A Plan For All Seasons

'Tis the season to face the theater of 1992-93, so a broad review of last year's high and low points seems to be in order, as well as a peek into which shows ahead merit breaking into the piggy bank. And since everyone in this place remains too polite to say it, leave it to me -- the hard-bitten New Yorker, who keeps having to look up the word "polite" in the dictionary -- to opine on those venues consistently offering interesting drama and, by omission, suggest those more prone to either hambone ineptitude, super-glitz vacuous spectacle, or plainold dog meat.

Of course, South Florida history will note the past season as one of wanton disaster, such as Hurricane Andrew blowing through Homestead, and Pia Zadora hooting and hollering her porcine pipes out at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, though not necessarily in that order. As far as dead, exfoliated trees are concerned, George Peppard did his bit as King Henry in the leaden Lion in Winter at the Parker Playhouse. And the Public Theater demonstrated that a sometimes revered institution can hide a shaky foundation; for example, when the company directors allowed one playwright's mommy to produce, under the Public's name, the almost inconceivably inept Yetta & Sophie in Miami Beach. Independent producers who fostered upon us Unbeatable Harold at a temporary Beach club/theater claimed that the playwright received accolades at Circle Rep in New York and The Actors' Theater of Louisville; after seeing the play, I would have picked him as a possible runner-up of the greased pig contest at the Fargo State Fair.

Many more hapless souls blundered, stumbled, overacted, misdirected, and offended too many for a weekly column to enumerate. New theater groups sprang up -- the New River Rep in Fort Lauderdale, the Ensemble Stage in Davie -- but never quite reached the status of quality, while at the same time the audience for theater stayed status quo, meaning that the few good houses and productions struggled in the shadow of financial gloom (see "Stage Notes").

To prevent this misguided behavior in the future, I wish to leave the turkey brigade behind and praise the dramaturgs who do exist in the region.

As far as production highlights, Duet For One, first at the Public and then at The Drama Center in Deerfield Beach, offered expert dramatic action and superb acting by Carolyn Hurlburt and Peter Haig. The event was equaled in excellence only by the Parker Playhouse's unveiling of Tru, in which Robert Morse brought Truman Capote back to life, complete with savage wit.

A Final Evening with the Illuminati at the luscious Theatre Club of the Palm Beaches showed that even the avant-garde -- when well written, directed, and acted -- can captivate audiences of all ages. ACME's Road combined skillful writing and offbeat staging to address the issue of homelessness. And Guillermo Gentile wrote, directed, and starred in a magical adult fairy tale called With Folded Wings at the Carrusel Theater. Speaking of the Carrusel, it played host, along with the Minorca Playhouse, to the Seventh International Hispanic Theater Festival, in which several productions stood out, most notably Perdonen La Tristeza by the Spanish troupe La Zaranda and a lighthearted erotic version of Lorca's Don Perlimplin by the Brazilian Teatro Do Ornitorrinco.

As for the musicals, one production eclipsed all the others -- the moving, fluid, politically correct Falsettoland, a coup for the Caldwell Theatre. They grabbed this third part of a trilogy of plays, which soon afterward became the much-praised Broadway hit Falsettos.

New Theatre should be commended for a tidy production of Educating Rita, ACME for Prelude to A Kiss, Coconut Grove for The Substance of Fire (the first act, anyway -- no one from Tigertail to Times Square has been able to figure out what playwright Jon Robin Baitz was trying to do in the stagnant second act), and the Off-Broadway Theater for a lovely if corny rendition of The Immigrant.

And now -- fearless of retribution but still humble enough to remind you that the following is nothing more than an educated opinion -- I'll divulge, based on what I've seen in the past year, and in no particular order of excellence, the names of those theaters most likely to produce the real goods.

ACME and AREA Stage on the Beach prove, season after season, that drama as an art and a craft still thrives, no matter how impoverished the company or how small the venue. In these productions, the actors can act and the directors do more than move bodies around. The Theatre Club of The Palm Beaches, guided by the fine taste of Louis Tyrell, and the newly re-formed Drama Center at Deerfield Beach, benefiting mightily from the big league experience of artistic director David Spangler, are similar gold mines, and well worth the drive up I-95. All four rarely falter, and even when they do, there's always something meritorious, or simply creative, in their fare.

