Searching for something to believe in at ‘Prospect Hill’

By John Lyle Belden

What or who do you have faith in? What is it telling you? And are you truly listening?

These questions of faith and the angels among us come alive in “Prospect Hill,” a new play by Bruce Walsh, presented by Fat Turtle at the IndyFringe Theatre.

Jacob is a therapist badly in need of help, himself. His husband, Rex, a cancer survivor whose last round of chemo left a particularly frustrating side effect, obsesses with kitchen renovations to avoid their waning relationship. Jacob has given up alcohol, but finds addictive urges satisfied by the constant snacks and sodas brought by his young patient, Ethan, a driver for PepsiCo.

And it doesn’t help that Jacob has been in contact with his Mennonite father, who doesn’t approve of him being gay, let alone his relationship.

Ethan has his own problems: His girlfriend is expecting their child, but now wants nothing to do with him, in part due to his drug addiction. He wants to make more to help support the baby, so, hearing that Rex retired from his sales job in his 50s, asks him for “financial advice.” Relishing the challenge, Rex sees the young man as a potential protege. 

But when the inevitable conflicts occur, a sort of miracle happens. Could Ethan be the “third angel” in their relationship?

Directed by Fat Turtle Managing Director Aaron Cleveland, our well-chosen trio of actors bring out three vivid characters, each searching for meaning in his own way.

Zachariah Stonerock presents the stoic Jacob as a miserable mensch who has been worn down over time, so occupied with pleasing others he has no idea how to be happy, himself. Going through the motions, he simply repeats a mindfulness exercise he had just heard from Rex in his session with Ethan — to hilarious effect — almost accidentally making a sort of breakthrough.

Craig Kemp as Rex counters with energy and humor, masking a deep desperation. He needs to feel vital. not only in his loins (another comic point), but in his mind, as his salesman’s instincts are aroused by the prospect of “selling” Ethan to his old pharma company as a potential employee. Meanwhile, despite proclaiming his atheism, he is hooked on a “six-part series” on PBS on the world’s religions, finding inspiration in spite of himself.

As for 20-ish Ethan, Evren Wilder Elliott* excellently presents a character who seems at first so simple, yet has depths and aspects that even surprise him. “I am here because I am a prophet,” Ethan says — to be fair, it wasn’t his idea — which seems absurd, until it isn’t. The actor channeled the insecurity of playing their first “male” role to convincingly give us a grown boy full of bluster and desire to do right, yet lacking the personal discipline to pull it off. 

This locally-based script (Prospect Hill is a neighborhood in Bloomington) makes an excellent debut, a nice blend of human drama with laugh-out-loud moments. It’s still a work in progress, as the ending seemed a little muddled, hinting at more story to tell (perhaps a sequel play or trilogy could come of this?), but it raises some interesting points on faith, relationships, and what we seek to do with our lives.

Performances run through Nov. 24 at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, downtown Indianapolis. Get info at fatturtletheatre.com and tickets at www.indyfringe.org.

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*Trans actor formerly known as Ann Marie (A.M.) Elliott

Kids make a splash in KidsPlay’s ‘Mermaid in Miami’

By John Lyle Belden

Being a former writer and “Arts Editor” at the Daily Reporter in Greenfield, I have long followed and been a booster of KidsPlay Inc., the local children’s theatre featuring kids in grades 3-8 from all over the area. Under the direction of Christine Schaefer, the company puts on a high-quality show, and has helped to develop a lot of talent – a number of central Indiana performers are former KidsPlayers, and now there are alumni with their own children in the program.

Of course, I bring this up because this week is the KidsPlay Inc. fall production, the quirky comedy “Mermaid in Miami” by Wade Bradford. Directed by Schaefer with Alexandra Kern, choreography by Frances Hull and Amy Studebaker, this take on “The Little Mermaid” has a contemporary setting, yet is in a surprising way true to the Hans Christian Andersen story.

An old fisherman, Ernie (Joseph Shininger), happens to come across a young mermaid, Breeze (Olivia Greer), on the run from her tyrannical father Emperor Tropico (Matthew Hentz). As she had escaped with her mother, now missing, the angry monarch asks Ernie if he has seen two mermaids, so he honestly answers “no,” helping Breeze to escape. Grateful, she stays in the safety of the lagoon the fisherman calls home, located just a beach away from Miami, Florida.

