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A pink neon sculpture of a hooker beckons from just inside the glass front doors of ART-ACT, the gallery-cum-theater tucked into a corner of the Design District. A sprawling, eclectic space, ART-ACT features a coffee bar at the far end of one side of the huge room, while folding chairs face a stage on the other side. Brashly colored canvases cover the walls. Television sets have been lined up in anticipation of video installations. There's also a pool table, an oversize chess board, and an array of funky couches and seats. Part cafe, part exhibition space, part rumpus room, ART-ACT comes across as casual, cutting-edge, and welcoming, the perfect place to stage two scenes from Harvey Fierstein's The International Stud and a full-length one-act by Paul Selig called Terminal Bar A both sardonic, gritty comedies.
Informed theatergoers will recognize The International Stud as part of Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy, which originally consisted of three one-act plays staged at La Mama Experimental Theatre in New York City between 1978 and 1982. (Stud came first, followed by Fugue in a Nursery and Widows and Children First.) Presented in its entirety on Broadway in 1983, Torch Song was a significant production in gay-themed American theater. Offering a tart yet sympathetic portrait of a drag queen named Arnold who wanted, fought for, and found a spouse, a family, and a stable home, it raised the consciousness of straight audiences through a character who refused to denounce himself for being gay. When the play won two Tony and two Drama Desk awards, it seemed as if self-respecting homosexuality had gone mainstream.
Of course the American stage had played host to gay playwrights well before Fierstein arrived on the scene. Think of Tennessee Williams, whose treatment of homosexuality ranges from the thinly veiled to the heavily closeted. And writers such as Joe Cino and Charles Ludlam openly dramatized gay sensibilities beginning in the early Sixties, although their work played to small off-off Broadway audiences. Mart Crowley's infamous The Boys in the Band packed houses when it opened in New York in 1968 (and reached an even wider audience when it was made into a film two years later). But Boys, a product of its times, reinforced the perception that gay men hate themselves. Then came the Stonewall riots, the 1969 uprising by gay patrons of a New York bar who decided they weren't going to take any more abuse from cops who had raided their bar. The militant response of Stonewall inspired the gay liberation movement, and the concept of gay pride began to catch fire.
Torch Song reflected that pride. As much a product of the pre-AIDS era as Boys was a product of pre-Stonewall times, Torch Song nonetheless paved the way for unapologetically gay writers such as Larry Kramer and Tony Kushner, both of whom claimed the disease as primary subject matter. (Fierstein took a dramatic look at AIDS in 1987's Safe Sex, but that work never achieved Torch Song's acclaim.)
ART-ACT cofounder J.C. Carroll cleverly positions the pre-AIDS Stud as a prologue to Terminal Bar, a comic nightmare about three survivors in New York during the advanced stages of a plague. After the halcyon days of anonymous sex depicted in Stud comes the sobering reality of just how alarmingly sex has become linked to death. (Like Stud, Bar never mentions the words AIDS or HIV, but you'd have to be an ostrich not to recognize the references to the sexually transmitted disease that has left the city littered with corpses.)
The first scene in this production of Stud takes place on the telephone, with Arnold (Jeff Parker) desperately trying to hold on to his boyfriend Ed (the voice of Bo Hunk). But Ed, in an effort to squelch the truth about his sexuality, has thrown Arnold over for a woman. The next scene finds Arnold looking for love in all the wrong places; in the dark recesses of the backroom of a bar, he is screwed from behind by a stranger. Although Arnold never actually sees the guy, he tells him he's certain they're going to have a great relationship once they get to know each other. The audience never sees the man either; Parker, as Arnold, amusingly mimes the intentionally long and funny sex act while delivering a monologue in which he confuses getting laid with being in love. Not surprisingly, the "date" is out the door before Arnold finishes zipping up his pants. (Initially, Parker strikes a few too many awkward and affected notes to seem believable as Fierstein's sharp-tongued but good-hearted protaganist, yet he grows into the role, revealing Arnold as equal parts self-deprecating and wise.)
The backroom of a bar in the late Seventies segues into the front room of a bar in Paul Selig's vision of the future, and that vision is not pretty. We meet Holly (Patricia Merrill), delusional, alcoholic, and on the run from a marriage to a mortician in middle America, where people are dying as quickly as they are in the big city; Martinelle (Tara Parks), a prostitute in thrall to her fading looks who paints her nails while recalling her streetwalking glory days; and Dwane (Rafael Gonzales), a party boy from the suburbs who has been living among dead bodies in the bathroom of a club. As everyone around them succumbs to disease, the three characters converge in the tacky Terminal Bar in search of one last stab at salvation through connection to another person; then again, maybe they're merely looking for one last shot of booze, up for grabs from the bar's abandoned stash.
Written by the somewhat obscure Selig, Terminal Bar offers Merrill, Parks, and Gonzales an opportunity to deliver zany performances that skirt the border of camp. Gonzales plays teen queen Dwane, unfazed by the horrors he's seen, with quirky authenticity. As Martinelle, Parks brings to mind an AIDS-era Miss Adelaide from Guys and Dolls; the actress also roller-skates around the stage as a character she calls Miss Liberty, dressed in a chain-mail halter and brandishing a sparkler. And Merrill delivers a rivetingly dizzy comic performance as the manipulative, waiflike Holly, who remains tethered to Earth by the barest shred of sanity.
Rough-hewn and raunchy, both productions may prove unnerving to someone seeking slick production values and easy-to-digest story lines. And yet an unpolished, offbeat absurdism propels each, making them edgy, compelling, and worth a foray into the Design District to catch.
J.C. Carroll opened ART-ACT on Miami Beach in 1987 with partners Vince Mrazovich and Tom Vallette. "I was just getting out of college," Carroll recalls. "I had a lot of friends -- artists and actors -- and there was no place around then. [ART-ACT] provided a space for people who had a lot of talent but who had no place to exhibit or produce things, especially in an alternative vein."
In addition to producing multimedia events, the partners mounted the occasional conventional theater piece. "We did Forty Deuce by Alan Bowne, which is a play about male prostitution," Carroll remembers with a laugh. "And then we did A Midsummer Night's Dream just kind of to throw everybody off."
By 1991, however, Miami Beach was no longer a hospitable environment for such an untraditional venue. "Things got hard financially," Carroll explains. "Miami Beach was getting really hot. The coding board got very intense. It's just really hard running an alternative art and theater space. You get by sometimes on a prayer." So Carroll and Vallette headed for New York, Mrazovich to Spain. In New York, Carroll sought to be what she calls "a free agent. After running an organization and all that involves, I just wanted to be able to worry about myself for a while and explore my own acting and painting." She did set design, created mosaics, and performed at the Naked Angels Theatre Company.
This past fall during a visit to Miami, she produced a performance of Shakespeare's love sonnets outdoors on Lincoln Road. Friends had been urging her to return here and resurrect ART-ACT, but she had no intention of staying -- until she saw a particular storefront in the Design District. "It was really nice compared to New York, where everything's so cramped," she notes. "I have all these connections here. And the art and theater scene has grown. So I thought, 'Well, okay. I'll give it a shot.'" (Although no longer a codirector, original partner Mrazovich lends technical support to the new ART-ACT; Vallette still lives in New York.)
Plans for upcoming ART-ACT theater events include Claudia Allen's Movie Queens, about being gay and lesbian in old Hollywood, and a stage adaption of the screenplay from the Thirties film Reefer Madness.
Carroll thinks that Miami seems more receptive to art and theater now than it has in the past. But will increased interest keep a gallery and theater afloat? "I hope I can feel optimistic at the end of every month," she quips, "when the electric company is calling for payment.