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

NoExit ‘1984’ – experience the love of Big Brother

By John Lyle Belden

It was a bright cold day in November, and the clocks had struck nineteen 30 minutes ago. The back door to a facility commandeered by the Party and Ministry of Truth opened, and we were allowed to enter.

After Agents determined our country of origin and loyalty to the Party, we were detained with other participants until 20:00, when the Ministry provided a goodthink show of a man discovering his love for Big Brother. This is all it is and ever was.

I would never be unfaithful to the Party and tell you that this was a clever and insightful production of “1984” – adapted from the George Orwell novel by Matthew Dunster, produced by NoExit Performance (with co-conspirators including AnC Movies, Cat Head Press and iMOCA) and directed by Ryan Mullins – as that would be “fake news.”

But if I were to say such a thing, I would point out that Ryan Ruckman gives an excellent performance as Winston Smith, the conflicted everyman who tires of his duties for the Ministry, constantly “correcting” history and sending obsolete information down the Memory Hole so that it never happened. He wears his depression and ennui like an extra layer of clothing, feeling the weight of the Telescreen eyes upon him. NoExit mainstay Georgeanna Smith Wade wins his heart and ours as secret rebel Julia, who inspires Winston to defy the Party – simultaneously the smartest and stupidest thing he would ever do.

The Party orders that I denounce Dave Ruark for his commanding portrayal of the mysterious O’Brien, Adam Crowe for his deceptively warm turn as Charrington, and Tristan Ross for his appropriately milquetoast presentation of Smith’s co-worker Parsons (extra rations go to Zac Schneider and Elsie McNulty as the Party-faithful children, though Shannon Samson as Mrs. Parsons is still under suspicion). If Syme had not become an unperson, I’d praise Phil Criswell’s double-plus-good performance. I also hallucinated sharp work from Taylor Cox and Ann Marie Elliott in supporting roles.

Where NoExit – I mean the Ministry – most excels is in the way this drama is presented. It is totally immersive: You stand in or right outside the room where each scene occurs; and the actors frequently move from one area to the next, forcing all to turn and/or follow. Ministry agents help guide the audience. There is no climbing stairs, and limited seating is provided at every scene. Compare the amount of movement necessary to an easy tour of a museum gallery with about a half-dozen display areas in three large rooms. Appropriate set design (by Andrew Darr), with occasional video images (by AnC) and haunting sound (by Rob Funkhouser) enveloping the rooms, provide a perfectly tense atmosphere throughout. Big Brother’s red glowing eye is everywhere, watching us all.

I advise all to take time out from news of whatever war we have always been fighting, and observe this double-plus-good entertainment appropriate for whatever year this happens to be. Performances through Nov. 18 at Ministry Headquarters, 1336 E. Washington St., Indianapolis. For information and tickets, visit www.noexitperformance.org.

What’s so funny about peace, love and misunderstanding?

By John Lyle Belden

Anton Chekhov called his 1895 play, “The Seagull,” a “comedy in four acts” – which makes one wonder about Russians’ sense of humor.

But the play, adapted and directed by Casey Ross and presented by her Catalyst Repertory company – shaved down to two acts (one-two / intermission / three-four) – does have some light moments. Good drama always has its share of humor, and its “comic” elements are further reflected in an almost Shakespearean level of unrequited love among the characters.

The setting is a peaceful rural Russian estate, with its nice house belonging to aging civil servant Pyotr Sorin (Dennis Forkel) and a lake, near which his nephew Konstantin Treplev (Taylor Cox) presents a play he has written, starring his girlfriend, local girl Nina (Ann Marie Elliott).

Treplev sees himself in the shadow of his famous actress mother, Irina Arkadina (Nan Macy), and her popular friends. “I have no discernible talent,” he laments. But to prove himself, he is determined to write a “new form” of theatre, simultaneously rebelling against and surpassing the great Arkadina. Before an audience of locals, family and his mother’s guest, famous writer Boris Trigorn (Thomas Cardwell), the premiere flounders thanks to Treplev’s abstract symbolism – inspiring heckling from Arkadina – and Nina’s amateurish acting.

Later Trigorn flatters Nina, encouraging her dream of becoming a professional actor, and winning her away from Treplev. Meanwhile, beautiful-in-black Masha (Emily Bohn) is in love with Treplev, while poor schoolmaster Medivenko (Bradford Reilly) is in love with Masha. Paulina (Kyrsten Lyster) is in an affair with Yevgeny Dorn (Craig Kemp), a kindly doctor with a song in his heart, but she is married to very unromantic estate caretaker Ilya Shamrayeff (Anthony Nathan).

While good acting is essential to any play, the presentation of these characters is all Chekhov has given us – no wild action or deep mystery. Fortunately, Ross knows some very talented actors.

Cox is great at playing the tortured soul, and he has plenty to work with here. A hundred-twenty years later, even in Russia, Treplev would have medication and perhaps a therapist to aid his issues. In this world, he must wade through on his own with little help from his mother – she brushes off his suicide attempt as a silly phase, afraid to leave the limelight world that is the only place she feels happy. Macy turns on the charm, while showing the depth of her character’s shallowness.

Elliott is brilliant as usual, mastering not only all the subtle facets of Nina, but managing to act “bad” in an entertaining way. Cardwell reveals a man wrestling with the life his genius has given him – “I have no rest from myself” – but still subject to base desires. In one of the play’s most famous scenes, he presents the idea of “destroying” the young woman, saying it directly to her. But blinded by her pursuit of fame, Nina allows it to happen, not realizing until it is too late what she has become.

And a shout out to Nathan for nearly stealing scenes with Shamreyeff’s socially clumsy moments, and for making the death of the title bird more funny than it should be.

So: When you get what you’ve been chasing after – or what you settled for – is it worth it? That would be the thematic question at work here, and while the answers aren’t definitive, they do feel honest to the harsh world we live in, wherever we are in time or on the globe. And when the circumstances permit, we can get in a laugh or two.

“The Seagull” has performances Sept. 15-17 and 22-24 at the Grove Haus, 1001 Hosbrook St., near Fountain Square. For info and tickets, visit Facebook.com/CatalystRepertory or the company’s website.

IndyFringe: ‘An Elegy for Peter Through’

By Wendy Carson

This show has been the most surprising of anything I’ve seen at this year’s festival. The title lends itself to a dour subject matter, which is further reinforced by the setting, the interior of a funeral home. However, once the show begins, all of that is thrown out the window.

The funeral directors are expecting a quick, simple service when a gaggle of children and teens show up carrying a large wooden frame and demand to offer their own eulogies for the departed.

The frame becomes a sort of time portal in which the actors are transported to the day that they first met the deceased. With the seven actors quickly slipping into and out of 13 different roles, it may seem like it would be confusing, but the cast pulls off this feat seamlessly.

The stories told are funny yet uplifting and make for a warm, pleasant feeling of satisfaction afterwards. This show is definitely a good counterpoint to some of the more intense shows at the Fringe; it will greatly help you to readjust your psyche, so you really should not miss it.

John’s note: This is one of the best shows of the Fringe, in my opinion. Director Ann Marie Elliott told us that she and the Savage At Last actors worked out the story themselves without an initial script, and they all do an excellent job of channeling their inner teens and tweens facing a life-changing experience.

One performance remains, 9 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26, at the Theatre on the Square second stage.

Festival info: www.indyfringe.org.