Audience Trust Issues: TURTLES

Photo by Joan Mejia

Photo by Joan Mejia

Presented by Boston Public Works
By John Greiner-Ferris
Directed by Jeffrey Mosser

Oct. 24 – Nov. 8, 2014
Boston Center for the Arts
Boston, MA
BPW on Facebook

Review by Kitty Drexel

(Boston) Dear crew of Turtles: What the heck was the squeaky noise we heard during the entirety of Act 1? I’m not particularly sensitive to repetitive noises but the sound of metal rubbing on metal kept pulling me out of the play.

Turtles is a play about single-Mom, Bella (Jackie Davis), and her two kids Foos (Lauren Foster) and Finn (Elle Borders). They are squatters living on/in garbage by a billboard advertising the next Rapture. They are surviving when Jesus, who may or may not be the magical zombie-savior of lore (Alexander Castillo-Nunez), falls into their laps. Jesus lacks any sort of social context (this dude could be anybody), gives no explanation for his presence, and has serious boundary issues. Yet, together they decide to move to Boston for its turtle sanctuary. Boston becomes a metaphorical sanctuary for all of them.

Playwright John Greiner-Ferris makes bold choices in his characterization of the protagonists. For example, he nails the plight of the single-Mom damned by the system on its head… except for the part where he paints her as the villain (versus her own villain which Greiner-Ferris also does. This characterization works but not enough to support the script. I digress.). The audience isn’t allowed to sympathize with Bella but we should. Bella deserves our compassion because she’s the hero of this story. She’s focused on keeping her kids safe from strangers, keeping the family together despite her terrible choices. If we aren’t supposed to sympathize with her then the story shouldn’t be about her.

Turtles lacks dramatic and theatrical structure. It had a brittle backbone that crumbled under the weight of too little exposition. Most scenes lacked shape and frequently lacked resolution. The audience was left wondering why we just saw what we just saw. The one scene that did work from top to bottom was the Act 1 Mad Scene in which Bella has a mental down and Foos directly accuses the audience of viewing their misery as entertainment. This scene had a beautiful arc, an epic climax and a firm resolve in which our cast is able to explore their issues and then make decisions. Unfortunately, a play is more than just its dramatic scenes. Because so many of the scenes lacked dramatic structure, the cast was seemingly wandering the stage without motivation for the majority of the play.

There are several surreal moments when the action abruptly exits and re-enters the known reality of the play. For example, we’re introduced to Jesus who may or may not be the Son of God. He may or may not be magical but we see enough “magic” that maybe he is Christ or maybe he’s extremely talented at slight of hand. There is no explanation. The audience is expected to accept this without context. We didn’t know what to believe so we didn’t believe anything.

The acting was the best element of the play. Davis was very committed. She was working very hard to convince us that Bella deserves our attention but, because of other factors mentioned, she wasn’t successful. To her credit, Davis created a fully-developed, aware character. Her choices were strong and  believable.

Elle Borders and Nicole Dunn were equally as committed. Borders was sincere and sweet as Finn, the little boy who needs extra care and love to accommodate his detachment issues and creativity. She made Finn extra-endearing. Dunn controlled her scene as Emanuel (Jesus’ brother) with an iron fist. This scene in particular was one of the most powerful in the play because her monologue was allowed to carry the action. Both women played male characters. It was good to see nontraditional casting at work.

Turtles asks more questions than it answers. The audience could have used a narrator, someone to explain the surreal bits to us so everyone is on the same page. There was too much we didn’t understand and not enough explanation in the dialogue. A narrator would fix that problem. This is not an editorial suggestion. Tell us more about why the characters do what they do and the need for a narrator disappears. Right now Turtles doesn’t work as a play, remove the need for a narrator and it might.

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