IRT blesses us, every one

By John Lyle Belden

Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” – you know it; everyone knows it.

The Scrooge-bahhumbug-Crachits-Tiny-Tim-Marley-three-ghosts-Godblessuseveryone story is nearly as familiar as the Nativity. In fact, some of our favorite tellings take great liberties with the story, like the Muppet version or the movie “Scrooged.”

But it is also promoted as a proper holiday tradition, faithfully executed, every year at Indiana Repertory Theatre. So, how do they keep it reliable, yet unique?

Start with the Tom Haas script, which hews fairly closely to the source material. Under director Janet Allen, have the cast tell the story as they portray the events, in a pudding-smooth blend of narration and action.

Keep the set simple, as scenic designer Russell Metheny has done. The dominant feature is the drifts of snow absolutely everywhere – pure white like holiday magic, yet also a constant desolate reminder of the dangerous cold of a Victorian English winter. Setpieces drift in and out, and a simple large frame sees duty in many ways – a doorway, a mirror, a passage to what comes next.

Cast some of the best talent in Indy, including a number of IRT regulars, starting with the brilliant Ryan Artzberger as Scrooge. Other familiar faces include Charles Goad, Mark Goetzinger and the luminous Millicent Wright. You may also recognize Emily Ristine, Scot Greenwell and Jennifer Johansen. Then there are Jeremy Fisher, Charles Pasternak, Ashley Dillard and Joey Collins. And mix in some great young talent as well, such as Tobin Seiple and Maddie Medley, who take turns as Tiny Tim.

Present it all in a single movie-length performance, submersing the audience into the story until we can’t help but get caught up in it. Of course, we know what’s going to happen next, but with the spirit of live theatre taking us along, we don’t just watch the play, we experience it.

I feel like a bit of a Scrooge sometimes, thinking of things like the Dickens story as stale and overdone; but having seen what IRT does with it, I now see why all those who go back every year enjoy it so much. You, also, might want to consider adding this show to your list of cherished holiday traditions.

Performances continue through Christmas Eve at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St. (near Circle Centre) in downtown Indy. Get information and tickets at www.irtlive.com.

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Phoenix craftily regifts classic bits in annual Xmas show

By Wendy Carson

Welcome to North Pole University! The students and staff are all here to make sure you are up to speed and ready for the next semester. That is the framing conceit of this year’s installment of Phoenix Theatre’s A Very Phoenix Xmas, “Up to Snow Good.”

The cast members pose as different NPU characters in order to introduce the various scenes making up the show. Since this will be the final presentation in the current location, all of this year’s skits are glowing highlights from past shows.

While you may have seen all of the vignettes before, each one has been carefully reworked in a totally new way. In fact, my all-time favorite number, “The Baby,” has been transformed into an awesome puppet show and I feel that it is a far superior rendition to the original.

Also, since these shows have been going for over a decade, it is easy to forget some of them. “Les Miserabelves” is one such example. I had honestly forgotten the hilarity resulting from blending a certain Christmas classic with a French Revolutionary musical. Needless to say, it stands the test of time.

Devan Mathias’s tender take on “Hard Candy Christmas” is hauntingly beautiful especially as she slowly transforms into a her next skit’s character as she sings.

Paul Collier Hansen’s stirring portion of “Hallelujah Hallelujah” is pure sweet sadness with a tiny touch of hope.

Rob Johansen amazingly transforms from a hard-edged Private Eye in “Christmas Heat” to a sleek acrobat in “You Can Fly”.

Nathan Robbins gives a solemn turn in the sweetly insightful “A Requiem for Shermy,” with Gail Payne as another nearly-forgotten character, a scene which will leave you reassessing how you watch a certain popular Christmas classic.

These, along with Jean Arnold, Andrea Heiden and Carlos Medina Maldonado, are all such standout talents. And with such great material, under the direction of Phoenix boss Bryan Fonseca, they all work together so well without chewing the scenery or stealing scenes.

Given the Phoenix’s well-earned reputation for edgy and controversial fare, we’re happy to note that even with their tongue in cheek, there is nothing too over-the-top (though the creche catapult in the War on Christmas scene comes close).

So pull on your ugliest Christmas sweater, gather your loved ones and snuggle up at the Phoenix Theater, 749 N. Park Ave. in downtown Indy, with a spirited take on the holidays as we know them, on the main stage through Dec. 23. Get info and tickets at www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Chaotic Khaos Christmas

By John Lyle Belden

The “Epic Christmas Battle of History,” written and presented by Khaos Company Theatre, is a show I wanted so badly to be better than it is.  I mean, I really like these guys and this little neighborhood theatre, and the company really gives it all a great effort.

It’s not “Epic,” but is Christmassy and there is a battle. When the Star of Bethlehem suddenly implodes, are the holidays (and planet Earth, for that matter) cancelled? No! It’s only an alien using the collapsed wormhole to visit our planet and a family about to enjoy the winter holidays. They teach him about Christmas traditions, and he repays the favor by – um – teaching them about Christmas traditions.

Then there’s some time travel, and an alternate Earth. Then we return to find not all aliens are friendly, leading – naturally – to a rap battle.

This is a one-act, just 90 minutes out of your busy day, so why not?

Friday is “Pay What You Want,” so give what you feel comfortable with to support local artists, lower your expectations, and have fun with it. (Note: The stagehand wielding the Silly String has iffy aim; watch out!)

