Murder Most Foul

For sheer escapism and the shiver of vicarious thrills, nothing satisfies in quite the same way as a psychological thriller or an intricately plotted murder mystery. Unfortunately, if you've never experienced the pleasures of the genre, don't expect to be converted by the current production of Nick Hall's Dead Wrong, now playing at the Off Broadway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale.

Failed novelist Craig Blaisdell (Brian C. Smith) sneaks into his own house as the comedy-thriller opens, hauling a sack that may or may not contain body parts. Moments after he slinks upstairs, his wife, Peggy (Barbara Bradshaw), returns home with Allen (Robert Slacum), an escort hired to accompany her to dinner and the theater, because her husband travels so much and, even when he is home, he neglects her. Just as wife and gigolo grow amorous, hubby bounds downstairs and terrifies the two of them -- and the audience -- with a shotgun blast (a blank, of course). Blaisdell, it appears, has plans to commit the perfect murder, based on a convoluted plot he concocted in an unpublished manuscript. Yet his flawless crime does not necessarily include a dead body. Tell that to the bozos who think conventionally, however. Peggy and Det. Walter Scott (Peter Haig) search for a corpse anyway, as Blaisdell gleefully messes with their heads.

Trust me, this rip-off of more nimbly crafted predecessors works better as a written synopsis than as a two-act parody on stage. Hall lifts the wife-driven-crazy-by-her-husband theme from Patrick Hamilton's Gaslight, and the writer-plotting-the-murder-of-his-wife's-lover motif from Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth. He makes a stab at absurdity courtesy of Joseph Kesselring's Arsenic and Old Lace, and satire a la Tom Stoppard's Real Inspector Hound. Where each of this quartet of inspirations succeeds through a combination of crucial thriller ingredients -- compellingly wrought characters, mind-bending plots, an evocative sense of place, and a major dose of suspense -- Dead Wrong trots out stock characters, transparent plot twists, and predictable dialogue.

Director Brian C. Smith's sophomoric production drives home the script's limitations. Smith substitutes shock for suspense, relying on cheap shots such as gun blasts and blood smears to prod rather than grip the audience. And what passes for sexy is decidedly junior high: Blaisdell leers while thrusting his pelvis in and out in order to attract his wife, and Detective Scott, as he asks to see what's in the wooden chest in front of the sofa, stares blatantly at Peggy's bosom.

Smith's psycho-jerk performance as the spoiled, self-absorbed Blaisdell inspires more irritation than humor or terror. The remaining three actors, however, work hard at rendering their characters credible. Haig (in sunglasses, and looking remarkably like a subdued Hunter S. Thompson), despite the above-mentioned "chest" line, nicely understates the role of the shrewd detective. Slacum's sweet portrayal of the gigolo ready to move to the suburbs convinces completely. And Bradshaw redeems the evening somewhat with a classy turn as the trusting, nervous, neglected housewife with a trust fund; the actress's talents deserve a finer showcase than this.

Stage Notes
Imagine an errant culture vulture ambling into Miami on a whim. Chances are she'd snatch a copy of, say, New Times, from one of those numerous street boxes peppering the landscape, sit herself down in a cafe serving decaf cappuccino, peruse the what's-up listings for live theater, and not be disappointed. At any given moment in South Florida, someone's mounting a play, staging a dance production, or hosting a solo performer. However, our visitor would not find a generous helping of work by local artists. That's about to change. On Friday, June 2, and Saturday, June 3, Miami Light Project and South Florida Art Center will co-produce the first annual Here and Now Festival, an unprecedented event in Miami's performing arts community.

The Here and Now Festival grew out of a commitment shared by the two groups to nurture local artists. While the artist-centered, community-based South Florida Art Center boasts a track record of presenting local performances, director of programming Jenni Person has had to contend with a dearth of adequate performing space. While on the other hand, Miami Light Project has brought acclaimed dance, music, and theater artists from around the world to South Florida for the last six years, building a solid audience as well as a solid reputation for quality presentations, it hasn't sponsored artists living and working here. And as the project's executive director, Caren Rabbino, notes, "As long as people continue to bring in works from outside, Miami will not be perceived as a cultural center. Work has to originate here." Combining the professional virtuosity of Miami Light with the local thrust of the SFAC has resulted in Here and Now.

The festival presents the work of nine South Florida artists; the efforts showcased are the culmination of a ten-month workshop process during which each artist presented evolving performances to their peers. Once a month, the nine artists met (with either Person or Rabbino as a facilitator), observed each other's pieces, and provided critiques designed to move forward the creative process.

This methodology is based on two national models: Field Work, developed through the Field Project, a dance service organization based in New York City, and choreographer Liz Lerman's Critical Response Process. As Person notes, however, "applying set-in-stone structures from other communities" to the unique sensibility of Miami was not a goal. Instead, the facilitators encouraged the artists to reinvent the project. "We handed the group both [models'] guidelines and a blank piece of paper," Person explains. "They combined the parameters of each method into one and created a process using their own language." The results are an eclectic mix. Person points to the performances' accessibility, born of working artists laboring through a long-term process.

Hoping to define the role of the local artist in Miami's emerging performance community, Person and Rabbino plan to commission a new set of artists on a yearly basis. This season's performers include: Nefertiti Allen reading from her new book, a baseball story for children and adults; Jill Burton creating a ritual in the presence of the audience; Adrian Castro reading new poems; James Herring creating a sculptural piece and an encounter with the artist; Mark Holt presenting his film fragmented ideas: (a queer mind halfway through the aids crisis); Jennifer Kesler dancing her original Bridesmaid Blues; poet and hip-hop magazine publisher Cin D Quashie; playwright Rose Sher performing her one-woman play Renaissance Woman; and Helena Thevenot incorporating text and choreography in her dance piece En rituos.

Each night of the fest five artists will perform at B.A.R. Space, 1663 Lenox Ave., Miami Beach, at 7:00, and four artists will take the stage at Miami City Ballet studio, 905 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach, at 9:00. Festival passes cost ten dollars and are valid for both performances on both evenings. Call Miami Light project at 531-3747 for more information.

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