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