Less consistent, but still well worth checking out, are New Theatre in Coral Gables, and the Caldwell in Boca. When the Parker Playhouse hosts a true road show gem -- as it will in the coming season with Falsettos and Six Degrees of Separation (if you can stomach Marlo Thomas in the lead) no better and more comfortable house exists in the area, or in many other places in the country.

Glancing over everyone's promised new seasons, the highlights at this point appear to be A Few Good Men and Sight Unseen at the Caldwell; a host of interesting contemporary works by ACME, AREA and The Drama Center; Speed-the-Plow at New Theatre; and Falsettos, Six Degrees of Separation, and Keith Carradine in The Will Rogers Follies on the road show circuit (which includes the Parker Playhouse, The Broward Center, TOPA and the new Kravis Center in Palm Beach). Finally, you might want to witness Marriage Play by Edward Albee at The Coconut Grove Playhouse, just to see if both venue and playwright show any sign of getting back on an exciting dramatic track.

In sum, the season wasn't as bad as it could be, but still needs fewer hacks and more highlights if this area wants to be viewed in the same vein as Seattle or Minneapolis, for premiering significant regional theater. In that spirit, I urge you to support the gifted and shun the disabled because, as a newer, hipper population, it's time you separated caviar from old carp.

STAGE NOTES
They work, day into evening, a company of dedicated actors, directors, and support staff, sprucing up and literally reshaping an old Masonic temple at Tenth Street and Alton Road in Miami Beach. Through the sweat of rehab, they cling to a fierce optimism and an allegiance to quality theater, even in the face of possible extinction. As the ACME Acting Company prepares for its sixth season, its members hope the same rabbit's foot that worked in the beginning will click again; on October 23 they'll present Balm in Gilead, the great playwright Lanford Wilson's first full-length play, with a cast of more than twenty. It is the same piece, with the same director and six of the same cast members, as ACME's January 1987 production, which launched the company in Hialeah. Back then, with an unusual show and virtually no publicity, packed with talent and a new approach, they manufactured a hit.

Although Juan Cejas, ex-artistic director of ACME and director of Balm, maintains that "more than anything, it's important this is a good show," the facts of show business are that four weeks of nearly full houses are required to erase the company's deficit and to meet its comparatively modest yearly budget of $250,000. According to Cejas and artistic director Eric Fliss, due to the recession and hurricane-relief demands, local grant funds from such sources as the Dade Foundation have dropped, necessitating at least $100,000 in ticket sales for the season, which, Cejas and company quickly add, "is far from impossible." Indeed, when ACME was still at The Strand restaurant, with only 40 seats to fill, the company cleared $60,000 yearly. With this new 200-seat space, salvation remains possible, provided theatergoers spread the word and South Floridians rally to help the closest thing they have to a professional repertory company.

ACME has suffered more than its fair share of knocks recently, apart from last season's eviction when The Strand's buyers made room for the SoBe fashion set. One of the only companies to feature new playwrights, ACME had to cancel the final original play in its summer festival, after a long lag in getting power restored post-Andrew. Prior to the big wind, thousands of dollars worth of sound and light equipment was stolen. And if that isn't enough, they still need a downstairs tenant ("preferably another arts organization, a catering service, or even a day-care center," comments actress Ellen Rae Littman) to help meet the $6000-per-month rent.

Because Fliss and troupe believe that hurricane relief is necessary and don't resent having arts funds being earmarked for the needy, every actor and staff member in this cast is donating his or her time as a benefit for ACME itself. And they're betting on a fine horse: Balm, an electric, eccentric, and enthralling dramatic work certainly launched Wilson's grand career. Perhaps it can keep a true flagship of Dade County's theatrical fleet afloat, and pave the way for an exciting new season with more Equity actors, a balanced budget, and even the fiscal ability to build a funky bar where people can hang out after the show.

"We'll do it," Cejas assures Peter Paul de Leo, one of the original company members. "Look, you finished the elevator in just one night."

For more information and reservations call 531-2393.

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