See Me, Heal Me

Allow me to launch right into this commentary with no preamble, as my excitement can hardly be contained. The Miami Actor's Studio has managed to present a brand-spanking-new play -- Power in the Blood by Sarah E. Bewley, rightful winner of the 1992 State of Florida's Individual Artist's Grant for Playwriting -- and do so artfully, creatively, and in the best interests of the work itself, which, while not perfect, is pretty darn good for a new piece being performed around these parts.

Using the controversial subject of Pentecostal religious mania as her foundation, Ms. Bewley has crafted a creepy work about a traveling con artist/preacher named Ranger who goes to a small-town bar and happens upon a drunken slut who pours out the incredible tale of her "crazy" little half-brother, Ezekiel. It seems that whenever Zeke becomes upset, the palms of his hands, the tops of his feet, and the side of his body all gush blood, " la the wounds of Christ Himself.

Immediately Ranger sees the financial possibilities. Purchasing Zeke from his somewhat sadistic sister for a mere $300, he wins the boy's trust and convinces him that those blessed stigmata-tized hands are potent enough to heal the good folks at revival and tent meetings. Through the backward towns of Florida they go, hawking handkerchiefs dipped in Zeke's blood to the psychosomatically ill and the truly sick, for three bucks a pop. Ranger also persuades the boy angel to perform private prayer sessions in exchange for "love offerings" of $50 or more. Unaware of the payment plans, soon the well-meaning Zeke is attempting to cure every affliction from migraines to stomach cancer.

Ultimately, Ranger is rolling in dough, buying new suits and cars, literally living off the blood of Zeke, who meanwhile grows progressively weaker with each hanky he stains. Yet the boy, who had been an outcast in his hometown, is finally happy; a true believer in the power of Christ, he is sure he's fulfilling his mission in life.

But the punch in Power in the Blood comes not so much from the twisted tale of blind faith versus pure greed, good versus evil, than from the manner in which the story is told. In a single setting -- a seedy motel room meant to represent every room Zeke and Ranger inhabit while on the road -- the characters create different situations, locales, and events, and vividly recall past incidents through weighty narrative monologues and scenes packed with emotional confrontations. Bewley's inventive writing keeps the suspense intact throughout, avoids cliches such as sexually corrupt, Jimmy Swaggart-style evangelists, and fully fleshes out bizarre but ultimately believable folk. And the work is well served by Ilse Earl's subtle direction, which explores the subtext and meaning behind people's actions, rather than encouraging overacting and overemphasis on what could have deteriorated into scenes of true religious hysteria.

Ranger and Zeke display so many different facets to their personalities that the play would be strong had it been written with only these two characters. Ranger, it turns out, is not as tough as he would like to think he is, and Zeke communicates with the heavenly planes more than he lets on. Further adding to the tale's power are characters like Miss Blanchard, a devoted believer who follows Zeke and Ranger around like a holy roller Deadhead; Bobbie, a muckraking reporter who ends up adding a surprise twist to the tale; and Zeke's sister the slut, as vile as her brother is saintly.

Certainly, a large portion of the production's triumph belongs to a uniformly excellent cast. Dave Caprita (a DJ at Love 94) as Ranger projects cynicism, warmth, charisma, and class all at once, with a subdued but honest range of emotions. This fellow is fast becoming one of my favorite local actors. Scott Genn, a college sophomore at New World School of the Arts, builds the ideal Zeke, so young, innocent, and clean that he appears to have dropped down from another planet. The always reliable Sally Levin, who most recently lit up New Theatre's production of The Cocktail Hour, brings a perfect blend of flakiness and sincerity to the adoring Miss Blanchard, and Marilyn Gresch as the muckraker almost steals the show in several gut-wrenching moments. Only Pattea Carpenter as the sister seems curiously disconnected from the script, but her lack of timing and depth don't get in the way of the overall work.

Several houses around town bravely attempt to present new plays, but possibly because they lack a literary manager, they end up with amateurish, unfocused work. This time, however, Ilse Earl and the Miami Actor's Studio picked very wisely, proving that there's nothing more exciting than a newborn play wrapped in a well-woven blanket of talent. And although the piece possesses some minor hitches, including a melodramatic ending, as a whole it creates both a mood and meaning perfectly suited to the stage. With so many new playwrights settling for cheesy TV-type plots masquerading as theater, Ms. Bewley must be praised for preserving and conveying the impact of live theater.

Stage Notes
If you're old enough to remember the music of Cole Porter, or if you're simply a younger fan of the prolific writer, you could do worse than to stop in at the Shores Performing Arts Theater to see Ben Bagley's (a close friend of Porter's) The Decline and Fall of the Entire World As Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter. The show stars Paula Wayne -- once the toast of Broadway opposite Sammy Davis, Jr., in Golden Boy -- whose voice now suffers from a few rough edges, but whose skill in putting over a song has not wavered. Choreographer and director Clay James impressively guides seven local singers/dancers of varying talent to sell these charming old numbers. Particularly competent are Paul Mungo, who dances like Gregory Hines, and Wayne herself, who makes the most of "I Love Paris," and "The Tale of the Oyster." Weak links include Christie Mascoretto, who can dance but can't sing very well, and

Lise-Marie Thomas, who can sing but often goes so sharp that your ears ring. Nevertheless, Wayne in the lead shows the energy and talent that used to make up a Broadway headliner, before the days of listless pretenders like Keith Carradine (who phoned in his "star" turn in Will Rogers Follies).

The most recent play reading hosted by the new Miami Skyline theatre in its search for a new work to present in their first season -- the Broadway and West End of London shocker Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman -- was so well presented at New Theatre more than a week ago that it surpassed most full productions. Chaz Mena directed the reading, which displayed the talents of Rafael de Acha, Andrew Noble, and Holly Iglesias. De Acha in particular performed as well as, if not better than, I've ever seen him, in the role of a mysterious doctor in a Third World nation who may or may not have been a rapist and torturer during the prior oppressive government regime. The play delivers mighty meaty stuff; let's hope Skyline picks this one to present in full regalia at Gusman next year.

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