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.

After that, I traveled across town to see an exercise in tedium written and performed by George Murphy with the pretentious title of Electra or the Birds of Death and the Mongoloid Troubadour. Never one to judge a play by its name, I gave the piece an hour but exited midway through, since 60 minutes turned out to be all the torture I could endure. Murphy offered a dull, rambling monologue about his tragic hometown in Massachusetts where children blow up their families with the gun powder from toy trains, planes crash in rivers, girls fall under the wheels of trucks -- and all this during two weeks of one summer. Yet in spite of all the gory details, you never lost the sensation that you were listening to one of those incredibly boring people tell you a pointless story in infinite detail. If this happens in a bar, you can always get up and leave. After Murphy's twentieth digression about lightning storms and birds, I decided the same rules should hold for the theater.

Not everything was a new work. A contemporary one worth reviving with the right actor, Eric Bogosian's Sex, Drugs, Rock 'n' Roll, was brilliantly performed by 1974 Obie Award-winner, Frank Speiser, who wrote the off-Broadway hit The World of Lenny Bruce. Flipping swiftly from one to another of Bogosian's obnoxious but pathetic characters, Speiser believably created two emotionally damaged bag men, an egomaniacal rock star, a Donald Trump-like yuppie scum and a hopelessly dumb Brooklyn slob.

Yes, there was real excellence at this festival in both writing and acting.
Yet the most interesting piece was not the best constructed but the most daring and original. West Coast playwright Bill Svanoe (best known for writing the song "Walk Right In" for his group, the Rooftop Singers) and his wife, director Joan Darling (a four-time Emmy nominee, for such TV shows as Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show) mounted a truly experimental work called Trader Jack and the Stinger. Loosely based on the true experience of writer Norman Mailer when he unfortunately got writer/killer Jack Henry Abbott (The Belly of the Beast) sprung from jail -- Abbott subsequently killed again -- this script concerns a has-been bright light of literature, Jack Smith, now relegated to teaching the craft of writing. Jack discovers a raw talent in rapist-murderer Chip, also known as the Stinger, arranges for parole and brings Chip to live with him and his estranged and brittle wife Pat. The Stinger needs Jack to make him rich and famous; Jack intends to use the Stinger to thrust him back into the limelight.

In this bizarre blend of drama and black comedy, two other unique characters show up at the Smith house: Chip's prison pen pal, the foul-mouthed blonde Sheya, and a nightmarish TV tabloid hostess, Janice. Spouting witty dialogue and never committing a trite act, the characters are nevertheless completely artificial and affected, but intentionally so; they are perfect representations of today's phony, violent world filled with intellectual cynics and fame-seekers.

Svanoe subtly builds a nicely dramatic plot, peopled with forceful, intelligent male and female characters, who bond out of mutual respect. "Stinger's supposed to fuck my brains out," says Sheya. "That shouldn't take long," responds Pat.

Although the mixture of suspense, comedy, drama, and absurdity didn't always work, there's something brilliant about Trader Jack, which probably needs a few more polishes to really shine. Svanoe has experimented with drama in the right way by mirroring his times, rather than dishing out incomprehensible avant-garde trash. His characters have long tossed away innocence, romance, and civility. They use their brains and tongues to dominate others, feed their egos, and obtain what they want. Because of this, Trader Jack reminded me more of the current social landscape than any other play I've seen recently. The production also benefitted from a highly skilled cast of professional L.A. actors, particularly showcasing the talents of the cool Janice Lynde as Pat and the ultra-perky Carra Roberson as Sheya.

Festival organizers Nancy Holtkamp and Charles Munroe deserve a standing ovation for bringing such a complex event to fruition. One key reason for their success is their use of 61 skilled volunteer dramaturgs based throughout the country to review 1100 submitted works. The producers didn't always manage to present quality, but they did take a gamble that demonstrated true dedication to the art of theater and in many cases, provided excellent entertainment. Perhaps some producers from Dade and Broward County should contemplate a visit to Key West to see Charles and Nancy. Then they might find out how to properly execute a new play festival instead of making rare, feeble attempts to mount one.

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