Set sail for something fun and unusual

By John Lyle Belden

How does one describe “Jollyship the Whiz-Bang”?

If it were on TV, it would be on Adult Swim, or maybe on Comedy Central or IFC late-night, between films. It’s a silly puppet show, but aimed more at college students than kids. Or for those who consider “Avenue Q” too mainstream.

Intrigued? Then come aboard, mateys. Nearly everyone in the cast handles or voices the puppets of the crew. Dave Pelsue is animated enough to just be Skeevy (that’s his name, not just an adjective) himself. Same with Paige Scott as gunner Von Heiselstein, though she slips in a couple of voices for others’ puppets. They are led by Captain Gregory Clamp, who rides the arm and takes the voice of Ryan Ruckman. Molly North and Frankie Bolda also help hold up the felted cast, while Aaron Stillerman adds voices. North also voices the pesky Seagull, while Bolda gives personality to a Crab, a/k/a Jumping Jack McGallahad, the Deckhand Man.

And the cast are literally a band of pirates: Pelsue and Stillerman on guitars, Scott on keys, Jason Adams on bass, and Don T. on drums (“We have a drummer?”). Everyone sings.

There is a plot, of sorts, as the crew goes on its years-long voyage to find Party Island. Captain Clamp is convinced it exists, but the others are getting less sure. Clamp drinks to forget losing Tom, the cabin boy, and we soon find out why. As the Captain goes through his personal voyage of self-discovery – complete with an attempt at reformation – we see Jumping Jack’s attempt to be a real “man” and his own tragic story arc.

But this is also silly and funny and full of raucous songs – with sex-talk and dirty language, so, again, no kids! Seriously, one of the Captain’s punchlines is, “F##k ye!”

This odd theatrical offering, written by Nick Jones, was a Fringe Festival hit, and now, with direction and puppets supplied by Callie Burk-Hartz, it is playing Thursday nights in March at the Storefront Theatre, 717 Broad Ripple Ave. Not restricted by Fringe rules, it plays out the full script, with two acts and intermission.

This show is a lot of fun, not just for us in the audience but all involved. I could tell the cast were enjoying themselves, as they let their own personalities flavor their roles. The Captain felt like a very Ruckman kind of blustery slacker-authority character. Skeevy is Pelsue the friendly rock star. Von Heiselstein is so Scott, with attitude that’s little bitter, but that’s just to set you up for the punchline. And leave it to Bolda and her mastery of comic oddness to make a crustacean a sympathetic character. Kudos also to North for handling so many characters and Stillerman for juggling the voices while playing the music.

At the performance we attended, especially with some actor friends in the audience, it felt like some creative pals just having a good time. (Wait. Was Party Island in us the whole time?)

Set sail for the Ripple and see for yourself. Get info and tickets at storefrontindy.com.

One note regarding the venue: Storefront Theatre is actually in the basement level. The storefront entrance has a stairwell leading down. Those with access issues need to alert the staff (there is an elevator, at the former location of Crackers Comedy Club).

NoExit’s ‘Birds’ flock to Central State

By John Lyle Belden

We’re a long way from Bodega Bay. Members of NoExit Performance have speculated what happened in the years after the events of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” and crafted a theatre experience that tells a story from the animals’ point of view.

The bird uprising came at a time of nuclear conflict, leaving avians and humans alike struggling to scratch out a living in the resulting wasteland. Rapid evolution has given the birds speech, and the ability to think tactically and plan, but this leaves them struggling to hold on to their instincts. 

The Midwest flock has gathered at the former grounds of Central State in Indianapolis, where we, the audience, are the few humans allowed to witness their proceedings. The birds don’t trust us, and herd us (as we would them) from scene to scene in this unusual drama.

