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).

IndyFringe: Captain Ambivalent, ‘Happy Fun Time at the Complex’

This show is part of the 14th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 16-26, 2018 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

The Artlians are among us. They have infiltrated our planet through their clever use of “art installations” that are actually secret devices that they eventually used to decimate our world.

However, we are now safe in “The Complex” (think bunker) thanks to the benevolent protection of Binky (think Clippy as a hand puppet). Binky is here to assist us and keep us safe from the dangerous mutants outside the Complex. In an effort to keep up our morale, Captain Ambivalent is here to entertain us with a concert. Our glorious protector Binky though, wants to upload his masterpiece, “Binky: The Hand that Shook the World”

For those of you who have not encountered him roaming the fringe, our superhero is an amazing musician and songwriter who uses the accordion as accompaniment  — think Weird Al, but with all original songs, which are hilariously delightful and do a great job developing the overall story line of the show.

The result is a rollicking, entertaining hour full of lots of great music and lots of family-friendly fun.

A few general notes:

1. I was at the opening performance of the show and the turnout would have barely filled a minivan. This is a wonderful show and really needs to be seen and enjoyed by more people. Seriously, bring out your kids and give it the audience it deserves.

2. This show is an excellent “palate cleanser” for your brain after seeing one of the many more gritty and serious offerings on other stages.

3. Also, he has CDs, buttons and other merchandise for sale so if you liked the show, check this out so you can enjoy his music long after the Fringe ends.

Captain Ambivalent performs at ComedySportz, 721 Mass Ave.

Putting the ‘Cat’ in Catalyst

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Corbett (Pat Mullen), right, converses with local cats (from left) Orangey (Dane Rogers), Calico (Audrey Stonerock) and Striper (Matt Anderson) in Bennett Ayres’ “Feral Boy,” presented by Catalyst Repertory at Wheeler Arts Community near Indy’s Fountain Square.

By John Lyle Belden*

We’ve likely all seen that internet meme along the lines of “I don’t want to adult today; I want to cat.” Local playwright Bennett Ayres took that idea to its bizarre conclusion in the new drama, “Feral Boy,” presented by Catalyst Repertory on the LongShot Theater stage at Wheeler Arts through May 28.

Corbett (played by Pat Mullen) has graduated college and is expected to take his next step in life. But is it truly his? He excelled in classes, became president of a fraternity, made friends with his bros and had sex with the right girls. Next comes internships and an internet marketing career to make his upper-class parents proud.

But after his roomates (Matt Walls and Donovan Whitney) depart, he starts to see the world through his own eyes – the fish tank in the neighbor’s (Dennis Forkel) window; the cute townie, Betsy (Patty Blanchfield), who works at the nearby convenience store; and especially all the neighborhood’s feral cats.

One night, a feline neighbor, Orangey (Dane Rogers), speaks to him. From then on Corbett draws himself further into their world, meeting gentle Calico (Audrey Stonerock) and their alpha, Striper (Matt Anderson). With the help of Wikipedia’s data on cat behavior, Corbett makes joining their ranks his mission.

The cats are represented by Patrick Weigland’s puppets – elegant slender alley-cat forms with expressive movement provided by their three actors, as well as lurking projected shadows. The portrayals nimbly display their cautious grace and suspicious attitudes expressed in different ways: Rogers’ Orangey blustery and paranoid, Stonerock’s Calico wary but trusting, and Anderson’s Striper cool and controlling.

Mullen excellently guides us through his journey from “imaginary” human to something he sees as more “real.” What appears to others as a man coming apart and abandoning responsibilities, he embraces as a necessary transformation. Blanchfield also shines as the woman caught up in his madness, seeing Corbett as her means of escape – but she can’t follow where he’s going.

The cast also features Sarah Holland Froehlke as Corbett’s mother, and the voices of Jim Tillett, Jolene Moffat and Ayres.

The play itself is an absorbing story, embracing its absurdity – reminiscent of Chuck Palahniuk (“Fight Club”) – without any tongue-in-cheek. Is Corbett delusional? (The cats never speak to anyone else or when he’s around others.) It hardly matters when considering the play’s allegory and questions raised about identity, expectations and how we decide a life’s path. Taken together, director Zach Stonerock and his cast and crew have woven a darkly beautiful drama.

