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).

‘Big Day’ for little guy at Phoenix

By John Lyle Belden

Phoenix Theatre’s holiday tradition continues with “Winston’s Big Day: A Very Phoenix Xmas 14.”

(Note the originator of the series, Bryan Fonseca, also has a holiday variety show at the new Fonseca Theatre Company, but think of them not so much as competitors as companion pieces — each with its own nice yet mildly naughty take on the winter holidays.)

The Phoenix production works on a theme developed by director Chelsea Anderson over the course of the year. It’s Christmas Eve, and elf Winston (Dave Pelsue) — who had been planning to leave the North Pole to pursue a music career, with Rudolph (Ramon Hutchins) as his manager — is tapped to be co-pilot of the Sleigh. But Santa is missing! That means it’s up to the reluctant elf and his bright-nosed companion to make the deliveries and save Christmas. 

During the night, Winston looks in on several scenes, performed by the cast of Nathalie Cruz, Andrea Heiden, Jan Lucas, Pearl Scott, John Vessels, and Justin Sears-Watson. Scenes and songs are by a diverse lot including Anderson, Pelsue, Paige Scott, J. Julian Christopher, Jen Blackmer, Riti Sachdeva, Zach Neiditch, and Phoenix playwright-in-residence Tom Horan.

There is an abundance of wonderful performances, including Lucas and Heiden as ghosts of Charles Dickens; Vessels at his manic best; and dancer Sears-Watson’s smooth moves, as well as showing his singing and acting chops. 

Perhaps one of the best scenes, showing off all the talents on hand, is Blackmer’s “The Twelve Theatrical Genres of the Totally Non-Denominational, Absolutely Inclusive Holidays…” This gentle jab at both political correctness and community theatre, when its reach goes way beyond its grasp, results in a hilarious holiday scene so “inclusive” it hardly appeals to anyone: The Misguided Mechanicals present something like, “Stella and the Zombie Cats of Thebes” (that’s my best-guess title for it; you’re welcome, Chelsea). 

And, of course, there’s Pelsue and Hutchens, doing a great job of tying this whole silly and sweet mess together, as they struggle to rush through their duties, hoping to make their stage time at Fa-La-La-La-La-Palooza. 

Also impressive is Zac Hunter’s stage design, including a turntable with pop-up-book effects, and frequent clever use of the trapdoors.

Yet another holiday tradition to add to your schedule, performances run through Dec. 22 at the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois, downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

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

IPAI & StageQuest put a new shine on ‘Pippin’

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Performing Arts Initiative, a program of Claude McNeal Productions, presents, with StageQuest Theatricals, the Roger Hirson and Stephen Schwartz musical “Pippin.”

StageQuest’s Ty Stover directs this version of a surreal take on a Medieval character — Prince Pippin, son of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne — which differs a bit from other productions, yet keeps the spirit of the Tony-winning show. The stage and costume aesthetic is a sort of urban homeless/punk with dirty faces and mismatched clothes. At least one on-stage clue, and the initial look of our Leading Player (Dave Pelsue), establish a dark cult-like atmosphere with this eclectic company of mostly-young men and women. 

Our leader wishes to tell us a story, the tale of Prince Pippin — not a restless hunchback, as history relates, but a restless healthy educated young man, played by an actor plucked from the audience (Cameron Brown).

Pippin wishes to find his purpose in life, which amuses — and at times irks — his father King Charles (Josiah McCruiston). Meanwhile, his stepmother Fastrada (Laura Lockwood) and dimwit half-brother Luis (Ben Fraley) plot against him. The quest brings on a lot of adventure, but no happiness. Not even a visit to exiled grandmother Berthe (Denise Fort), who basically tells him to just lighten up, brings satisfaction. 

The Leading Player is getting impatient — how will he get the subject of his story to go out appropriately in a blaze of glory? Perhaps an encounter with a lovely widow (Hannah Elizabeth Boswell) and her son (Kate Boice) will do the trick.

Our other players in various roles are Maddie Altom, Isaac Becker, Nik Folley, Seth Jacobsen, Rosemary Meagher, Piper Williams, and Jill Wooster. 

If you’ve seen this show, you know these plot points, but the fun is seeing how they are executed. This troupe does it with great wacky humor and even a sing-along. McCruiston’s big personality makes him a perfect fit for the crown. Brown plays his searching soul a little naive, but without being annoying. Fraley comes across too goofy to be threatening; Lockwood can threaten with a glance. Fort easily keeps up with her younger castmates. Boswell wins us with natural charm. Our tween Boice, already a rising star, shines through the grime on her face. Meanwhile, even in the lightest moments, Pelsue maintains an undercurrent of menace throughout that will lead to a shocking end.

The set includes a small screen at the top of the stage with visual gags and silent commentary (especially during the war scenes). The show features popular show tunes including “Magic to Do,” “No Time at All” and the recurring theme, “Corner of the Sky.” As a whole, the production is both familiar and new — enough of the former to make us comfortable, and enough of the latter to give you plenty to think about after the last curtain call. 

Performances are Friday through Sunday, July 19-21, at Herron High School, 110 E. 16th St. (enter on the west side). Get tickets at ipai.tix.com.