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/.

Discover the beauty of ‘Violet’

By John Lyle Belden

The musical “Violet” touches on many themes: blind faith, being blinded by faith, the importance of our appearance to ourselves and others, and the necessity to forgive — both others and ourselves. Eclipse productions, a program of Summer Stock Stage, brings all these aspects beautifully into focus in its production of “Violet” at the Phoenix Theatre, through June 15.

In 1964, Violet, a young woman from rural Spruce Pine, North Carolina., travels by bus to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to find a television preacher who conducts televised faith healings. She hopes to finally be rid of a disfiguring facial scar she got from an accident with a wayward ax blade. On the way, she rides with two soldiers on their way to Ft. Smith, Arkansas (nearby Fort Chaffee, to be accurate, but this isn’t mentioned), the last stop before Tulsa.

Along the way, Violet (Elizabeth Hutson) gets to know Flick (Mark Maxwell), a black Sargeant, and Monty (John Collins), a white Corporal, as they get a measure of her and appreciate the woman behind the face. She also meets characters such as a well-meaning old lady (Amanda Boldt) and the driver (Carlos Medina Maldonado), as well Almeta (Chase Infiniti), who runs a boarding house in Memphis, and isn’t comfortable with white folks in her rooms. During this journey, we can see in her memory a younger Violet (Leah Broderick) and her father (Eric J. Olson), who as a widower tries to do as well as he can for his daughter, while enduring a river of deep regrets.

The cast also includes Terrence Lambert, Lily Wessel, and Gabriel Herzog in various roles. At the Tulsa church studio, we meet Maldonado as the preacher with a choir led by Infiniti as featured singer, Lula.

Most of the ensemble are Summer Stock Stage alumni, young adults given an opportunity to show the skills they attained through years in the youth program as well as high school and university; thus we have fresh faces performing like old pros alongside veteran actors Olson and Maldonado.

Hutson is exceptional, her star shining through the plain hair and clothes, helping us to see the scar burned into her psyche even though (as is commonly done in this production) it is not visible on her face. Maxwell and Collins flesh out their characters solidly, and Infiniti gets to show off her powerful voice.

The simple set suggesting an old country church, by designer Geoffrey Ehrendreich, is adorned with mirrors hanging high above it, the shadow of the center one looming in the background as a metaphorical tombstone. Music direction and costumes are by Jeanne Bowling, with a backstage band conducted by pianist Nathan Perry. Eclipse Artistic Director and show producer Emily Ristine Holloway directs.

This beautiful work is playing on the Russell main stage at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St., downtown Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at www.SummerStockStage.com or PhoenixTheatre.org.

‘Hosanna’ to the Mud Creek ‘Superstar’

By John Lyle Belden

“Jesus Christ Superstar,” Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera passion play, opened, appropriately, on Good Friday at Mud Creek Players.

The production, directed by Michelle Moore, embraced its setting within the cozy confines of the MCP “barn,” with rough-wood sets and a punk aesthetic, backed by a five-piece rock band. Cast members filled the aisles at times, lending a feeling more immersive than crowded. The costumes appeared to be raided from “Hair” or “American Idiot,” but still worked in the overall look, making our two male leads better stand out — the disciple Judas (Michael Lipphardt) all business in a leather jacket, and Jesus (Onis Dean) dressed casual like a man who, naturally, would fit in anywhere.

For those unfamiliar with this telling of the last week of Christ’s life, these are the main two perspectives — Judas fearing what could happen, and Jesus frustrated that only he can see what must happen — followed by the points of view of Mary Magdalene (Pearl Scott), a woman in love with the man as much as what he stands for; and Caiaphas (Lot Turner), the High Priest who sees a threat not only to his own personal power, but also to the safety of Jews in occupied Roman Palestine.

Dean and Lipphardt sing their hearts out — and I worry for their throats. Scott is pure sweetness. Turner just oozes corruption, ably accompanied by Kata Ewigleben as Annas. We also get good vocals from Eli Robinson as Simon the Zealot and Austin Stodghill as the Apostle Peter. Jeremy Crouch is regal as Pilate, and Rick Barber absolutely fabulous as King Herod.

