Review: Phantom Tollbooth by NoExit Theatre Company

NoExit Theatre Company is a burgeoning Indianapolis theatre group noted for taking risks in its performance schedule. From a new interpretation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House called Elenora to a Victorian mod take on Sophocles’ Antigone, NoExit Theatre Company has no fear when it comes to reinventing classics. Their latest Indianapolis performing arts offering, The Phantom Tollbooth, reinvents Norton Juster’s classic children’s novel of the same name with an twist. Presented at the Earth House Collective in Indianapolis downtown, The Phantom Tollbooth offers a peak into the directorial mind of Butler University graduate Alyson Mull, as she takes her audience on a magical journey through the Land of Wisdom. Tickets to this Indianapolis art event are $15.00 for Indianapolis people and $10.00 for Indianapolis kids with a student ID. There is only one more performance on Friday, April 30 at 8:00 pm.

Mull leads current Butler University students and graduates in an airy piece with a dark message. With a focus on the absurdity of a silly world and the power of dance, Mull creates a piece that has the ability to soar, though falls flat at times. Milo (Matthew Goodrich) is a man pushed to the brink by his boss (Georgeanna Smith), his girlfriend (Amelia Smith) and a bully (Joel Smith). When he decides to take his life one evening, he inexplicably happens upon a “Phantom Tollbooth” that leads him to the magical world of wonder. He travels through the Doldrums (a place where thinking is outlawed) to one of two kingdoms in the Land of Wisdom, Dictionopolis (where words reign supreme). After meeting a host of weird characters including the Spelling Bee (Keve Bates), Tock (Ryan Ruckman), King Azaz’s cabinet of words (David Deye, Christian Meyer, Jessica Strauss and Marti Brown) and the Humbug (Ryan Mullins), Milo is thrown into jail by the uptight Officer Shrift (Michael Bachman), who loves putting people away but hates keeping them their.

While in jail, Milo and Tock meet the Which (Lauren Virgina Albert), who explains the origin of both Dictionopolis and its counterpart Digitopolis (where numbers reign supreme). The two Kings (both played by Jonah Winston) could not agree on what carried more weight in society, numbers or words. When they asked the Princesses Rhyme and Reason (Hannah Elizabeth Sawicki and Lydia Dreyer) to decide, the verdict that both were of equal importance found the princesses banished to the Castle in the Sky. Milo makes it his mission to save the princesses and restore rationality to the Land of Wisdom and to his own life.

Performed in the upstairs space of the Earth House Collective, The Phantom Tollbooth is simply designed, using only white cardboard boxes of varying sizes as building blocks to create various locations throughout the story. The colorful costumes of the eccentric characters pop beautifully against the stark, clean, white background of the boxes, creating a vivid world with a few slight of hand tricks.

The show gets off to a rocky start, in large part due to sound issues between the microphoned main character Milo and the music levels of his dancing demons. As he writes his suicide notes, with pills and a bottle of Jack at hand, the demons he speaks of dance, tauntingly, at his side. However, Goodrich’s spastically depressive vocal energy could not be heard over the music, making his exposition a bit confusing to watch.

His discovery of the tollbooth is also a bit vague, as actors step forward one by one creating a vocal swell that felt like a warm blanket wrapping around you on a rainy day. As enjoyable as this sequence was to listen to, its literal connection to the unheard exposition of the previous scene felt like another big question mark. In fact, the production seemed unable to shake this slow start during the first fifteen minutes, landing Milo, and us, immediately in the Doldrums. Though I understood the intention behind the slow monotone speech and movement  of the ensemble in this part, I felt that the piece was slowly sinking into quicksand as the action drudged forward from one confusing scene to the next.

After a long wait, however, the play picked up its pace introducing colorful characters in King Azaz’s cabinet and the Market Place, where letters are bought and sold. Keve Bates shines as a high point of the show with his lisping Spelling Bee. Zaniness is the rule, and there are no exceptions. Bates commitment to his smug spelling habits have you believing him whether he spells words right or wrong (i.e. impostors spelled with an “e”). His counterpart, in Ryan Mullins Humbug, is equally as entertaining, with a special kind of brainlessness that takes a very smart actor to play.

As the undersized referee and, later the perfect tenant, Michael Bachman gives a solid performance. He deftly uses his slight stature to his advantage in both parts, playing a man that is in one scene “too big for his britches,” so to speak, and in another a cute yet dopey resident. In the royal roles of King Azaz and the Mathemagician, Jonah Winston employs his infamous vocal power, with belly laughs that would put even Santa Claus to shame. And as the woodland sprite Alec Bings, Hannah Lyon brings a depth and wisdom to her youthful look and sound that seems well beyond her years.

However, the true stand out star of Mull’s creative telling of The Phantom Tollbooth were the myriad of ensemble dances that shaded the world and moved the plot forward. From dance fighting in the Market Place to the flashlight focused dance of the Number Mine, Mull creates show stopping numbers with her original ideas and modern music. They not only pumped the audience full of energy and excitement with a rapid change of pace, but they were also visually stunning to watch.

I particularly enjoyed the two demon dance sequences, where Milo was quite literally faced with his demons. Anger, energy, passion and danger permeated these ensemble dances. Featured dancers Georgeanna Smith, Amelia Smith and Joel Smith conveyed their entire story line through hip hop/ jazz dance. They effectively shared as much or more through their suave demonistic movement as the scenes themselves. However, at times it felts as if Mull lacked an editing eye when creating the flow between dance and scene. It became standard for each movement sequence to last just a minute or two longer than felt necessary, punctuating the narrative and making for a choppy pace.

My biggest critique of the show has little to do with the actual performance, which I found extremely entertaining and enjoyable. There was a certain undeniable disconnect between NoExit Theatre Company’s updated adaptation of Norton Juster’s children’s novel; a rare occurrence for a company so practiced in modernizing classics. However, the script did not seem completely updated. Where Juster’s Milo is a bored boy who needs to learn to use his imagination, Mull’s Milo is a suicidal man who needs to be reeled in from the brink of self destruction. In my estimation, this update occurred only in respect to Milo and the literal and figurative demons he faced. Each silly scene offers sage advice to a boy learning to use his imagination, not to a man suffering from suicidal thoughts. The world Mull created, with the exception of Milo’s demons, did not match the reasons Milo was there.

However, the world Mull created was fantastic enough to forgive this point and enjoy silliness for the sake of being silly. That is, often times, the viewpoint she shares in many of her directorial undertakings, and a very important message. Overall, The Phantom Tollbooth was an extremely pleasurable experience, and comes highly recommended from this critic. Treat yourself to something different with NoExit Theatre Company’s latest Indianapolis event at the Earth House Collective. Support both of these Indianapolis nonprofit organizations as they enhance and enrich Indianapolis culture.

Located near the Indianapolis cultural district, Mass Ave, the Earth House Collective has prime Indianapolis real estate near tons of great Indianapolis restaurants and Indianapolis bars. Make your outing in the Circle City complete with a bite to eat. Stay tuned to Indianapolis News, Events and Information on Fun City for all the latest on fun things to do in Indianapolis. We cover Indianapolis attractions to Indianapolis sports and everything in between. Get out in Indy and find some fun!

The Phantom Tollbooth
Friday, April 30

Earth House
237 North East Street
Indianapolis, IN 46202

NoExit Theatre Company