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).

Summit: Finding life’s meaning in unlikely ways

By John Lyle Belden

Summit Performance explores connections, being in the moment, and the fears that affect both, in the comic drama “Be Here Now,” by Deborah Zoe Laufer, directed by Amy Lynn Budd.

Bari (Carrie Ann Schlatter) is an aspiring professor of philosophy, specializing in nihilism, who needs to finish her dissertation. Being in a process that requires a lot of work to argue that nothing at all matters, she’s stuck. Also, her headaches aren’t helping.

Patty (Cynthia Collins) and Luanne (Zariya Butler), coworkers at her other job, a distribution center for knicknacks of various faiths, dislike Bari’s “smug gloom” and seek to somehow make her happy. Desperate, Patty sets up a date with her cousin Mike (Ryan Ruckman), who has issues of his own.

Suddenly, Bari collapses. After a brief seizure, she awakens to unheard music, experiencing fantastic visions — and the realization that absolutely everything is awesome.

While this play is Bari’s story, Mike is a complex presence as well, with a tragic past and an eccentric present life of gathering cast-off items and building them into little houses. And he has a pet crow. Ruckman is solid, maintaining an easy charm that makes his oddities quaint rather than disturbing.

The setting, a little town just a couple of hours away from New York City, is sort of a metaphorical character of its own: Cooperville, where nearly everyone has the last name of Cooper, including Patty. She believes in astrology and fate, and easily justifies her fear of ever leaving town by citing the dangers of the Big City. Collins plays her a little curmudgeonly, but with a big heart. By contrast, her niece Louanne blithely walks the thin line between optimistic and naive. Butler serves up a perfect dose of sweetness.

As for Bari, Schlatter expertly carries her philosophical load, expounding on questions that would give Hamlet a stroke, at times seeming to babble like one who is high (which technically the character is “tripping” at times) yet thanks to Laufer’s script, giving profound insights. This being modern times in enlightened society, she (and the others) understand there is likely a serious medical explanation for what is happening to her. But realizing that even if it’s endangering her life, it does seem to make her feel happy for perhaps the first time, does she really want to give that up?

When all is said and done, you might find yourself looking for the “garbage house” in your own backyard. See for yourself to understand what I mean. “Be Here Now” runs through Feb. 2 on the Basile Stage at the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Walken in a winter wonderland

By John Lyle Belden

For those wanting a little something different during the holidays, Defiance Comedy presents a horror thriller in the form of a comedy musical, “Silent Fright.”

It’s Christmas Eve on the North Pole, and with Santa away on his annual duties, the elves are vulnerable to an evil spirit that stalks the workshop. It possesses their souls, making them mindless zombies which take on a voice that sounds like (a bad impression of) Christopher Walken. 

Ryan Ruckman is our traditional Narrator, who should have warned his other role, party elf Jingle Jams — but apparently these stories don’t work that way. Shelby Myers is Trinket, Santa’s assistant, who is in a relationship with chef elf Butterscotch (Chad Woodward), but things are getting too serious. Totally not serious is Kelsey VanVoorst as Candy Sparkles, the friendship elf. Not being taken seriously is Meg McLane as Pipette, the science elf; she’s a bit green (literally).  And John Kern is old elf Chutney Frostbottoms, just three years from retirement (so, yeah, he’s doomed). 

Director Matt Kramer wrote the play and songs, which go for a full two acts, so this isn’t just one of Defiance’s Fringe shows. But it has all the goofy humor you’d expect from the creators of Fringe hits “Volleybrawl” and “Autumn Takes a Tumble.”

Come for the comedy, stay for the weird voice work. Performances are Friday and Saturday evenings, Dec. 6-7 and 13-14, and a matinee Dec. 15, at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair Street. Get info and tickets at www.indyfringe.org; follow @DefianceComedy on social media.

Storefront’s ‘Pilgrims’ carrying some heavy baggage across the stars

By John Lyle Belden

In the future, a ship’s cabin still looks like a comfortable hotel room, it’s just that the ship is sailing through space. A man enters, eyeing the layout and smoothing the bed like one conditioned by military service. Everything is in order for the long journey. Suddenly, an annoyingly perky teen girl bursts in and makes herself at home. Something is amiss here.

“Pilgrims,” the drama by Claire Kiechel, directed by Chelsea Anderson on the new Broad Ripple stage of Storefront Theatre of Indianapolis, is in the tradition of the best science-fiction stories, using a distant fantasy situation to probe questions about our present humanity.

Aboard the aptly named starliner, “Destiny,” Ryan Ruckman portrays a soldier returning as a migrant to the planet where he once fought its natives. Struggling with PTSD, he is haunted by what happened there, but feels compelled to return. Ruckman often gets cast in this kind of rugged role, so is a natural fit, and has honed the skill of showing the human under the he-man facade.

Kelsey Leigh Miller, as the teen roommate, puts her inner child on full display to excellent effect, then lets the girl’s more mature aspects creep in as their journey continues. We easily see her as whatever she presents herself to be at every moment.

Our other character is Jasmine, a 2600B model AI android and the cabin’s personal valet. She appears when called upon to dispense food or supplies — but not much in the way of news, except to say that a quarantine remains in effect, keeping our two humans in close quarters for possibly the entire three-month voyage. Carrie Schlatter is excellent in this difficult role, managing speech that is artificially friendly without robotic cliché flatness, and economy of movement that reflects someone who is programmed rather than engaging in natural human action.

We are along for the long ride, as the play is a single movie-length act. Numerous scenes and little revelations track the passing of time, as the couple’s interactions – and perhaps something else – slowly change them, drawing them closer in unexpected yet inevitable ways.

Apparently among the beings of the “new world” (which the girl naively calls “aliens”) there is no word for the concept of “regret;” yet that is the biggest thing our Pilgrims bring with them. See how they unpack it in the play’s remaining weekend, Thursday through Sunday evenings (Sept. 19-22) at 717 Broad Ripple Ave. Get information and tickets at storefrontindy.com.