Meanwhile, on that beach, hot Latin dancer Rico (Jaxon Brittsan) is ready for the local dance contest, he just needs a partner. The Lambada sisters (Zora Coe and Ashley Pipkin) are injured, and best friend Grace (Ella Miesse) he only sees as his tailor. But hearing of the opportunity, Breeze makes a deal with the Swamp Hag (Bella Turner) for legs so he can join Rico in the dance.

Naturally, those legs come at a cost.

The large cast also includes Anthony Stunda and Josie Joyner as dolphins Ebb and Flo, who provide a lot of the punchlines; Brodie Stout-England as Prince Dorkus, the Emperor’s goofy hand-picked fiance for Breeze; Jordan Kuker as the mysterious Spirit of the Air; Hank Lee and Ava Peters as local reporters; Abbagail Gantt and Cooper Schmitt as vendors with well-timed wares; and Jack Joyner, Grace McCaw, and Lucy Reed, as an entertaining trio of crabs.

This show has excellent performances throughout. Greer shows off some great physical comedy, as she nimbly portrays a wobbly girl who just got her legs minutes ago, right through the obligatory dance montage where she learns to move with rhythm.

Turner is appropriately menacing, and manages to keep a Caribbean accent without it slipping into caricature. Hentz is naturally haughty, while Shininger plays a good go-with-the-flow guy. Miesse stitches together a role with surprising range. Stout-England is too much of a doofus to dislike, despite his role in Tropico’s plot.

Brittsan not only manages to stay likable even while being a bit cheesey, but also he, Coe and Pipkin show off some genuine dance flair, including leading the traditional opening dance number before the play.

As usual, this show is a lot of fun, but there is some substance with the silly, especially in the way this story ends. Performances are 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8-10, at the H.J. Ricks Centre for the Arts, 122 W. Main St. (US 40) in downtown Greenfield. Tickets are just $5 at the door.

Beautiful production of difficult drama

By John Lyle Belden

The drama “Agnes of God” brings up numerous issues of faith, the damages of abuse, and the power and role of the Church in our lives. So it is appropriate to find it at a church, presented by Downey Avenue Performing Arts in Irvington. 

The 1979 play by John Pielmeier — inspired by an actual 1977 case — had a Tony-winning Broadway run and was made into an Oscar-nominated 1985 film, starring Jane Fonda. A young novice nun, Sister Agnes, is discovered to have been pregnant when she gives birth and the baby is found strangled in a trash can. She and her Mother Superior suggest that it was somehow a miraculous virgin conception, but court psychiatrist Dr. Livingston must get at the truth.

Katie Marie Eaker is sweet and serene as Agnes, complete with appropriately angelic voice, as the character often sings sacred refrains, adding a haunting aspect to her performance. Nearly completely covered in snow-white habit, our focus is on her face, with which she manages to project naive innocence throughout, even when describing the most bizarre things.

Tina Valdois-Bruner projects authority as Mother Miriam Ruth, not only from her Holy position but also from the character’s experiences as a mother and widow (prior to vows), giving well-earned edge to her maternal demeanor. Her black habit gives appropriate contrast from her young charge.

Jesi Brown Friedly as Dr. Livingston is our narrator, and the essential science-based skeptic. The Doctor is also a former Catholic, who feels with some justification that the Church killed her sister. She ably plays the character’s many aspects, the doubter who wants to believe that good will prevail, as she balances her job as investigator with her calling as a healer. She is also a chain smoker — the stage cigarette is never actually lit — a fact that is noted from time to time, including the conversation with Mother Miriam regarding what brands of cigarettes the Saints would have smoked.

Aside from that scene, there is constant tension throughout the play as Miriam and Livingston engage in a battle of wills over Agnes’s fate — and possibly her soul. The girl slowly reveals more about herself, how her own mother still haunts her, and clues to what really happened. 

The stage is in Century Hall of Downey Avenue Christian Church, which director and set designer Anthony Lineberry set up in a manner that draws the audience close to the actors. The back wall of windows looks out on a meditation garden, which during the play we see Agnes go to when not in the scene. Lineberry also took advantage of reflections in the glass to set the actors at certain points.

The result is a visual and dramatic work of art, an experience that sticks with you as you sort out what may have happened and what lessons we can draw from it.

Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 8-9, at the church, 111 S. Downey Ave., Indianapolis (Irvington neighborhood, near Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church). Get information and tickets at downeyavenue.com/performing-arts/.