‘Carol’ gets musical comedy treatment

By John Lyle Belden

Marley was dead to begin with…” truly is a downer opening, but things can only go up from there, especially when Charles Dickens gets the once-over by local theatrical genius Ben Asaykwee, who wrote and directed the musical “A Christmas Carol Comedy,” playing through this weekend at the District Theatre.

Asaykwee has another show (“ProZack” at the Phoenix) so entrusts a cast of young and old, veterans and newcomers, led by the versatile Matt Anderson as Ebenezer Scrooge (and the assistant director).

To set the irreverent tone, we have a batch of young urchins (Quincy Carman, Ellie Cooper, Zara Heck, Ethan Lee, Sam Lee, Judah Livingston, Esmond Livingston, and Calvin Meschi) providing narration and appearing as needed. Others play various roles, notably Jared Lee at Bob Cratchit, Emerson Black as Jacob Marley, Amanda Hummer as Christmas Past, Tiff Bridges as Christmas Present, Shelbi Barry as Christmas Future, and Maria Meschi as ol’ Fezziwig. In addition, we have the talents of Lisa Anderson, Jenni Carman, Reilly Crouse, Jessica Dickson, Austin Helm, Emily Jorgenson, Anna Lee, Noah Lee, Adriana Menefee, Kallen Ruston, Michelle Wafford, and Charlotte Wagner.

Drop all expectations of a faithful rendition of the holiday classic (we all know it already) and revel in the silliness as this gang has a ball bringing more joy to the season. The revelation of Tiny Tim must be seen to be believed. There are also song-and-dance numbers, as Dickens no doubt never intended – watch out for flying cast members.

Our evening’s viewing at the District (627 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis) was a sell-out; it will likely happen again. See indydistricttheatre.org.

IndyFringe: Women’s Work

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

One may think it odd that the first person on stage at this female-centric show, “Women’s Work,” is a man (Dave Pelsue), but his musical presence helps to mark the flow of the story as well as punctuate the ever-present position of men always existing even in the shadows of a woman’s life.

We are then introduced to a young girl (Pearl Parker) giving a report on what she wants to be when she grows up. Using data from “The Employments of Women: A Cyclopaedia of Women’s Work” by Virginia Penny, as well as interviews from woman she knows, her tale is acted out by an octet of women playing two sides of each of the four career paths we are shown.

The younger counterparts begin each story reflecting the sparse number of opportunities available to women in previous generations. Other actors present the characters’ more mature perspectives.

We begin with Betty, who has chosen to become a teacher. Kallen Ruston portrays her bemoaning how everyone she knows is constantly trying to marry her off, regardless of her own preferences – she has dozens of children each day, so is not lacking for the pangs of motherhood. While standing up for her principles and refusing sexual advances from coworkers cause her to change schools, Beverly Roche keeps her optimistic, continuing Betty’s efforts to show each of her students their true potential.

Anne (Katie Carter) relates the challenges of becoming a nurse. She is excited about the importance of her job, as well as the overwhelming information she must remember. As time progresses, her knowledge grows to the level that she inherently knows a patient’s needs; however, gossip and backbiting by other nurses and condescending doctors keep her from doing her best. Miki Mathioudakis shows how Anne’s aggravation has grown as even the young residents disregard her advice, with deadly consequences.

Turning to Carol, we find the rare woman who dares enter the traditionally male field of business and make herself a success. Anna Zimmerman shows the balance required as we catch her doing affirmations to help relieve her high stress levels. She must also deal with a husband who feels his job is more important than hers, so she should naturally be able to blow off her opportunities to pick up the kids because he doesn’t have the time. Her sexist boss is just another hurdle she must overcome. Karin Stratton keeps Carol on an even keel, especially when dealing with inept temps who refuse to stick with a job long enough to actually learn it. She muses about the two years she took away from her job to devote to her children and clawing her way back up to where she was before – and beyond.

We end on Diane (Michelle Wafford), who feels that just being a mother is all of the fulfillment that she needs. While she wonders if she really loves her husband (he’s certainly no Prince Charming) because the moment she held her baby was the first time she ever truly felt it. She is expecting her second child, whether her husband is on board with the idea or not. Then, Gigi Jennewein injects the solemn bitterness Diane feels when her husband leaves her for a much younger girl, forcing to go to work at a local screw factory just to make ends meet. She misses spending time with her kids and realizes none of the other mothers she sees have any idea how hard her life is.

Liv Keslin gives an insight to the future of our narrator, and is glad that she has so many more opportunities afforded her, but still wonders what all of this means.

To find out the answer, have your heart warmed and your inspiration lit, see “Women’s Work,” presented by Betty Rage Productions, in its remaining performances 9 p.m. Friday and 1:45 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 2 & 4, at the IndyFringe Theatre.

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.