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

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/.

ATI tells important ‘Story’

By Wendy Carson

“This is a story about two rabbits.”

Seven innocuous words that begin not only a beautifully illustrated children’s book, but also a major political ballyhoo about race and censorship.

“Alabama Story,” a play by Kenneth Jones making its Indiana premiere with Actors Theatre of Indiana, is based on a true story of one simple book that sparked a major racial controversy due to its depiction of a white bunny marrying a black bunny. 

The setting is 1959 and even though George Wallace (“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”), has yet to be voted in as Governor, he is the leading political voice of Alabama. Racism is a fact of everyday life and the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement are just starting to stir. Rosa Parks had recently sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was still a local pastor. 

Enter Emily Wheelrock Reed (Cynthia Collins), the state librarian, and her diligent assistant, Thomas Franklin (Samuel L. Wick). Franklin brings the initial hubbub over “The Rabbits’ Wedding” to her attention, but Reed dismisses it until Senator E.W. Higgins (Don Farrell) starts pressuring her to remove the book from the library system. 

We also see the story of two children who grew up together. Lily Whitefield (Maeghan Looney), the daughter of a cotton plantation owner and Joshua Moore (Cameron Stuart Bass), the son of one of the Whitfields’ servants, descended from their slaves. They meet up again as adults, in exchanges that echo the book, but overshadowed by painful events of their past.

Overseeing all of this is the book’s author and illustrator himself, Garth Williams (Paul Tavianini). He takes on all of the supporting roles as well as giving his personal insight to the drama. Williams reiterates that he only chose the black and white colors for the rabbits due to his love of Oriental artworks which draw on those two colors for balance. He never meant for his tale to become what many believed to be a subversive indoctrination of their children into believing that interracial marriage was normal.

Bass’s performance shows that even though Franklin is living a better life himself, he never forgets the trauma and struggles he went through and his people are still enduring. Looney does a commendable job of showing the naiveté of the privileged class during these changing times.

Collins shows the strong, stalwart woman that Reed was, holding her own and never wavering no matter what came her way. Wick is endearing as Franklin, a free-thinking young man who was raised to be prejudiced but refuses to succumb to the hatred.

Tavianini brings a “Mr. Rogers” -type warmth to Williams, who also wrote and illustrated numerous other children’s books (including books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and E.B. White), none of which sparked any controversy.

However, the standout performance is by Farrell. He oozes all of the slick sliminess of a typical Southern politician. His soft-spoken words hold a thousand brutal attacks within, the demure and friendly smile hiding the fangs that are ready to strike you down with their poisonous barbs. He does such a great job embodying the character, you will likely want to punch him (but please don’t). 

ATI chose this play to be their first foray into serious drama and they have done an excellent job of it, under the direction of Jane Unger. This show is important to give you context as to this country’s history and what our future could be again should we glorify the past instead of learning from it.

Performances run through Nov. 17 in The Studio Theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get information and tickets at atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

A king’s journey, from fun with Falstaff to hostilities with Hotspur

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

By John Lyle Belden

While I can heartily recommend any of this year’s Bard Fest shows, the one that has the most elements of Shakespeare’s storytelling is the oft-overlooked “Henry IV, Part 1,” presented by First Folio and directed by Glenn L. Dobbs. It combines comedy, drama, adventure, and a bit of actual British history in a rather entertaining package.

It is a story of the misspent youth of “Bonny Prince Hal” (Matthew Walls), the man who would eventually become the legendary King Henry V, as well as the struggle by his father, Henry IV (Abdul Hakim-Shabazz), to maintain a united kingdom.

Hal has his fun with best friend Ned Poins (John Mortell) as they jest with famed drunkard Sir John Falstaff (Matthew Socey) and his minions, cowardly Bardolf (Jonathen Scoble) and berserker Peto (Missy Rump). From these scenes we get a lot of laughs, and are treated to some of the Bard’s more colorfully-written insults.

Meanwhile, the King has to deal with a plot led by Henry Percy (Matt Anderson), known as Hotspur for his fiery temper, aided by relatives Worcester (Sara Castillo Dandurand) and Mortimer (Eric Mannweiler), the Scottish Earl of Douglas (Andy Burnett), and Welsh rebel Glendower (David Mosedale). On Henry’s side stand Sir Walter Blunt (Eli Robinson), Lord Westmoreland (Brian Kennedy), and eventually Hal, the Prince of Wales himself, having sworn off his prior foolishness.