All are worried about their prospects for survival. Food is in short supply, eggshells are dangerously thin, and though there have been gains in the war against the humans, they come at a cost. Hadrian (Ronn Johnston) reluctantly carries the role of leader, as fellow raptors Antinious is dead and Ikarus (Dave Pelsue) is missing, assumed to be a traitor. His advisor Grebe (Becky Lee Meacham) tries to bouy his confidence, while fellow Council member Krone (Callie Burk-Hartz) has drastic plans of her own. 

Meanwhile, young Ave (Gaby Padilla) is the only one to whom the spirit bird Horus (a large shadow-puppet, likely a gull as it refers to the first attackers from the film) will speak. Inquisitive and empathetic, she is told she is the key to the future of all birdkind. This worries her sister Poly (Stephanie Wilson).

Also notable are worrisome Moa (Tracy Herring), presumptuous Asha (Audrey Stonerock) and war-party leader Apollo (Tristan Montgomery). Other members of the flock are played by Nicole Kelter, Katie Carter, Owen Harp, Jenny Allan, Ashley Youmell, Kimmie Icenogle, Katherine Boyles Ogawa, and Lesli Butler. Horus is presented by Tracy Herring, Wilson, Stonerock and Pelsue.

The story, written and directed by Ryan Mullins, has the feel of great Greek and Shakespearean dramas. But its presentation is restrained from full anthropomorphization. Just as cast members of the musical “Cats” have to go to “cat school,” so have the NoExit players apparently gone to “Bird School” — their movements are constantly birdlike, squawks and other bird cries are mixed in their speech, when idle they peck and scratch at their surroundings, and each player stays true to a particular species in its actions. They never break character, even during intermission. 

Makeup and loose costuming, designed by Kat Robinson, Traci Snider and Asha Patel, which involve fabric strips rather than feathers, aid their motion and suggest their form, letting the characters within hold our attention rather than be distracted by artificial beaks or other obvious bird-features.

Even more effective than their look is their sound, as the actors effectively emulate the fluttering, flapping noise that was so unnerving in the movie.

The play is set mostly outdoors, with the occasional real bird observing from the rooftops. Audience members are advised to bring lawn chairs — much of the play takes place in one area — but a limited number are available on site.

“The Birds” have a lot to teach us, and some hard lessons to learn. Performances run through Oct. 13 at the Power House on the grounds of Central State Village off West Washington Street. For information and tickets, visit noexitperformance.org

NoExit literally surrounds you with scenes of people barely getting by

By John Lyle Belden

I was left with mixed feelings after seeing “Nickel and Dimed” – which is appropriate for a NoExit Performance show.

The play, by Joan Holden, is based on the book, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich, an investigative journalist who spent months at a time taking low-paying jobs to find out first-hand how the working poor in America get by. She hustles for tips as a waitress, risks injury cleaning houses, puts in long hours at a nursing home, and deals with the workplace culture of a big-box store.

But what is shocking and eye-opening for her is old news to many of us in the audience. Friends of the theatre tend to take in shows (or perform in them) between shifts as a barista; or perhaps we have a good career going, but only after some lean years. Still, there are two aspects to this that should give us some pause: First, Barbara’s adventures took place in the late 1990s (the book published in 2001), yet, except for the fact that the minimum wage is marginally higher, the play’s events could be happening today – and for a lot of people, they are.

Secondly, we who have had some college and a few breaks must remember that for many – such as Barbara’s coworkers portrayed – this is as good as it gets. This made me feel a little uncomfortable with the writer just pretending to be a broke divorcee with no prospects – acting like an anthropologist hanging out with the natives until she’s gathered enough data to leave them and return to her comfortable life (to the play’s credit, Barbara’s boyfriend does point this out to her). This seems cruel to those she leaves behind, especially after she tries to run interference in their lives – it is these with no fall-back position who deal with the consequences. One still lives in her vehicle; another still struggles with single motherhood while keeping the terms of her probation; still another trades one unhealthy workplace for another, but the new job pays a little more.

