Spinning a story with a bit of Broadway

By John Lyle Belden

These are unusual times, so here is an unusual show.

While advising all who feel unwell or uncomfortable to sit this one out, Fat Turtle Theatre is, last we heard, continuing with its production of “This is Us: An Inspirational Steampunk Broadway Cabaret.”

This is a little out of the comfort zone for Fat Turtle, a company that typically does plays, as well as founder Aaron Cleveland, who as the show’s Narrator is called upon to sing. But it does fit within the mission of presenting Indiana works, as the revue of Broadway songs are hung like ornaments on an original story by local playwright Nicole Amsler.

The setting and aesthetic, as noted in the title, are the alternate-history dystopia of Steampunk, with its corsets and clockworks. This helps give the whole production a familiar, yet otherworldly feel. 

Cleveland recites Amsler’s fable about a grieving father who devises “a machine to take all the pain of the world” and how his children strive to save him from it. Honestly, it sounds like the seed from which a great original musical could be grown.

But for now, we get an interesting selection of songs that loosely fit the theme, taken from a wide variety of Broadway shows. While some are easily recognizable, like a tune from “Wicked,” and include current hits like one from “Dear Evan Hansen,” there are also numbers from shows such as “Newsies,” “The Color Purple,” “Kinky Boots,” “Jekyll & Hyde,” “Mean Girls,” and even a beautifully appropriate song from the underappreciated “Pirate Queen.” 

To deliver these song-and-dance bits, we have area talents Tessa Gibbons, Jessica Hawkins, Kaitlin Holden, Jenn Kaufmann, Richelle Lutz, Jennifer Poytner, Brad Root and Jackson Stollings. Direction and choreography are by Andrea Odle, and there is a small band of musicians, led by Linda Parr. 

The result is an entertaining distraction — for a couple of hours — from current events, and the opportunity to enjoy songs even fans of showtunes don’t hear every day. This gang puts their hearts into their performances — as well as a bit of humor, when Hawkins and Stollings take on a fun old standard. Actually, every individual gets a chance to stand center and shine. 

The costumes, by Shannon Rice, include inventive use of blue LED wires to enhance the retro-sci-fi feel and add necessary emphasis when the circuits resemble the human heart. 

There is one scheduled weekend left, March 20-21 at The Switch, 10029 E. 126th St., Suite D, Fishers (in Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy), and as this cabaret is also a company fundraiser, all who are interested, and feel up to it, are encouraged to attend, or at least consider Fat Turtle in your charitable giving.

Details are at FatTurtleTheatre.com.

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

Fat Turtle drama a matter of maturity

By John Lyle Belden

In “Adults,” the new play by Jeremy Grimmer in its world premiere with Fat Turtle Theatre Company, the characters are all adults.

They are consenting adults, okay with having sex whenever they want. They are adults who are free to gather and play video games at any time. They can feel comfortable enough with any situation to not let it bother them. They can say “I love you.”

“Life isn’t easier, just because it looks freer,” says E.J. (Colin Landberg). This is his house, which he inherited and now lives in alone. One night he brought home Sarah (Afton Shepard), who decided to be “not married” for one day. She awakens shocked to find him fixing her breakfast — is this the way adults do this? Charmed and conflicted, she engages in one more romp before going home to her husband — then returns about once a week. Her marriage is crumbling, having lost its intimacy, but she has kids so she doesn’t divorce; it seems like the adult thing to do.

Old high school friends Meg (Kim Egan), Seth (Josh Turner) and Fred (Brad Root) come over to E.J.’s to play a shared online wargame. While each has a life (and Seth a wife) outside this gathering, all that matters here is leveling up and what snacks are being offered. They even eventually meet Sarah (introduced as E.J.’s neighbor) and are totally cool with her. Why wouldn’t they be? We’re all adults here.

Thus we go through five years of an affair and unusual friendships, the events that lead up to today, when our couple has to make hard — adult — choices.

Directed by Fat Turtle co-founder Aaron Cleveland, this script feels almost too polished to be new, and the cast give solid performances, especially Landberg as easy-going heart-on-sleeve E.J. and Shepard as sweet but girl’s-got-issues Sarah. While even the characters note the improbability of their situation lasting so long, this only goes to the overall atmosphere of arrested development throughout the cast. We find that it’s not enough just to be an adult; at some point you also have to grow up.

Be warned that another theme element is food — starting with the awesome smell of bacon for the first scene in the air before the play even starts. It might be best to have dinner before the show.

This sharp drama nicely leavened with comic elements is worth the effort to find, with one remaining weekend of performances, Thursday through Sunday, Jan. 17-20, at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave. on the grounds of old Fort Benjamin Harrison off of North Post Road in Lawrence. Get info and tickets at fatturtletheatre.com.

Bard Fest: ‘Merchant’ an entertaining comedy with troubling themes

This Show is part of Bard Fest, central Indiana’s annual Shakespeare festival. Info and tickets at www.bardfestindy.com.

By Wendy Carson

One of the things I love about Bardfest is that at least one production is more obscure or rarely produced. This year’s offering is “The Merchant of Venice,” presented by First Folio Productions, adapted and directed by Doug Powers.