The decisive battle that ensues gives the narrative a sense of completion, especially in Hal’s arc from boy to man, but leaves sufficient details to be resolved in the more serious “Henry IV, Part 2.” Still, this play easily stands alone.

Our cast inhabit the roles naturally — perhaps Socey is just an alias for Falstaff? Hakim-Shabazz is appropriately noble, Walls slips easily into Hal’s many modes, and Anderson can play a villain like no other. Also notable are Afton Shepard as Percy’s bitter wife (as well as a sweet “working girl” at the tavern), and Michelle Wafford as a Welsh lady betrothed to a man she loves but whose language she can’t understand, and especially as the in-charge Hostess of the Boar’s Head Tavern.

Remaining performances are 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday (with talkback afterward) and 1 p.m. Sunday at the District Theatre, 627 Massachusetts Ave.

Full ‘Hamlet’ enriches familiar story

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

By Wendy Carson

By now we all know the story of Hamlet. It’s one of Shakespeare’s most produced plays and you’ve likely seen more than one version of it. However, Doug Powers and the Carmel Theatre Company have chosen to give us a different take by giving us an almost entirely unabridged look at the play.

Before you balk at the 3-plus hour running length (with intermission), note that with these rarely acted scenes returned to the story, it just deepens the richness of the characters. It also brings the secondary plot forward (remember Norway?) bringing more closure and purpose to many of the characters.

Honestly, I had forgotten many of the scenes and speeches performed and was touched by the true beauty of not only their narrative but the language itself.

Also, the starkness of the stage and minimalist set pieces help remind you that this show is about listening to and understanding the characters. In order to fulfill this task, one must have great actors and Powers has outdone himself in procuring them.

Brian G. Hartz sizzles as Hamlet, pulling forth all of the rage and deviousness that the character embodies. Miranda Nehrig turns Ophelia into a young woman who’s confusion and frustrations over Hamlet’s behavior help lead her to her desperate end. Both have skill in communicating beyond saying the lines, especially Nehrig’s talent for adding volumes with a single facial expression.

Eric Bryant as Claudius and Jean Arnold as Gertrude present the quintessential parents who are bewildered as to why their son has so quickly changed his demeanor. Their recent nuptials so soon after the previous King’s untimely death never cross their mind as a possible reason.

While most of the Bard Fest offerings have cast women in several men’s roles, Powers uses his casting choices to their maximum effect. Jo Bennett plays Horatio as a dear friend but in later scenes there seems to be romantic tension, which they pull off with great aplomb.

However, the best example of this is with the character of Guildenstern, played by Gorgi Parks Fulper. Instructed to play upon her history with Hamlet to obtain information, she is asked to use her feminine wiles. Meanwhile, Benjamin Mathis plays Rosencrantz as the perfect second banana who seems to always be left out of the whole scheme.

Alan Cloe is perfect as wise but tragic Polonius. Noah Winston is a fiery force as his son, Laertes.

Casting is also clever in its players with two or more roles: Fulper and Mathis also play palace guards in the opening scene. Janice Hibbard is the messenger to Norway, and later is that country’s warrior princess Fortinbras. The ghost of murdered King Hamlet (the title character’s dad) is portrayed by Tony Armstrong, who also plays an identical character in the play-within-the-play that Hamlet (the younger) sets up to watch his stepfather’s reaction; later Armstrong is the gravedigger who unearths Yorick’s skull.

In addition, kudos to Rachel Snyder and Kyrsten Lyster as members of the traveling troupe of Players.

There is some intense swordplay in this production, so credit is due to Bryant as fight choreographer.

Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday, 7:30 Saturday (with talkback following) and 1 p.m. Sunday (Oct. 25-27) at the IndyFringe Theatre.

Bard Fest: Trauma has woman caught in ‘Lear’s Shadow’

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

By John Lyle Belden

For many of the people I know, theatre is life. Sometimes it feels like the two blend together, and in “Lear’s Shadow,” by Brian Elerding, the words of a William Shakespeare drama can help one to deal with a real-world truth.

Jackie (Nan Macy) arrives at her company’s rehearsal room to find it empty and the wrong scripts on the table. She has unexplained bruises and a sore neck, but her main concern is that no one is there to start working on Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” 

Then, company member Stephen (Tom Weingartner) arrives, visibly worried. He calls Rachel (Morgan Morton), who is on her way, but in the meantime he needs to keep Jackie occupied, working through her frequent mental re-sets until she is ready to understand…

For much of the hour of this First Folio production in the IndyFringe Indy Eleven Theatre, Jackie and Stephen explore the idea of following just the plot of the King in “Lear,” apart from other intrigues, exploring his relationships and growing madness. Thus many passages from the play are quoted and enacted, leading up to Act IV, Scene 7. Jackie, who has the script memorized, takes the title role, which she instructs must be played starting less-mad, giving his character somewhere to go, “to see someone gaining strength as they lose everything.”

