  (Have I mentioned how much I love to find press releases in my email box?)  “Pure Prine: The Music of John Prine” will run on the Phoenix main stage for just two weekends. 

 Here is most of the press release:

********** 

PHOENIX THEATRE TO PRESENT PURE PRINE: The Music of John Prine 
MAY 7-9 and 13-16
 

Indianapolis – The Phoenix Theatre of Indianapolis announces the World Premiere of Pure Prine: The Music of John Prine. Conceived and directed by Phoenix Producing Director Bryan Fonseca, this musical presentation will be on the Phoenix Mainstage for seven performances: May 7, 8, 9, 13, 14, 15 and 16, 2010.  

Pure Prine: The Music of John Prine is an original and unique theatrical concert that has been in the mind of Fonseca for over three years. Throughout its 27-year history, the Phoenix has been host to many musical productions and individual concerts by artists that have included Christine Lavin, California Guitar Trio and Cal Collins. Pure Prine: The Music of John Prine is unique because it spans 30-plus years of Prine’s music, whose style has been labeled everything from folk and country to rock and alternative, but which in the end is more simply described as heartfelt and human.   

Fonseca has been listening to Prine’s music since Prine’s self-titled debut album was released in 1971 and has seen him live more times than he can count.  “I have seen many artists live, but there is something special about being there when Prine performs.  He lights up the room with his music and personality, which are not overstated or demanding, but instead warm and approachable,” stated Fonseca, who went on to say “I have always been drawn to singer songwriters, perhaps because they tend to bare their souls in their songs and performances.”

The six-person cast includes some of the area’s most talented musicians: Tim Brickley (who doubles as Music Director for the project), Tim Grimm, Jenni Gregory, Bobbie Lancaster, Jan Lucas and Michael Shelton. While the presentation is much more than a typical tribute concert, the musicians are all certainly fans of Prine and his ability to weave wonderful musical stories with down-to-earth lyrics about the human condition. 

John Prine has a large and loyal following throughout the United States and around the world.  Some of the world’s most famous singer songwriters list Prine as an enormous influence in their music, including Bob Dylan, Bonnie Rait and Kris Kristofferson. Often given the credit of discovering John Prine, Kris Kristofferson heard Prine and remarked that he wrote songs so good that “we’ll have to break his thumbs.”  Born in 1946 in Maywood, Illinois, Prine is an American country/folk singer songwriter who has been active as a recording artist and live performer since the early 1970’s.  
 

Ticket Prices

All seating is general admission on a first-come, first-served basis and all tickets for all performances are $20. Performances are Thursdays at 7:00 pm; Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 8:00 pm. and Sundays at 2:00 pm. Doors open ½ hour prior to curtain for seating. The Phoenix Pub, located inside the theatre, offers beer, wine, soft drinks, coffee, and bottled water, as well as treats, and all refreshments may be taken into the theatre and consumed during the performance. 

For more information about any Phoenix productions or to purchase tickets, call the Phoenix Theatre box office at 317.635.PLAY (7529). Tickets may also be purchased online. The theatre’s website is www.phoenixtheatre.org. 

**********   

I confess that a) I don’t listen to much recorded music so b) I do not know anything about John Prine’s work, but I love listening to just about any kind of live music and storytelling.  And anyway, I have always said that I would love to hire Bryan Fonseca to load my iPhone with music for me.  If Bryan likes this guy’s stuff, I’m in.

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

Follow @IndyTheatre on Twitter.com, too.

Leave a Reply