We open on a stretch of land somewhere in the midwest, where a family of three is living, homeless, underneath a billboard announcing the upcoming return of Jesus Christ. From this unexpected setting stems a series of questions and occurrences that will keep you guessing even after the story reaches its conclusion. Turtles, a play written by John Greiner-Ferris and produced in its west coast premiere by the Red Cup Theatre Co, is a unique observation of the impact of choices on our lives and what role, if any, so-called “divine” intervention may play in them.
The circumstances that led to Bella (Claire Larsen) and her two children, 15-year-old daughter, Foos (Alexa Yeames) and younger son, Finn (Victoria Ortiz), to this sad life where they eat out of dumpsters and do their best to make a patch of land homey, are slowly revealed. Eventually, we learn Bella, a wanted woman, is on the run from her husband, who is also Finn’s father. The car they’ve been using to flee has broken down, and with the local police growing increasingly suspicious, the pressure is on for Bella to figure out her next move.
Enter Jesús (Eduardo Fernandez-Baumann), a mechanic (exactly what they need!) who essentially materializes one day, bringing with him fresh food and an easy optimism. Bella does not initially trust him, but it quickly becomes apparent that her luck is just a little bit better when he’s around. He can work on the car, he can feed the kids, and he can inexplicably protect them from police detection, even when it seems virtually impossible. He can also understand Finn, who suffers from a developmental disorder and often pretends to be various animals, from turtles to goats. Finn often speaks in gibberish, but his sheep-like noises make perfect sense to Jesús. Let’s say it—essentially he performs what appear to be miracles. As the billboard of actual Jesus Christ looks down, Bella and the audience are left to wonder if Jesús is a kind stranger with excellent timing or something much more.
Ultimately, these are not questions the play, directed by Laura Steinroeder, is interested in answering. Instead, we delve deeper and deeper into Bella’s past and psyche. This production is full of interesting, feminist casting—Finn is played by a woman, and two other women (Katie McCuen and Arie Thompson) rotate as a series of supporting characters of both genders. Turtles seamlessly weaves flashbacks into its narrative to show us glimpses of Bella’s life before she ended up here.
The staging in Atwater Village Theatre’s 30-seat space is impressive, reflecting the direness of Bella and the kids’ situation and flexibly embodying many other locations as the story progresses. It is not easy to successfully stage a story that takes place primarily on the run in any theater, yet alone in such a tiny one, but with a combination of lighting, sound effects, and Steinroeder’s smart direction, you buy it. The cast was excellent, with Larsen’s performance in particular often bringing you very close to liking an unlikable character. Fernandez-Baumann also brings an easy charisma to the mysterious Jesús, lifting the dark mood with his mere presence.
The most difficult thing to grasp and accept about the play is that Bella is not a good or likable person. She is a felon and a kidnapper who will prioritize cigarettes over food for her children. Jesús may repeatedly tell her she’s a good woman, but frankly I never believed him. With a frustrating, cyclical ending that drives home Bella’s unchanging, self-destructive nature and occurrences that are just weird enough to suggest magical realism, but not so weird that they can’t (mostly) be explained by logic, it was hard to shake the sensation that the story never really went anywhere or paid off. That being said, media portrayals of unapologetically unlikable women are still too few and far between, and it was refreshing to see a play take on such a difficult topic. Regardless of how much you may hate Bella by the end, she sure is compelling to watch.
Turtles has 5 remaining performances (through 5/29) at the Atwater Village Theatre in Los Angeles. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at www.redcuptheatreco.com.