By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
Most of the theater productions I've seen in South Florida over the years, from Palm Beach to South Dade, can be classified as "pleasant." Bearable to sit through, they didn't offend, irritate, or prompt me to leave during intermission. They proffered moments of dramatic tension, provided the occasional insight, featured a solid performance or two. Yet they didn't knock me out or even remotely rock my world. In fact, were I not required to write a review the next morning, I would have forgotten about them by the time I got home.
Most of the shows I sat through this past season were no exception. To be fair, the community did serve up a portion of indelible events -- evenings that made my head spin or my heart break; evenings that kept me up until dawn because I couldn't shake the image of a gesture, the echo of dialogue, the pleasure of a well-timed joke; evenings that reinforced my belief in the transforming power of live performance. Carousel, Death of a Salesman, Endgame, Hysteria, All in the Timing, Passage, and the newly minted City Theatre company's marathon of one-acts, Summer Shorts, come to mind. Similarly, performances by local actors Matthew Wright, Kim Cozort, Paul Tei, Scott Buckley, Sloane Shelton, James Samuel Randolph, and Barbara Sloan were particularly moving.
Unfortunately, substantive scripts, drop-dead production values, and directors who bring an inventive and sustained vision to their work were not the norm during the last twelve months. Yet, in some respects 1995-96 still turned out to be a banner year for South Florida theater, for three reasons: a sheer abundance of shows, a commitment by artistic directors to produce previously unstaged work, and heavyweights in the national theater world taking notice of local productions as never before.
The past season appeared to be propelled by almost round-the-clock programming, one-person shows, world premieres, gay-themed dramas, war-horse musicals: Almost every week, it seemed, from the kick-off of the Broadway series last October through "high" season (January to the end of April), a production debuted. In May, the first of the notoriously sluggish summer-season months, the pace did not let up, and a prodigious number of plays opened through Labor Day weekend.
A combination of factors contributes to this, from a young generation of theater addicts staying in the area to launch their own companies to already established theaters extending their scheduling year-round. The community's mission, however, should they choose to accept it, is to produce a quality of work that rivals the quantity of work.
The season was also marked by a plethora of world premieres, penned by local as well as out-of-state playwrights. Virtually every artistic director in town reported reading through piles of scripts by regional and national writers; New Theatre, Area Stage, the Caldwell, and the Pope staged reading series featuring the most noteworthy examples of this work throughout the year. And a critical mass of local play-writing talent gathered together to help one another shape nascent material. Members of the Writers' Alliance and the Theater With Your Coffee? group met monthly to develop in-progress plays, some of which were produced through New Theatre's New Plays Project or during Summer Shorts.
Finally, the last twelve months drove home the fact that South Florida theater is not as isolated from major theater centers as it might once have been. With the region continuing to thrive as a vacation escape or to serve as a base for national entertainers, local companies cannot always ascertain who may be watching. The shadow side of such exposure was the Love! Valour! Compassion! brouhaha -- New York director Joe Mantello sat through a production at the Caldwell in Boca Raton and then sued the theater for using his ideas. A more encouraging occasion was the open audition for Les Miserables in Miami Beach, held by producer Richard Jay-Alexander, who was impressed with homegrown talent he'd seen on local stages. Lower-key scenarios involved actor Nathan Lane catching New Theatre's spin on L! V! C! two weeks ago, and David Mamet turning up at EDGE/Theatre on Miami Beach last spring to see a production of his Sexual Perversity in Chicago.
The 1996-97 season certainly seems as jam-packed as the previous one. It also picks up where the last one left off in terms of new plays. Almost every theater -- from the commercial Coconut Grove Playhouse to the less conventional Area Stage to the newly formed experimental venue The Next Stage -- has plans to debut first-time pieces. And, after years of vowing to develop new work, Actors' Playhouse hired actor-director George Contini as literary manager to help choose original scripts for presentation in the theater's New Play Reading Series.
Lest we forget the masters who inspire us, audiences will have the opportunity to steep themselves in the plays of Edward Albee, who has just been designated to receive a lifetime achievement honor from Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center on December 8. Between December and February, in a serendipitous display of parallel programming, the Broadway Series will bring us Albee's most recent work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Three Tall Women; Coconut Grove Playhouse will mount the playwright's most famous piece, the blistering Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; and the EDGE/Theatre will present Zoo Story , The American Dream , and Tiny Alice.