The play is actually a romantic comedy, but has tragic overtones. It sports an easy-to-follow plotline and is immensely entertaining. Therefore, you may wonder why is it not done more often. I can only guess it is due to the overwhelming Antisemitism rife in the story’s main plot. So let’s address that matter: I believe it exists, not just to justify the character’s level of vengeance, but also because in the overwhelmingly Catholic nation, the Jews were a minority. This opens a dialogue regarding the mistrust, denigration and oppression of minorities. Especially in our turbulent modern times.

That all being said, let’s now get to the actual play.

The crux of the story is that Bassanio desires to woo the lovely Portia, a wealthy heiress. Since he has foolishly squandered his own fortunes, he turns to his beloved friend, Antonio, to loan him the money needed (which will be easily repaid by his new wife’s money). With Antonio’s funds tied up in his own business ventures, they must seek the aid of a local Jewish moneylender, Shylock. Having been slandered and ill-treated my Antonio for years, Shylock is loath to help him, but agrees to the loan provided he is delivered a pound of flesh upon default. Since the gentlemen know that there is no way this would occur, they agree.

Portia’s father passed away, but had devised a method to aid her in the choosing of the correct bridegroom. Three coffers are given, one each of gold, silver and lead, each with a warning regarding the contents – only one granting permission to marry. After other suitors fail, Bassanio chooses correctly.

Meanwhile, Antonio’s ships have all wrecked leaving him unable to repay the debt. Add to this that one of his friends, Lorenzo, not only eloped with Shylock’s only daughter, Jessica, but also converted her to Christianity, and the overwhelmed Shylock resolves to exact his revenge by literally collecting the promised pound of flesh. Bassanio offers to save his friend by paying twice the amount of the debt, but for Shylock, this is not about money, it is about his honor.

A trial commences and Shylock is granted his pound of flesh. However, the visiting lawyer – Portia in disguise – announces that upon taking his due, he not only must take the exact amount (no more, no less) but must also not spill a drop of blood in its collection. What will Shylock do?

Emily Bohn as Portia and Amanda Boldt as her maid, Nerissa, aptly bring forward the cunning that women are scarcely afforded in many of the Bard’s productions. Ryan Ruckman (Antonio) and Zach Taylor (Bassanio) portray not only the determination of each character but their intensely loving friendship. Ryan Reddick beautifully embodies the emotional sorrow and vengeance that drive Shylock to his end.

While John Mortell plays three characters throughout the show, his endearingly comic turn as Portia’s somewhat dimwitted servant, Balthasar, is truly a delight to behold. Bringing much-needed levity to a show that can be fraught with darkness.

The cast also includes Jim Banta, Aaron Cleveland, Ben Mathis, Pat Mullen, Rachel Snyder, Dwuan Watson Jr. and Lexy Weixel – all excellent.

Powers places the play in an Italy resembling the 1930s, as his Director’s Note explains, a time when rampant antisemitism has swept Europe, but its tragic endgame was yet to be revealed.

Remaining performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5-7, at the Indyfringe Indy Eleven Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, just east of the College and Mass Ave. intersection.

Fat Turtle hilariously handles impossible quest to dramatize Don Quixote

By Wendy Carson

Don Quixote. We all know the story – or do we?

It turns out that the storyline we are so familiar with is actually less than 20 percent of the thousand-page tome. The beautiful Dulcinea, for whom Quixote pines, is merely referred to and not actually a character in the book. The vast majority of the saga involves the deranged “knight” and his faithful squire just riding through the countryside getting beaten up frequently.

So why does this epic novel continue to inspire numerous attempts to adapt it for stage or screen, only to be defeated by the effort? That is the focus of Mark Brown’s whimsical play, “The Quest for Don Quixote,” produced by Fat Turtle Theatre Company through Sunday at Theater at the Fort.

Jason Page portrays Ben, our intrepid playwright, whose passion for the text is only eclipsed by the despair of his inability to write anything at all. His agent Jeffry (Dan Flahive) has tracked him down to a coffeehouse in order to retrieve Ben’s script – after all, rehearsals begin tomorrow. Flahive shines through his desperation and terror at discovering the situation, especially as he relentlessly tries to kick-start Ben’s writing.

As they deliriously brainstorm throughout the night, the story comes alive with the coffeehouse staff and patrons joining them to act out their efforts. The results are wacky and bizarre, yet tenderly true to the intentions of the original story.

Nan Macy and Savannah Jay embody a myriad of characters each, yet manage to bring each one fully to life in such a manner as to make you forget that they are just two people.

Justin Lyon’s portrayal of the buffoonish “squire” Sancho Panza brings out the heroic heart of the character.

Of course, the story could not work without our hero, Don Quixote. Jeff Maess deftly brings the deluded, yet inspired, mania of the character fully to light.

While not actually playing one of the various actors in the story, Chris McNeely uses his guitar as a driving force in the narrative by setting the tone for each scene. In fact, you might recognize a bar or two of some more contemporary songs that punctuate a few plot lines.

In adapting the unadaptable, this hilarious play about a play about a immortal character that transcends his literature bends the rules enough to blend medieval chivalry with Pinkie Pie from “My Little Pony.” Yet the soul of the story of the man who showed us the folly of fighting windmills – no matter what form they take – remains as pure as a noble knight’s heart. Director Aaron Cleveland acquits himself well in taking up the lance against this mill.

Find Theater at the Fort on the former grounds of Fort Benjamin Harrison, just west of Post Road just north of 56th Street in Lawrence. For info and tickets, visit www.fatturtletheatre.com.