“Don’t get me wrong, now,” I won’t say this production is flawless, but taken as a whole, in the spirit of this time of year, it is an incredible experience and celebration of a foundational event of Christianity.

Performances run through May 4. Mud Creek Players is at 9740 E. 86th St. in northeast Indianapolis, near Geist. Call 317-290-5343 or visit mudcreekplayers.com.

Phoenix: Faith, belief, and relationships tested in ‘The Christians’

By John Lyle Belden

On my own spiritual path, I have found there are generally two kinds of people in regards to faith: Those who find comfort in certainty — some things are always true and must be believed — and those who find comfort in doubt, that there are things we’ll never fully know, and we can question them and change our minds.

But, can both points of view get along in the same body of believers? That is the central dilemma of “The Christians,” the Lucas Hnath play now on stage at the Phoenix Theatre.

An American megachurch has everything going its way. It is growing and thriving with a joyful congregation and popular ministers, and it has just paid off the debts on its huge building. During the celebration, its leader, Pastor Paul (Grant Goodman) delivers a sermon that shocks his Evangelical staff and members: He no longer believes in Hell as a place of eternal punishment.

He even backs this idea up with scripture (this is an actual subject of debate in progressive churches). He is then challenged by his Associate Pastor (Ray Hutchins), who leaves and starts his own church.

The “cracks” that Paul had hoped to fix with his hopeful message instead widen as church members start an exodus to the rival congregation. This worries the megachurch board, represented by Elder Jay (Charles Goad). The congregants have their own questions, especially choir member Jenny (Kelsey Leigh Miller). And Paul’s wife, Elisabeth (Jen Johansen) has her own views on the subject.

The two types of believers find it nearly impossible to communicate, with those of certainty speaking of what is “right and wrong,” and the pastor, feeling free to doubt, speaking of what is just and merciful.

The narrative is much like a recollection by Pastor Paul — with “and then this happened”-style notes — done in the overall style of a church service with the audience as congregation (hymn lyrics are projected so we can sing along) and a choir that includes Miller, Bambi Alridge, Aaniyah Anderson, MaryBeth Walker Bailey, Adam Blevins, Caryn Flowers, Abby Gilster, Bridgette Ludlow, Marlana Haig and Dave Pelsue. Thus this show relates the hard lessons for Paul and those around him, and a parable for us all.

Goodman, Hutchins and Johansen deliver convincing performances of where each character stands on the Word. Miller and Goad ably portray people caught in the middle, each in their own way.

There is a lot to unpack when one comes away from this play, questions of faith and doctrine, of how much one should be willing to compromise, and of what happens when it’s revealed your perfect organization was too good to be true. It delivers the message without preaching, just a look at fallible humans wrestling with the answers — kinda like a Bible story.

Amen.

“The Christians” runs through April 14 on the Russell main stage at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

 

IndyFringe: ‘They Shall Take Up Serpents’

This show is part of the 14th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 16-26, 2018 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

When I went into this show, I expected a story about the wild and crazy acts of the notorious “Snake-Handling” Churches. However, I got much more than I was prepared for.

The story focuses on one young girl who drives over two hours in order to attend services at the church for the past eight weeks, and is feeling the desire to “Stand up front” (i.e. hold the snakes). The tale of how she came to be here is bittersweet and insightful.

We also meet a female elder of the church as she explains the history of their congregation as well as the coal mining area it is set in. While she doses out her information with saucy bits of humor, her story is quite moving as well.

Enter into this mix a fresh, young reporter who sees this church as fodder for a story that can launch his career, as well as a few others who mock and deride the worshipers.

The resulting show is very beautiful. It reminds you what true religious devotion and actual Christianity are about. With today’s climate of religious hypocrisy running rampant, it’s nice to see that no matter what your dogma may be, the church can be a haven of family and community for anyone who asks to be a part.

“They Shall Take Up Serpents” is presented by Garrett Matthews Productions at the Firehouse union hall first floor, 748 Mass Ave.