IRT gives mouse-eye view of stage magic

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Repertory Theatre presents an excellent introduction to the world of live theatre for the smallest patrons – preschool to the early school grades – with “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.”

The show is immersive, encouraging audience participation in a gentle manner. Children take their seats on the floor right next to the “stage” area, which includes two paths running through the audience (parents or guardians can sit with them, or to the back in regular chairs). There is an opening introduction led by an IRT staffer, such as actor/educator Beverly Roche or play director Benjamin Hanna, to let everyone know what to expect and get them in the proper mood.

Everyone in the excellent cast play mice — with humans, hazards and a pesky cat (giant from our perspective) portrayed by light and sound effects to aid young imaginations. Claire Wilcher is Granny, matriarch of the Boot family, who resides in an old work shoe in a barn in The Country with grandson William (Grant Somkiet O’Meara, the lone kid actor). They are visited by Town cousin Montmorency De Vere Boot (Paeton Chavis), who informs them that William has inherited a nice piece of luxury footwear in an attic closet in a house in the heart of the city. When Monty brings William to Town to claim his new home, they come across the “tame twins,” white mice who escaped their pen to roam free about the house. Snowey (Carlos Medina Maldonado) is friendly and welcoming, while Silver (Brianna Milan) is mean and mistrusting, trying to trick William into dangerous situations.

While I would find it problematic if the theme emphasized the danger of exploring new places and that one is better off where they “belong,” the lesson emphasis here is on being brave – both in confronting new things and in stepping up to help someone else. The play program has an easy activity worksheet that includes questions on the topic of bravery, and the cast returns after the play to help lead a discussion on being brave.

The play is by British playwright Vicky Ireland, based on the traditional Aesop fable. A bit of the Queen’s English slips in – like “ready, steady, go” – but not in unfamiliar accents.

All the children present at my showing (emceed charmingly by Roche) appeared to enjoy the play, even smaller ones who were fussy at first. Be prepared for learning new dance steps, like the mouse “greeting” and the hot-pipe crossing – bits of physical storytelling that helped keep the young audience engaged. It also helped that the star is a bit closer to the age of the playgoers. When one kid asked during the talkback if he could give a high five, he headed straight to O’Meara. While Chavis being a small woman helped her to connect, Wilcher was nicely maternal and Maldonado and Milan were like oversized children (think Big Bird, but with fur).

Some parents noted after the show that there aren’t many opportunities for small children to experience live theatre like this. For information and tickets to this play, running through March 25 on the Cabaret floor of the IRT – 140 W. Washington St., downtown Indianapolis – visit www.irtlive.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.

IndyFringe: I’d Like To See More Of You

By John Lyle Belden

Local theatre producer-director Bob Harbin (Bobdirex productions) presents a mature-content burlesque show in an old-fashioned Vaudeville style. Harbin himself doesn’t bare all, though co-conspirator and local comedy goddess Claire Wilcher comes close, and some other heavenly bodies present themselves for a tease and/or a laugh.

The well-rounded nature of this show, with songs and bawdy humor added to the flashes of skin, make it exceptionally entertaining.

We also learn that by state law, while pasties and discretion are required of performing women, for men, the “full Monty” is legal. Remember the Youtube video with a couple of men dancing with nothing on their bare skin but a couple of towels? That routine is reproduced live. One false move, and we get more of a show than anyone counted on!

You should see more of this. Performances are Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 27-28, at Theatre on the Square. Info and tickets at indyfringefestival.com.

A merry time with Bard’s ‘Wives’

By John Lyle Belden

I’ve found that a play is much more entertaining if the actors involved seem to be enjoying themselves, especially with a comedy. And I get the impression that the players in Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project’s production of William Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” are having a blast.

Centering on the popular character of bawdy, naughty Sir John Falstaff, this is one of the easier Shakespeare comedy plots to follow. Though we start with the typical multitude of characters thrown at us in the opening scenes, the groupings and motivations are fairly easy to sort out.

Falstaff (Adam Crowe) sets his wandering eye on two noble women, played by Amy Hayes and Claire Wilcher, the wives, respectively, of Ford (Rob Johansen) and Page (Josh Ramsey). The ladies, already annoyed by being wooed by the fat drunkard, discover they have been sent the exact same love letter and conspire their revenge. Meanwhile, Ford, learning of Falstaff’s advances, disguises himself as lecherous “Brook,” who approaches Falstaff and offers to pay him to have Mistress Ford after he’s done with her.