Macy is incredible, both as Jackie and as Jackie-as-Lear, as we come to learn the parallels between the two — picking favorites, pushing away a loved one, psychological trauma, and the need to rage against something that can’t be controlled.

Weingartner shows deft command of the stage as well, and Morton acquits herself well in her scene. 

Directed by Glenn Dobbs, this drama is a worthy addition to the festival, a good “Shakespeare-adjacent” play that helps relate the old texts to today’s world as well or better than just putting players in modern suits (though we do enjoy those, too, theatre friends!). 

Remaining performances are Oct. 24-27: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday (with talkback after Friday’s show) and 2 p.m. Sunday. 

Agape work their magic in terrific ‘Tempest’

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

By John Lyle Belden

“The Tempest” may be as close as Shakespeare came to what we now classify as sci-fi/fantasy. In its world, magic is assumed, without giving much backstory of how exiled nobleman Prospero came to own the spellbook, staff, and skills to use them. Maybe they were with him and his daughter in the leaky boat his treacherous brother sent to sea, allowing Prospero to summon a portal from the Mediterranean to an island near Scotland. Perhaps they were a prize from the witch who left behind her hideous son Caliban on that enchanted island. Perhaps he gained power as he found a way to release the faerie Ariel, who then swore obedience to him.

Sounds more like a cheap paperback than the Bard? Well, he did write fantasies for the masses — he just did it very well. And now we get an appropriately excellent production of “The Tempest” by Agape Performing Arts Company.

Agape, a church-sponsored youth program, gives teens and tweens the opportunity to explore moral lessons in various stage works, including “Les Miserables” and “Newsies,” and at a level of performance and production matching the various excellent “young performers” programs around Indy. 

Thus we have Evan Wolfgang play Prospero as a noble father who has a bold plan and the drive to see it through. He sees an opportunity for revenge, as the men who wronged him are on the open sea, and with a teleport spell and the ability of Ariel (Audrey Duprey) to call up and control a storm, brings them to his shore.

The tempest of the title is wonderfully portrayed with brilliant use of costume and movement. (Director Kathy Phipps designed the costumes and choreography is by Joel Flynn.) The boat rocks, the waves surge, and the crew cry out in barely contained panic. But all arrive safely, scattered by Prospero’s spell in accordance with his plans.

Prince Ferdinand (Grant Scott-Miller) is washed up alone and encounters Prospero’s daughter Miranda (Laura Sickmeier) and a courtship begins. 

Meanwhile, the prince’s father, King Alonso of Naples (Matthias Neidenberger) is with his brother Sebastian (Gilead Rea-Hedrick), advisor Gonzalo (Kathryn Rose), and Antonio, Duke of Milan (Nathan Ellenberger) — Prospero’s brother, whom Alonso allowed to take his title. Ever plotting, Antonio sees an opportunity for another power grab, which fortunately Ariel invisibly spies.

On another part of the island, the king’s jester Trinculo (Kennath Cassaday) and drunken butler Stephano (Maura Phipps) — who salvaged the booze — meet up with Caliban (Aidan Morris), who considers them gods for the power in their bottles, and persuades them to join him in his plot to kill Prospero so he can take over the island.

The large cast includes a number of sailors — including Jack London as Master of the Ship and Raymond Lewis as Boatswain — and Island Spirits, including Iris (Kidron Rea-Hedrick), Ceres (Evelyn Skaggs) and Juno (Gemma Rollison), who help celebrate the betrothal of Ferdinand and Miranda.

Yes, it’s a typically large number of names for this Shakespeare play that is like his comedies, but with dramatic elements and quite a bit of music  — lyrics by the Bard, music from traditional tunes, Gustav Holst’s “Planets,” and a composition by Michael Roth. But Kathy Phipps’ direction manages to keep the plotlines easy to follow.

Though all give great performances, notable turns include Duprey and Morris (both aided by excellent makeup by Angie Morris), as well as Maura Phipps, giving the best possible “drunken” performance by a person too young to imbibe.

See all set right with a spirit of redemption and forgiveness, in a most entertaining fashion and with all the spectacle that the District Theatre main stage can hold. Remaining performances are this weekend (Oct. 25-27), 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday.