Go South, Young Ham

When people in the South Florida theater community protest that the area is mainly interested in developing new plays instead of producing tired old revivals, I listen politely but with cynicism. During the two years I've done this job, I can't even count the number of times I've heard this form of mendacity, as Tennessee Williams's Big Daddy would have called it. With all the yammering about the search for spanking new works, producers still run back to tried and true standards, and the few companies that do attempt to present original pieces -- such as the Ann White Theater and ACME -- generally select such poor examples they give the whole concept of theatrical experimentation a bad name.

Still, theater chiefs continue to insist that growth and risk-taking flower in abundance around here. And until last week I thought that was a lie of hyperbolic proportions. But now I've changed my mind. I just didn't realize how far down south in Florida I had to go to see the kind of new play event this area deserves.

In fact, it was to the land that houses the ghosts of such grand masters of the written word as Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams that I needed to travel. To the very southernmost tip of the East Coast, to Key West.

The second annual Key West Theatre Festival proved to be a revelation, a joy, and instilled in me great hope for the future of Florida culture. Through the course of twelve world premieres and two "special events," I witnessed good attempts, great attempts, attempts that needed work, and certainly some clunkers. But most of all, I saw authors experimenting with the form and taking risks, making literary choices that caused me to contemplate their merit. In other words, I got the chance to think after I left the theater, for a change.

There was, though, an underlying flaw that marred the event. Held in three local venues -- the cozy Red Barn Theatre, the Waterfront Playhouse, and the 400-seat state-of-the-art Tennessee Williams Fine Arts Center -- the festival should have contained more events to attend during the day. Still, the range and quantity of what was presented at nightfall more than made up for the empty afternoon hours (which did offer a weary critic some fine reading time poolside). Unfortunately, I could only stay for one of the two weeks and therefore missed several plays, a situation that could have been corrected with more matinees.

The festival opened on a mixed note, with a selection of short playlets that ranged from charming to awful. A dark comedic monologue called My Son Susie, expertly acted by J. Gregory Barton and written by Cheryl Royce, contained wry humor, skillful writing, and subtle commentary on the human condition. The story of an intelligent boy whose parents were both mentally retarded -- the son named "Susie" by his drooling mom -- explores the hypocrisies of religion and the depths of true love. A challenging topic well handled. Not so fine were the two sophomoric scribblings that followed: Into The Ditch by Phil Bond, a dreadful Christopher Durang-ish nonsense play about a perverse writing class; and Unanswered Persons, one of those "What the hell does this mean?" pseudo-smart series of skits in which characters constantly kill themselves or go mad just because life is so dreadful. The latter two offerings suffered not only from amateurish writing, but from the same level of acting as well.

Closing the first evening, however, was a rare and most unusual treat. Dakin Williams, Tennessee's brother, performed a rib-splitting parody of A Streetcar Named Desire with himself playing Blanche DuBois in full drag. Stanley and Stella stood on the stage silent, their backs to the audience, with only placards to identify them, while Dakin flitted around them, using his brother's famous fey but listless delivery, mercilessly paraphrasing Blanche to great comic effect. Wearing a drab pink housecoat and cheap platinum wig, he was particularly hilarious when he fended off Stanley's attempted rape by saying, "Hey, I've got this cruise coming up."

On the second night, a plate of rich comedic meat appeared with The Bed Plays A written by children's author and Key West resident Shel Silverstein A a series of eight scenes built around a bed as the central prop, much as A.R. Gurney structured a play around a dining room. Always inventive and constantly amusing, the scenarios ranged from a woman taunting her husband about his grammar, to a new bride forced to cope with her honey's eight-foot long penis, to a publicity-hungry director ordering an actor playing Hamlet to screw his mother Gertrude right on stage. It was the Freudian interpretation run straight into the ground. Although the cast of fourteen performed their challenging parts to perfection, Christopher J. Guilmet as a young man whose feminist girlfriend keeps interrupting his simple corny joke was a stand-out. I fervently hope a producer in Miami will both present The Bed Plays -- and hire Mr. Guilmet for this or other roles.

Night three went from the sublime to the ridiculous. Drama Critics Circle Award-winning playwright Rafael Lima's Parting Gestures starred Miami talents Beverly Besoner (Gertrude Stein and a Companion) and Robert Wolfe(PVT. Wars). This work again offered the promise of a potentially great piece, as long as some cutting is carefully done in the first fifteen minutes, thereby introducing dramatic action more quickly into the play. Primarily an emotional showdown between a son and his mother on the day of the father's funeral, the elegiac and elegant dialogue deals with the ephemeral nature of memory and the need for families to cing to a lie.

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