And in the other main plot, which will lead to the traditional wedding at the end, Page’s daughter Anne (Chelsea Anderson) is asked to choose between crass French Dr. Caius (Gari Williams) and shy Slender (Kelsey VanVoorst) – she wants neither, choosing Fenton (Benjamin Schuetz), who her parents do not like.

Another key character is Mistress Quickly (Carrie Schlatter), who acts as a fixer in these situations for anyone willing to pay her cash. Michael Hosp plays a Welsh parson, Sir Hugh, and other supporting characters are played by Frankie Bolda as Rugby, Zach Joyce as Shallow and Adam Tran as Pistol.

In an interesting casting twist, the character of Simple, who more than lives up to the name as he is sent in various directions on multiple errands, is played by one of the other actors not involved in the moment’s particular scene, and never the same one twice. Wisdom Tooth and director Bill Simmons also made a gentle parody of the Shakespearean tradition of boys playing female roles by having some male roles played by women (perhaps a nod to British slapstick “panto” tradition?).

The setting has been transported from Olde England to mid-twentieth-century America – around 1954, when the song “Hernando’s Hideaway” was a hit – at The Windsor Hotel & Resort in a mythical Miami or Palm Beach with a Thames River nearby. The art-deco look and ’50s summer wear add to the light atmosphere of the play.

The Elizabethan language, however, is kept intact. But with spirited delivery, including occasional abuse of the fourth wall, this cast brings out the belly-laughs from the audience and play off each other so animatedly that the best word for this experience is simply “fun.”

The play is often criticized for its relative simplicity, but it has its own depth – and how much profundity does one need in a farce? Presented to us in our sitcom-fueled culture, this show comes off like a classic “I Love Lucy.” Hayes and Wilcher definitely give Mistresses Ford and Page a Lucy-and-Ethel chemistry. And like those ladies, they manage to stay one step ahead of the bumbling men to wind up on top.

Performances are May 20-22 and 27-28 at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St., downtown Indianapolis. For info and tickets see indyfringe.org or wisdomtooththeatreproject.org.

(This was also posted at The Word [later The Eagle], Indy’s LGBTQ newspaper)

 

Reiew: Duo puts on killer show

By John Lyle Belden

To use the language of its era, “White City Murder,” by and starring Ben Asaykwee and Claire Wilcher, is a marvel and a spectacle, well worthy of your dime – well, many of them; it is 2016, after all.

But in a room of the Irvington Lodge, it’s 1893 in Chicago at the Worlds Fair, the setting for much of this musical drama by Q Artistry in which Asaykwee and Wilcher are more than 30 characters and, thanks to a keyboard and vocal loopers, the musical instruments as well.

The plot is familiar to readers of the bestselling book, “Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson (not cited as a source, but likely an influence on Asaykwee’s writing of the show). An impressive complex of buildings, known as the White City for its monochrome style, hosts the Fair while just a couple of miles away, a man known at the time as H.H. Holmes was running his hotel – popularly known as his “murder castle” for its various rooms designed for killing people and processing and disposing of their bodies. Aside from his psychopathy, Holmes killed for profit, selling skeletons to colleges and cashing in on insurance policies. This show delves into his past, and continues after the Fair closes to portray Holmes’ actions to stay ahead of Pinkerton detectives (investigating insurance fraud, not murder), ending not long after his brief stay in Irvington (just blocks away from where the musical is staged).

The story of the person regarded as America’s first serial killer (and one of the most prolific) is told in a fascinating, eccentric manner with old-time pizzazz, drawing a gasp one moment, nervous laughter the next. In the hands of these two master comic actors, it is a performance not to be missed.

And, if I must stop gushing and be a critic for a moment, that’s the show’s main flaw: It feels like a show only these two pros can do. As a musical that can be picked up, re-staged and performed by others – say, in Chicago or even off-Broadway – “White City Murder” has a lot of rough edges. Fortunately, Asaykwee is such a great showman and Wilcher an improv goddess that any goofs, flubs, lulls or moments of this-isn’t-quite-working are easily smoothed over – likely easily forgotten by most of the audience by the end. The musical interludes could use some work, and reliance on electronics does invite technical glitches. There is clever use of what look like large cardboard cutouts that stops for no reason and could be useful in more parts of the plot. I could nitpick further, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Asaykwee and Wilcher are already making tweaks for the show’s second weekend.

Still, as a sort of “beta test” of a show that’s good enough to perform but not quite perfected, this is an excellent first edition.

Remaining performances are Saturday (March 26), and Thursday through Saturday, March 31 to April 2, at 5515 E. Washington St., Indianapolis. See qartistry.org for tickets.

