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 @ the Fort: Go see ‘Joan’

By John Lyle Belden

Something precious has been stuck in a house for a long time.

Joan Wright was once an “author, traveler and businesswoman,” but in the three years since her husband died she has just been Joanie, a lonely woman spending her days in a bathrobe, knitting and watching the world out her back window.

But changes are coming. Her adult daughters are planning to move halfway across the country, and suddenly an old friend is in her living room, inviting her to a gathering of “the old gang” to celebrate her upcoming birthday. It’s exciting, and a bit frightening, but does it feel right?

This is the essence of the new drama, “Go Be Joan,” by Nathaniel Adams, a premiere by Fat Turtle Theatre at Theater at the Fort.

Kathy Bauchle plays Joan as a strong woman throughout – sometimes channeling that strength into her stubborn insistence on “not being a burden” by getting into nice clothes and out of the house to be among others.

Her girls each have their own issues, especially with the changes that life cast their way. Elder daughter Katherine (Afton Shepard) wears her constant nervous smile like a shield as she tries to maintain control of every situation she’s in. Her little sister Lindsie (Audrey Stonerock) has been taking care of Joan the past few years and really, really, wants their mother to move to St. Louis with them. Shepard and Stonerock swing from comaraderie to conflict and back like real siblings, as the deeper layers of the plot are revealed.

Katherine’s daughter Cara (Natalie Marchal) adds another generation to the mix, with her own quirks and concerns. She seems a bit two-dimensional and cliché at first, a selfish child preoccupied with the digital world in her smartphone, until Joan’s insistence on communicating yields to us a nice insight into Cara and her post-Millennial perspective. In return, we see the girl help her grandmother into the 21st century – which in the context of Joan’s shutting herself off from the world in recent years takes on special relevance.

Dan Flahive is neighbor and old friend John Patty, who delivers the invitation – and a mysterious wrapped gift – to Joan. He, too, lost a spouse years ago, so has a special insight into their situation. Flahive’s knack for playing a best friend you feel you’ve known and loved all your life is in full effect here. He plays it coy enough to balance the chemistry between his and Bauchle’s character deftly between platonic/agape friend and possible love-interest.

Fat Turtle artistic director Brandi Underwood directs.

This is a good start for a promising play, and an excellent opportunity for local audiences to support local art. The characters and their story touch our hearts with gentle humor and an insightful look at how we grieve and learn to go on living.

Oh, and my opening statement above refers to more than just the title character.

Performances of “Go Be Joan” run through July 28 at 8920 Otis Ave., on the grounds of Fort Benjamin Harrison in Lawrence. Get information and tickets at www.fatturtletheatre.com.

Messages go out about the struggle within

By John Lyle Belden

“I don’t know what’s worse, trying to kill yourself or living with the fact that you tried to kill yourself.”

This lament sums up the situation for Claire, the young woman at the center of “Letters Sent,” the new drama by local writer Janice Hibbard in its world premiere with Fat Turtle Theatre Company at the Indy Eleven Theatre.

Not every suicide comes with a note, but Claire (Lexy Weixel) wrote nine. She composed and sent them as snail-mail letters — bypassing the Internet for greater privacy — then went to her apartment bathroom and opened up her wrist. However, her mother, Florence (Kathryn Comer Paton), happened to discover her before it was too late.

The play begins with Claire cocooned in a bed in the attic of her mother’s house, just days after her discharge from the hospital. Adjusting to being not-dead is rough. We come to meet the people closest to her, including boyfriend/pseudo-brother (it’s complicated) Jack (Joe Barsanti), best friends Emma (Becky Lee Meacham) and Jane (Victoria Kortz), and her father, Robert (Doug Powers), who had moved to Florida after the divorce. Our story is set in Michigan, for a reason that soon becomes evident.

Claire’s mental progress is tracked through sessions with her therapist (Wendy Brown). Here we find that the letters were sent not only to the five people we meet, but also to four people Claire considered enemies — a final middle-finger to them on her way out, she says.

There does indeed seem to be progress, but the way isn’t easy, and when secrets held by those closest to Claire are uncovered, everything could come undone.

Weixel inhabits Claire perfectly, swinging from charming to childish to morose to wracked with guilt, constantly struggling with the messages from others as well as from within her head. Though the character, like the actor, is in her early 20s, Claire being at this life crossroads has regressed her into a sort of frustrated teenager. Still, she is relatable, someone you want to reach out to.

Paton, as a Mom who must maintain control as chaos terrifies her, is both Claire’s savior and a well-meaning obstacle to her recovery. Powers is the cool Dad, perhaps because he understands Claire’s struggle more than she knows. Barsanti’s Jack is a hot mess in his own way, and Kortz and Meacham are friends dealing with the desire to be supportive, but either too confident (Emma) or unsure (Jane) of exactly how.

The topics of mental illness and suicide seem to pop up quite often lately, even on stage. Just a couple of months ago, we had “Every Brilliant Thing” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. One important lesson we get from both that play and this is that what we think will help won’t necessarily work — but given a chance, a spark from within can be what saves us. Will Claire find hers?

Directed by Fat Turtle artistic director Brandi Underwood, performances of “Letters Sent” run through March 24 at the Indy Eleven, a stage in the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair. For tickets and info, visit fatturtletheatre.com or indyfringe.org.

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.

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, such as a difficult script – 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.