The Year in Revue

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.

Well before the Albee fest, however, you'll have time to shake out your glitter gowns and brush off your tuxedos for the Broadway Series opening. Linda Balgord as Norma Desmond arrives at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts for her closeup with Mr. DeMille in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical theater rendition of Billy Wilder's classic noir film Sunset Boulevard (September 29 through November 9). Another diva vehicle, slated for spring, is Terrence McNally's Master Class, although the actress playing Maria Callas has yet to be cast. The star-fueled series also includes Christopher Plummer in Barrymore and Mariette Hartley and Elliott Gould in Deathtrap.

Coconut Grove Playhouse opens its season in October with Jean Cocteau's Indiscretions, a decadent farce about a family's incestuous propensities. Fittingly, it stars Joan Van Ark and Linda Gray, actresses known for their roles in two of television's most infamous prime-time soaps, Knots Landing and Dallas. Also on tap: Palm Beach, a world premiere musical from composer Charles Strouse, of Bye Bye Birdie, Annie, and Applause fame.

Stephen Metcalfe's Strange Snow, the first play produced by the recently established Americas Theatre Group at the Florida Shakespeare Theatre, opens next week in the company's state-of-the-art space in the Biltmore Hotel. The group's diverse season includes the "Peanuts" musicals, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Snoopy, as well as Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra playing in repertory.

New Theatre's lineup, including contemporary offerings from Jon Robin Baitz and Tina Howe, will culminate next summer in Tony Kushner's immensely challenging two-part epic, Angels in America. Meanwhile, Actors' Playhouse inaugurates its second year at the Miracle Theater in the Gables with Big River, a 1985 musical based on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Miami Beach's Area Stage continues to enjoy success with Loretta Greco's Passage. With private investors showing an interest in funding a traveling production, artistic director John Rodaz hopes to mount the highly theatrical docudrama in Washington, D.C., and New York City later this year. Plans for subsequent shows at Area's Lincoln Road space include Nicholas Wright's intriguing Mrs. Klein and Nicky Silver's out-there Raised in Captivity. The EDGE/Theatre on Espanola Way offers an arresting mix, including parody (Cute Boys in Their Underpants), contemporary classics (the Albee pieces), and original work by artistic director Jim Tommaney. And on October 25 and 26, Miami Light Project hosts actor Danny Hoch at the Colony Theater in his Obie Award-winning one-man show, Some People, in which he hilariously morphs from one New York City character to another.

Back over the causeway in downtown Miami, the energetic company members of 3rd Street Black Box report ambitious plans to present Eric Bentley's adaption of Fernando de Rojas's Celestina, Maria Irene Fornes's Mud, and Caryl Churchill's latest work, The Skriker.

Having pioneered Miami's Design District as an outpost for art and theater last year, ART-ACT Production will be joined in the neighborhood by Imazari Theatrical Works and Akropolis Acting Company. ART-ACT continues to present irreverent pieces, including a Tennessee Williams parody, The Glass Mendacity, and Claudia Allen's Movie Queens, about gays and lesbians in Hollywood. Among Imazari's offerings are Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy and Mac Wellman's Seven Blowjobs, while Akropolis will produce three original dance theater pieces created by company members Ricky J. Martinez, Giovanni Luquini, and Jennylin Duany.

On Biscayne Boulevard and NE 71st Street, director Marta Garcia, actor Nancy Gomez, and performance artist Octavio Campos unveil The Next Stage, a performance arts space in which they will present interdisciplinary collaborations, beginning with October's ENATOWAP.

Just across the county line, Florida Playwrights' Theatre in Hollywood offers an array of off-Broadway revivals, including works by Charles Ludlam, William Luce, and Christopher Durang. Right next door, Hollywood Boulevard Theatre's blend of musicals and world premieres also includes Noel Coward's Hay Fever and Nell Dunn's cheeky Steaming, about six women hanging out in a Turkish bath. In the spring, Boca Raton's Caldwell Theatre will present the recent Broadway hit revival The Heiress. And, not surprisingly, Manalapan's world-class Pope Theatre plans a compelling year of piercingly written dramas and comedies, including Richard Dresser's Kafka-esque Below the Belt and Staci Swedeen's celebratory exploration of family life, Three Forks.

The South Florida theater scene has evolved since the days when Coconut Grove Playhouse and the Broadway Series were the only games in town. Now, a spectrum of programming -- from the traditional to the cutting-edge -- offers audiences broad dramatic perspectives. The challenge now is for the majority of the work to move from merely pleasant to sublime.

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