(Review also posted at The Word)

After TOTS triumph, Asaykwee continues dark path

By John Lyle Belden

If you missed the recent run of the Tracy Letts drama “Killer Joe” at Theatre on the Square, it’s understandable. Sellouts were common, even with an additional performance added.

Still, you would have missed one heck of a show. The raw impact of the story of a redneck Texas family hiring a hitman to kill one of its members, with the titular character agreeing to take the young woman of the family as a “security deposit,” was enforced by a top-shelf cast – including local stage veterans Dan Scharbrough, Nate Walden, Lisa Marie Smith and Jaddy Ciucci.

But the most triumphant performance was by Ben Asaykwee as Joe. For those who only know his work with darkly comic characters – like the many he developed as founder of Q Artistry and shows like “Cabaret Poe” – his chilling transformation into the no-nonsense Texas hitman bordered on shocking. With surprisingly little effort, he projected menace and put us all on notice that his true range and depth is much greater than many ever suspected.

This weekend, TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis, opened the classic Stephen Sondheim musical, “Passion,” playing weekends through March 26. (See www.tots.org.)

Meanwhile, Asaykwee has left downtown and set his sights on entertaining us with the story of an actual killer.

Apparently unafraid of ghosts – working as he has for the past several years in former Masonic Lodge 666 in the haunted neighborhood of Irvington – Asaykwee, with megatalent Claire Wilcher, present “White City Murder,” a new musical based on the exploits of America’s first known serial killer, H.H. Holmes, performed just blocks away from where Holmes briefly lived and is believed to have killed at least one child, who is said to still haunt the home.

The musical runs March 18-20, March 26 and March 31-April 2 at the lodge, 5515 E. Washington St., Indianapolis. It’s plot concerns the “murder hotel” where dozens of young women disappeared during the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair. The events are recounted in the book “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson, which tells of Holmes’ many murders to collect on victims’ insurance and the building he had constructed to make the process of killing and disposal more efficient.

If anyone can set such a macabre topic to music in an entertaining fashion, it’s Asaykwee – who has already succeeded with the works of Edgar Alan Poe and writing an opera about the tragic Donner Party. And if anyone can help make such an odd show work, it’s Wilcher, who just helped co-write “Babes in Toyland,” is a comic legend with 3-Dollar Bill and ComedySportz, and gave brilliant performances in musicals including “Cabaret” and “Man of LaMancha.”

Find ticket information at www.qartistry.org, or follow “Qartistry” on Facebook.

(This story also posted on The Word.)

Review: Locally-sourced ‘Toyland’

By John Lyle Belden

The Footlite Musicals production of “Babes in Toyland” is both old and fresh, as the classic songs by Victor Herbert a century ago are set in a new book by the show’s director Bob Harbin (of Bibdirex fame) and comic megatalent Claire Wilcher (who, unfortunately, isn’t in the show). Harbin notes in the program that the original script is public domain, allowing him to put his and Claire’s own spin on the play.

The first act is practically a play in itself, set mostly in Mother Gooseland. Jack and Jill (Thomas Whitcomb and Breanna Jaffe) have taken a tumble, and Bo Peep (Samantha Shelton) has lost her sheep, but the biggest drama is that Mary Contrary (Claire Cassidy) wants to marry Tom Piper (Jonathan Krouse), but wicked landlord Barnaby (Jeff Fuller) demands to wed her instead. Neither Mary’s mother (Susan Smith) nor Mother Goose herself (Miki Mathioudakis) like the deal, but what hope is there for a happy ending – especially when Tom disappears? Fortunately some Gypsies (“We are Gypsies!” is a running gag) come in to help save the day.

Barnaby suffers a setback, but is not finished. The plot takes our characters in the second act to Toyland, home of a toymaker (Dan Flahive) who has given up on his craft. Time to work up another dramatic showdown towards a happy ending.

This show is very much geared towards the children and kids-at-heart, tykes who don’t mind if the beak of Mother Goose’s Gander (voiced by Curtis Peters) gets a little out of synch or if some of the joke lines fall flat. Another giggle-worthy moment or song-and-dance spectacle from this large all-ages cast is coming right up. Kudos to Fuller for playing his “boo-hiss” villain for all it’s worth. And best scene-stealer goes to Keilyn Bryant as Little BB (as in “Boy Blue”). Harbin does a great job wrangling all of the various elements that go into this show, providing an experience that feels like a holiday tradition, yet is a good alternative to the other traditional holiday shows around town you saw last year (and the year before, and the year before…).

“Toyland,” at the Hedback Theater, 1847 N. Alabama St. in downtown Indy, closes on Dec. 13, so get your reservation now at 317-923-6630 or www.footlite.org.