Wheeler Arts Community is located at 1035 Sanders St. in Indy’s Fountain Square neighborhood. For information and tickets, visit uncannycasey.wixsite.com/catalystrepertory or Catalyst Repertory’s Facebook page.

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*Full disclosure: Wendy and I are good friends with Catalyst founder and artistic director Casey Ross, and I helped the production by designing the play program booklet – and making a few copies. But it really IS a good show, just ask Lisa G!

Big fun at ‘Little Shop’

By John Lyle Belden

The horror movie-turned-musical “Little Shop of Horrors” has set up at Indy’s Footlite Musicals through the end of the month. And for its many fans, that’s all I need to say.

For the unfamiliar, it is the story of nerdy flower-shop worker Seymour, who discovers an unusual plant that makes the shop prosper and him famous. The one downside: the plant feeds on human blood. Then there’s sweet Audrey, who Seymour is sweet on and even names the plant after, but she has an abusive sadistic boyfriend – as the song goes, “He sure looks like plant food to me!”

Phil Criswell handles the many shades of Seymour, from coward to reluctant hero. Michael Davis is good as well, as shopkeeper Mr. Mushnik. John Kern more than earns his keep by not only playing the sadistic dentist boyfriend, but practically every other supporting character.

Emily Schaab is an excellent Audrey – while she doesn’t have the voice of Ellen Greene (who sang the role on Broadway and in the film) she doesn’t make the mistake of trying to sound like her, making this role her own.

Audrey II is ably handled by puppeteer Theo Vanore with the unmistakable voice of Tristan Ross.

And it’s all backed by a wonderful chorus – both in the doo-wop and Greek sense – of Rayanna Bibbs, Rachel Bibbs, Iloni Cospy, Adrienne Dixon and Bianca Cureton. Hopefully at least one of these women will reappear in Footlite’s production of “Dreamgirls” in May.

While it may be cliché to say this is a fun show, it’s hard to think of a better adjective. The pacing is smooth and the songs dare you to sing along (actually, there is one moment of audience participation). Note that if you have only seen the 1986 Frank Oz film, there are some different songs and a different ending.

Find Footlite at 1847 N. Alabama St.; call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Local writers keeping TOTS busy

By John Lyle Belden

For one more weekend, Theatre on the Square has a sort of double-feature going on: two distinct plays (each requiring its own ticket) by local playwrights, each exploring personal change in different ways: “Puppet Man,” by Andy Black; and “Clutter,” by Lou Harry.

“Puppet Man” is about a prison inmate with serious issues who finds solace by participating in the institution’s puppet shows held for visiting children. Pretty Boy (Taylor Cox) can’t get his guilty mind to shut up, so he dulls the sound with drugs, making his situation worse. When he finds out about the puppet program, his dealer Word (Carey Shea) makes him join in a plot to use the volunteer instructor’s privileges to sneak contraband into the prison. That compassionate visitor, Doc (Miki Mathioudakis), lets Pretty Boy into the program despite suspicions by her and the other inmate puppeteers, especially Sidewinder (Josh Ramsey). Fabulous Fantasia (Josiah McCruiston) and the mysterious Dayton (Matt Anderson), who only speaks through his puppets, help him to craft “Pretty Girl,” the puppet star of the next show. Then Pretty Boy discovers that the voice he now hears in his head is hers.

Though I am not personally familiar with the culture of life behind bars, Black’s story feels real enough, with desperate men making desperate choices while others calmly plot to take advantage of them, a place where the smallest things we take for granted outside have enormous value. While each character is a broadly-drawn type, they don’t come off as cliché. Cox handles being the central character with skill – a tall order, given McCruiston and Anderson’s ability to steal their scenes. Pretty Boy is a complex personality, and his mental issues provide the underlying drama – is this show more like “Avenue Q,” in which the puppets teach us all life lessons, or “Hand to God,” in which the puppets channel dark impulses? Kinda both, actually, punctuated with dark humor. I encourage you to see for yourself what I mean.