Final regular-ticketed performance is Saturday, Dec. 17, then KCT turns their attention to more serious fare in the new year. This will be the last show at 3125 E. 10th St., Indianapolis, before moving to new digs on Sherman Drive in 2017. Get info and tickets at www.kctindy.com.

Getting through the holidays with TOTS

By John Lyle Belden

While most people are familiar with the “Nice” offering by Theatre on the Square, a live stage version of “A Christmas Story,” the show on the smaller second stage, “A Christmas Survival Guide” – tagged “Naughty” – is a little more obscure. So that’s what we’ll discuss here.

As for the naughtiness, it’s mainly for some language and Grinchy-Scroogey attitude as a jaded quintet – Gabby Niehaus, Shauna Smith, Anna Lee, Josiah McCruistion and Eric Brockett – their piano accompanist, Levi Burke, and stage manager, Nikki Sayer (her actual position, not just a role) deal with going through yet another holly-jolly season, whether they like it or not.

Still, a show is a show, and when the spotlight is on one of this ensemble, he or she shines, whether it’s Niehaus cooing “Santa Baby,” Smith crooning the “New Years Eve Blues,” Lee abducting “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” Burke tickling the ivories in a solo, or McCruistion frankly singing anything.

It helps that the cast are given copies of the book, “A Christmas Survival Guide,” from which we hear excerpts in the recorded voice of TOTS staffer and local uber-talent Claire Wilcher.

The best bit in this revue of songs and comedy features Lee as a lonely woman dealing with two rather needy and misunderstood roommates, portrayed hilariously by Brockett and McCruistion.

One note to shy audience members: Sitting down front could get you pulled onstage when the gang find themselves a reindeer short.

For something a little different (for teens and older) with a ring of the familiar, in a cozy intimate setting, this show makes a nice change of pace from your typical holiday fare. Performances of this and “Christmas Story” run through Dec. 23 at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave.; call 317-685-8687 or see www.tots.org.

Down with BHC? Hey, you know me!

By John Lyle Belden

Do you have a favorite BHC?

That stands for Beloved Holiday Classic book, movie or television special; nearly everyone has at least one they love to revisit this time of year. And nearly all get at least a shout-out in “Every Christmas Story Ever Told …and then some!” on stage through Dec. 18 at Buck Creek Players.

Steven Linville apparently loves Charles Dickens’ “Christmas Carol,” and is eager to get its performance under way – “Marley was dead…” etc. – but Jessica Bartley and Stacia Ann Hulen revolt, and insist that other holiday classics get their due. Thus the trio address the plots of various BHCs, from Charlie Brown to Dr. Seuss to Dylan Thomas, and throw in facts about Christmas celebrations in other countries around the world.

In Act Two, Linville finally gets to lead a production of Christmas Carol – but wait! One of the more popular BHCs was almost forgotten, and its story ends up in a wild mash-up with Scrooge’s.

Bartley, Hulen and Linville charm and bring plenty of festive comic energy to the show, but they can’t do it alone – the audience and select members occasionally get called on to help things along. If this doesn’t bother you, you’re bound to have a fun time at this holiday treat.

And I must praise set designer Aaron B. Bailey for the wonderful stage set, with our players standing among a library of giant holiday-themed books.

Director D. Scott Robinson said he wasn’t sure he wanted to helm a Christmas show, until he saw this script. He especially enjoyed mixing the music for the show’s “Nutcracker” interlude, which sounds a little different from how Tchaikovsky wrote it.

P.S. Bring cash for the annual cookie sale fundraiser.

Find the Buck Creek Playhouse at 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74); call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor for The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based LGBTQ news source, where he also places his reviews. He’d like to think of “Die Hard” and “Trading Places” as BHCs, and has a great fondness for “Year Without a Santa Claus.”

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.

Phoenix provides much-needed Xmas relief

By Wendy Carson

2016 has been one of the most trying years for many people. Between political intrigues, celebrity deaths, the economy, family, and various other issues, we really need something to bring us out of this funk — and The Phoenix Theatre’s holiday show, “A Very Phoenix Xmas 11: I’m Dreaming of an Intersectionally Thoughtful, Multicultural Winter Holiday,” is just that. In the show’s 11th incarnation, we are provided with some escapism, harsh truths, many laughs, and thoughts to help us refocus on the positive still left in the world.

I was struck initially by the desolate stage presented. Garbage cans, steel beams, old tire, and fencing are among the mishmash of items that create most of the set pieces for the various vignettes.

The theme of the show seems to be Holiday Traditions throughout the world. Your host shares tales of some, and then some are presented for you to enjoy. Just remember, this is The Phoenix, and not everything here is as sweet as a candy cane.

The skits include a traditional song about a missing rabbit and a memorable Christmas dinner; an anxious traveler possibly encountering an angel of sorts; a surprising look behind the scenes at a popular Disney attraction; a variety of puppetry styles; winter solstice at Stonehenge; and a ’40s swinger version of a holiday classic, just to name a few.

The most stand-out piece of the show, though, was the immensely touching, “Homs for the Holidays” which shows you that peace, love, and the Christmas spirit can be found in the most surprising places, no matter where or with whom you are celebrating.

This year’s offering has no real audience participation but you are invited to sing along a time or two and yell out a few “Mad Libs” style suggestions. The show is also a lot more family-friendly this year (still not for all ages, but not risqué or as bawdy as past ones).

I really felt uplifted and filled with the holiday spirit afterwards. So, round up family and friends and head out for a nutty yet spicy take on this time of the year, playing through  Dec. 23 at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair just off Mass Ave.), Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or go to phoenixtheatre.org.