So, while Barbara, played earnestly by Bridget Haight, is the focus of the play, more important are the various people she works with – portrayed excellently by Lynn Burger, Carrie Bennett, Kallen Ruston, Tracy Herring, Latoya Moore, Elysia Rohn and Ryan Ruckman (who also plays the boyfriend). Their stories and struggles should resonate with us, and help us to take notice of all the “invisible” people in our day to day lives – busboys, shelf stockers, cleaning staff, etc.

Director Callie Burk Hartz and set designer Lizz Krull took an inventive approach to “theatre in the round,” placing all the sets around the edge of the large room while the audience sits in the middle in swivel rolling desk chairs. Thus, as the actors and light cues (credit to Christian McKinney) send us around the room, we constantly turn to face them. Little need for crew to move set pieces, and the chairs are kinda fun.

Aside from inventive staging and thought-provoking subject matter, this is also a NoExit show in the fact that the site isn’t one of the city’s theatre spaces, but a vacant office building at 3633 E. Raymond St., Indianapolis, near the intersection of Raymond and Sherman (south of Edwards’ Drive-In, turn in behind the McDonald’s). It works as a roomy space for the play’s set-up, and symbolically as a location where an office temp might toil for whatever she can get before the assignment ends and the job search resumes. However, being on Indy’s Eastside could make it difficult to bring in the folks from the more affluent areas of town who really need to see this show.

So, grab an upper-middle-class friend and see this production that helps put faces and names to the people we only hear vaguely about in government policy debates. After all, we’re all closer to that economic bottom than we think.

Performances are through May 19. Get tickets and info at noexitperformance.org.

Toymaker tinkers with oft-told tale

By John Lyle Belden

In the hands of No Exit Performance’s Ryan Mullins and Georgeanna Smith Wade, Mullins’ portrayal of the toymaker Drosselmeyer has expanded to something far beyond the necessary supporting character for the “Nutcracker” ballet, emerging as a signature personality for the No Exit troupe.

His painted, sharp-dressed hunchback looks odd, yet exudes a confident charisma that makes him funny while kind of dangerous (and sexy, he’d insist I add sexy). From the moment he takes the stage, he is in charge, completely. The dancing, giggling players around him obey; the audience, under his firm gaze, are taken by his unusual charm. He can be challenged (and occasionally is) but never defeated – or can he?

I attended a production of No Exit’s “Nutcracker” a couple of years ago. With Drosselmeyer as the emcee, we were treated to a strange but entertaining variation of the story (with dance breaks, but none of the traditional ballet). This year our toymaker has invented something new, yet familiar.

“Drosselmeyer Presents: Another Twisted Classic” is the title of this year’s show, staged in a large downstairs garage area of the Tube Factory, the Big Car artspace located at 1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis (just off south Shelby near Garfield Park).

Our host promises the audience he will stage another edition of the Nutcracker, but first a little nap… Clues like this, and when we see Callie Burke-Hartz as a kid on a crutch, tell us what often-told Christmas tale this band is going to twist. You feel like you know what’s going to happen next – it sorta does, but it totally doesn’t, at least not like you’d expect.

Other notable characters (at this point Drosselmeyer insists you stop reading because it’s not about him; just see his show!) include Lukas Schooler as the magnificent mulleted Mustache Man, the toymaker’s rival for our attention; Michael Burke as the beautiful Ginger; Aaron Beasley as grifter handyman Mr. Scratchit; and the return of Drosselmeyer’s – um, friend? partner? servant? – darling Sparkle (Wade), who in the silent clown tradition, speaks volumes with a gesture. She just wants everyone to be happy, but is there any joy left for her?

Funny, inventive – as much an experience as a play – I highly recommend this show to anyone up for something a little unusual. There are a few mature moments, so this is best for teens and up. The stage location is down a steep staircase, but accommodations can be made for those who have difficulty with this.

Performances resume today (Dec. 7) and run through Saturday, with two more on Dec. 16-17. Get info and tickets at www.noexitperformance.org.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor for The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based LGBTQ news source, where he also places his reviews.