“Clutter, or, The Moving Walkway will Soon be Coming to an End” is three scenes depicting the changes in four people’s lives over six years. First we meet Bobby (Ben Fraley) and Eddy (Nick Barnes), two best friends struggling to keep their business afloat. Eddy is the more scattered of the two, which only adds to Bobby’s tension. Aside from planning a networking party, they discuss their romantic prospects with an offstage coworker. We meet that woman, Barb (Anna Lee), in the second scene, three years later, talking about the frustrations of life with her best friend, Bev (Kelsey Van Voorst). Eventually, Barb sees a man she used to work with offstage, and decides to take her chances with him. Move on to the third scene, again three years later, involving all four characters at the home two of them share.

The theme seems to center on inevitable endings and the struggle to improve and change one’s path. One character appears to have turned his life around with “Mission” – a self-help method that helps him focus his life, but doesn’t automatically solve his problems. All seem to be seeking something new, yet something that remains stable, at the same time. Note a “shoe is on the other foot” metaphor with which woman wears the red shoes. The show has dynamite dialogue and sharp humor, thanks to Harry, but subtle pacing that – along with being a one-act – gives the sense that it is part of a larger story, feeling incomplete by itself.

There is a slight over-run on stage times – “Clutter” on the second stage follows “Puppet Man” on the main stage – but if you spring for both shows, it’s possible they could hold the curtain for the second. Or, as they are independent stories, you can simply see one or the other. Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday, Jan. 20-22, at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave.; call 317-685-8687 or see tots.org.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

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.

IndyFringe: Silken Veils

By John Lyle Belden

Like others of my generation and older, I remember seeing the Iranian revolution of 1979 in news reports on television. The taking of hostages at the American Embassy by the revolutionaries overshadowed for us any other thoughts of how the events affected others.

Today we are presented with another point of view, in the multimedia play “Silken Veils.”

In modern America (the 1990s, judging by the ages of the characters) a bride flees the altar and hides in her changing room. Afraid she will become like her parents, she must confront her conflicted feelings towards them — a father who stood against the Shah only to help bring another oppressive regime to power, the mother who responded to rejection by loving her husband anyway — and the memory of her brother’s horrific death.

The telling of the intertwined stories incorporates live actors, flashbacks, Rumi poetry, shadow puppetry, marionettes and animation. The Pantea Productions players flow these elements perfectly into one another for a unified performance that will touch your heart, and remind you that while those captured Americans were able to end their ordeal, for some who called Persia home, the pain continues.

From my experience of more than a dozen IndyFringe shows this year, I’m declaring “Silken Veils” the best show of the Fringe — a high bar, considering other performances. Judge for yourself at the final performance 10:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27, on the main stage of the Phoenix Theatre. Info and tickets at indyfringefestival.com.

Review: Not your kids’ puppet show

By John Lyle Belden

In “Hand to God,” the outrageous comedy on stage at Indy’s Phoenix Theatre through July 17, it takes a possibly-possessed hand puppet to show the inner demons in all of us.

Just be warned: Though this play is set at a church, and involves youths working on a puppet show, it is most definitely NOT for children. For content, language and sex, this is very much an “R” rated event, and not for easily-offended churchgoers.

Jason (Nathan Robbins) and his mother Margery (Angela R. Plank) work through their grief at losing his father/her husband by putting on a puppet show at church at the suggestion of Pastor Greg (Paul Nicely), who has the hots for the new widow. The other kids in the puppet ministry, Timothy (Adam Tran) and Jessica (Jaddy Ciucci), are barely cooperative. But things really get out of hand (pardon the pun) when Jason’s puppet Tyrone starts speaking out. In expletive-loaded bursts, he says what others are only thinking, and then some. Jason sees the danger, but it’s too late, as after Tyrone is supposedly destroyed he comes back – with teeth.

Possibly coincidentally, these characters start acting way out of their comfort zone – including acts that would in the real world end in arrest. One can then wonder, to what extent do we think “the devil made them do it,” or was it just hidden desires suddenly given license? It’s telling that Jessica’s desperate ploy to get past Jason’s cloth alter-ego to reach the real boy she cares for involves one of the most shocking yet funny scenes of the play.

For wild can’t-believe-I’m-laughing-at-this hilarity and thought-provoking drama, this show is highly recommended. But even more amazing is the ability Robbins – a confessed puppetry novice – shows in displaying two completely separate characters, making Tyrone in voice and manner seem like a whole other person, despite being at the end of the arm of the helpless, scared boy coincidentally moving his lips.

