Live Performance Lives!

Naysayers have been tolling theater's death knell since the development of motion pictures more than a century ago. The sound has grown louder with each new technological threat to live performance, from television to VCR to CD-ROM to virtual reality. Audiences, the theater world bemoans, have also been lured away from the stage by sporting events, nightclubs, and concerts. Desperate to keep up with the speed, the flash, and the visceral immediacy of such competition, commercial theater has grown increasingly high tech. Consider the helicopter landing on-stage during Broadway's Miss Saigon, the swinging chandelier in The Phantom of the Opera, the house that cracks wide open during An Inspector Calls. We're talking theater as electronic spectacle, and, like the millions of others who flock to such extravaganzas, I relish my sojourns in such fantasy realms.

Every once in a while, however, I'm reminded that actually very little is required to produce affecting drama. "A man walks across this empty space whilst someone is watching him," declares acclaimed director Peter Brook in his indispensable 1969 text, The Empty Space, "and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged." On a bare-bones platform at ART-ACT in Miami's design district, Imazari (pronounced i-ma-za-ree) Theatrical Works amply proves Brook's maxim with a production of Michael Kearns's 1988 intimacies ... more intimacies.

A Los Angeles-based writer, Kearns has been creating, directing, producing, and acting in works about HIV and AIDS since 1984. In 1989 he won San Francisco's Bay Area Theatre Critics Award for Best Solo Performance for intimacies, which was originally written and performed by him as a one-person show. A bracing series of subtly crafted monologues, it offers an unsparing look at twelve characters, most of whom subsist on the margins of society and all of whom have AIDS. In the Imazari production, directed by Shelbric A. Fuller, three actors tackling four roles apiece rely on one or two props each -- a chair, a broom, a cigarette -- in order to flesh out these characters on an otherwise stark stage. (Intimacies is Imazari's fourth local production; a relatively new company, it began producing shows in different venues around town this past January.)

At first glance, a description of the characters in intimacies recalls a possible lineup of guests for a week on Ricki Lake: Meet Big Red, an incest survivor turned prostitute; Rusty, a teenage hustler addicted to crystal meth and hired to strip at a private party; Mike, an alcoholic redneck hemophiliac; and Father Anthony, a Catholic priest screwing his parishioners between confessions, to name a few. Don't make the mistake of linking their stories to the one-dimensional banality that marks the afternoon talk show circuit, however. Kearns wants us to get to know his survivors, hustlers, drugs addicts, and alcoholics very well; he doesn't use the word "intimacy" in the title of his show lightly.

With a musician's ear for rhythm and phrasing and a poet's eye for trenchant imagery, Kearns fashions these monologues so that audiences look closely into the hearts of folks most of us normally want to keep at arm's length. With hard-hitting, astringent street talk reminiscent of Charles Bukowski -- another Los Angeles writer who also trafficked in blunt images of sex, abuse, and disease -- Kearns makes us sit up and take notice. For all his crude, elemental detail, Kearns also writes with gritty lyricism like yet another Los Angeles-based poet of the dispossessed, singer/songwriter Tom Waits. Won over, we identify with characters who at first seem remote. As a result, AIDS is exposed as a disease that traverses sex, class, and color lines. And, as the characters grapple with their denial ("Getting AIDS in a steam room at the gym? No way. It's so clean in there," argues promiscuous valley boy Patrick), and their guilt ("This is my sin; I deserve to die," insists Mary, who had an incestuous relationship with her son and was then infected with HIV through a blood transfusion), we confront our own tendencies to sweep truth under the rug and our fears about sex and death.

No matter how well-written Kearns's monologues may be, intimacies would fail if a director did not elicit fully realized dramatic performances from his actors. For the most part, Fuller succeeds at this. Of the three actors, Barbara Austrich-Rivero appears the least self-assured on-stage; in places, her portrayals feel too premeditated. On the other hand, as Jesse, "a black broad with a tattoo," Austrich-Rivero comes through with some powerful moments. And her portrait of Deede, a middle-class white woman married to a closeted gay man, is heart-rendingly convincing.

Daniel Barr brings chilling certainty to his performance as Patrick, the valley boy convinced that he will live forever, and a mixture of sensuality and control to Fernando, a flamenco dancer who cannot accept his sexual orientation. As Phoenix, a homeless black junkie who lives under the Hollywood freeway, Barr is just plain hilarious, and endearing.

Scott Buckley kicks off the show with a grating, unfocused rendition of Denny, a former disco queen now suffering from AIDS-related dementia. This overeager opening didn't prepare me in the least for Buckley's stunningly accurate and understated turns as three other characters -- Rusty, the teenage hustler; Mike, the hemophiliac; and Paul, a deaf gay man. After-images of Buckley playing each of these men are still stamped in my mind, days later.

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