A&E: Musical milestone reconsidered at the IRT


At the beginning of this IRT season, Peter Amster directed “Our Town,” in which a knowing narrator gave a worldly perspective to the follies and joys of a young couple in love.

As the season closer at the IRT, Peter Amster directs “The Fantasticks,” in which a knowing narrator gives worldly perspective to the follies and joys of a young couple in love.

This time, there’s music.

I don’t say this to trivialize either production. Rather, these additional levels are the sorts of things that add greater pleasure to attending home-grown professional theater. Seeing some actors overlap in both productions also makes for a richer experience.

“The Fantasticks” is legendary in theater history not so much for its content but because of its longevity. The original New York production, which opened in 1960, ran more than 17,000 performances-which, even considering the fact that the theater had only 150 seats, is impressive. It was an anomaly among musicals and its creators, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, never again came close to matching its success.

When a show lasts that long, you have to wonder about the appeal-what does it tap into that keeps audiences coming? Why do we care about a twist on “Romeo and Juliet” in which a young couple’s love is actually orchestrated by their fathers? Why do we need more reminders that there’s no place like home?

The IRT’s production of this warhorse clearly demonstrates why the show has charmed for so long.

In this deceptively simple production of a deceptively simple show, enigmatic narrator El Gallo (solidly performed by David Studwell) alternates between world-weariness and pastoral poetry-and invites the audience directly into the story with the captivating “Try to Remember.” A pair of aged actors (William J. Norris and Robert K. Johansen, heartbreaking and hilarious) come and go just at the right moments. And feuding/friendly parents Hucklebee and Bellomy show off two of our town’s (and “Our Town”‘s) finest actors, Mark Goetzinger and Charles Goad.

As for the couple at the center of the plot, both sound terrific in song. But is it really necessary to play a lovestruck 16-year-old girl as if she were seven? The script demands that she be immature and compulsive, not brain-dead.

And then there’s the mime.

No, I’m not going to resort to knee-jerk mime-bashing. Instead, I’ll confess my inability to fully process, even hours after the performance, what to make of her. Alexa Silvaggio’s performance has such a sense of loss, such an ache, that it’s possible to read into her any number of terrible life scenarios. By definition she doesn’t reveal anything and by not revealing, she becomes a question mark, weaving in and out of the action, magically controlling the artifice but also being controlled. She accentuates the melancholy of the show and creates some of its most haunting moments.

A mime that gives a musical gravitas? Now that’s something.

Most weeks, I take the “Arts and Entertainment” definition of this column fairly traditionally. In other words, I review music, theater, dance, writing or visual art.

Sometimes, though, I like to stretch the definition a bit, including other attractions looking for a piece of your spare time. On a recent Friday, I visited three such venues at three of Indianapolis’ venerable institutions, playing tourist in my own town and having a good time in the process.

First stop, the Children’s Museum, where the touring exhibition “Animation” has set up shop. Themed around Cartoon Network programming, it does an effective job of demonstrating-through hands-on activities-the science behind TV cartooning (albeit the third-rate animation demonstrated most of the time on CN).

There’s a nifty motion-capture contraption that snaps your picture on six different cameras, showing all spectators you at your silliest. Do it right, and you can be caught mid-air a la “The Matrix.” In another arena, pixilation techniques are illustrated by having visitors pose for a series of ready-setsnap photos. Creative folks will quickly see how the space can be used to make goofy mini-movies, bringing back memories of my first experiments with a Super-8 camera. There’s also a cool persistence-of-vision spinning gizmo and some basic stop-motion animation stations that are likely to occupy children for a while (and frustrate those waiting for a turn).

Next stop, the Indiana Historical Society, which recently morphed its west-end galleries into a step-back-in-time-to-1945 interactive living history attraction called “You are There: 1945 Hoosier Home Front.”

In the outer lobby, kids can build a simple family tree while you dig for genealogy data. An entry gallery showcases items from wartime Indiana. And, behind a very neat mist curtain, doors open into a painstakingly recreated period grocery store.

On our stop, the three attendees (two grocers and an usherette from an imaginary next-door movie theater) answered our questions and were very patient with my 6-year old’s desire for play. A checker game broke out. I won. And he was ready to rush off to the next exhibition room. Alas, for now, there is only one.

While it doesn’t stand up as a destination in and of itself, “You are There” should be on your radar as a place to stop for 20 minutes before an Indians game, after a paddle on the Central Canal, or before a concert on the Lawn at White River State Park.

Or, in our case, on your way to the Indianapolis Zoo, where the big attraction is a pair of creatures who sleep 18 hours a day.

Show up at the odds-on wrong time-as we did-and you are likely to see the visitors from the San Diego Zoo curled up like furry coconuts (forgive me for mixing climates) in their trees. Still, any excuse to revisit the zoo is a good one, and if you haven’t seen the new-ish view-from-below dolphin platform, you’ve got twice the reasons to go back to this White River State Park anchor.

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