This is likely not the first review of this play you’ve seen; the run started in June. But let me add to the chorus of satisfied audiences saying – if you’re not too easily offended – you really should see “Hand to God” at the Phoenix, 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair just north of Mass. Ave.). Call 317-635-7529 or see www.phoenixtheatre.org.

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

Review: Folk tales not so foreign as they seem

By John Lyle Belden

The Spanish word leyenda can be translated to mean legend; in the new play “Leyenda,” on the main stage of the Phoenix Theatre through May 1, the meaning is closer to folk or fairy tale.

This world premiere work was written by Phoenix playwright-in-residence Tom Horan with producing director Bryan Fonseca, using traditional Latino tales, each with its own moral.

Bridgette Richards plays a sort of Latina Scheherezade, telling a cruel ruler story after story to keep him from growing dissatisfied and killing her. To extend the drama (and her life) she doesn’t give the endings right away, leading to a layered narrative that is still easy to follow.

Richards and fellow cast members Jean Arnold, Paeton Chavis, A.J. Morrison and Keith Potts act out the stories with the help of colorful costumes, masks, some dancing and even puppetry.

The dialogue is best described as “Spanglish” – but with enough English mixed in for non-Spanish speakers to follow (one story, “Coazones de Fuego/Hearts of Fire,” is almost entirely in Spanish, but is mostly “told” in dance). One tale even features an English-speaker who struggles with Spanish, a welcome reflection of the audience’s possible difficulties.

This show is not only an excellent view into Latin American culture, but also a revelation of how universal some stories are, as we find aspects of tales we’ve heard from other sources, like Aesop or the Brothers Grimm. A few moments, like appearances of El Cucoy (the Bogeyman), get intense, but otherwise this play is good for all ages.

Performances are Thursdays through Sundays, and April 30 and May 1 shows will be entirely in Spanish. For more information and tickets, call 317-635-7529 or see phoenixtheatre.org.

(Also posted at The Word)

 

Avenue Q: A great place to visit again

By John Lyle Belden

It’s always amazing, while attending a performance of “Avenue Q,” to see the reactions of those who haven’t seen it before when a Muppet-style puppet drops the F-bomb in one of the first songs (“It Sucks to Be Me”). When I see the, “Did I just hear that?” I’m thinking, “You ain’t heard nothing yet.”

After all, this is the musical that brought us, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet is for Porn.”

Yes, when Fabric-Americans and other diverse people have outgrown Sesame Street, they move uptown, all the way up the alphabet to Avenue Q. This show captures the style of Childrens Television Workshop shows, but is definitely NOT for children. Still, it’s worth it to plug the ears of your Inner Child and go. The show is full of laughs and heart, even with the mature edges, as you get to know and love people just trying to make something of their lives, like all of us.

But what if you have been to this street before? For those who enjoy singing along with “Porn! Porn! Porn!” and look forward to the sight-gag in the hospital scene, you will have a lot of fun with the Footlite Musicals production, running through Sunday at the Hedback Theatre, 1847 N. Alabama St. in downtown Indy.

It’s hard to pick a stand-out performance in this cast, as all are at the top of their game, including Phil Criswell as puppet-seeking-purpose Princeton, Emily Schaab as beautiful Kate Monster, Graham Brinklow and Damon Clevenger as odd couple Nicky and Rod, Chris Meek as struggling comic Brian, Nathalie Cruz as tell-it-like-it-is therapist Christmas Eve, and Ryan England as pervy Trekkie Monster. The biggest pleasant surprise is building super Gary Coleman played by Ervin Gainer, who actually looks like the late child actor. In addition, throw in excellent support from Leigh Alexovich and Dejuan Jackson as boxes, Bears and left hands, as well as Zarah Miller as the legendary Lucy T. Slut.

Another note to newcomers: There is a song about giving to charity, during which the “hat” is passed around the audience – though actors could usually use the money (and cast and crew at Footlite are volunteers), all funds will go towards a genuine charity announced at that point in the show.

Go to www.footlite.org or call 317-926-6630 for ticket reservations.

(This review also posted on The Word.)