Cutting on the EDGE

Since its inception in May 1995, South Beach's intimate EDGE/Theatre has garnered a reputation for venturing where no other local small theater dares to tread. Tucked away on the top floor of an Espanola Way gallery, the company has resurrected, with varying degrees of success, neglected work by Tennessee Williams and a one-act by Harold Pinter, a playwright whose challenging pieces have not been produced locally for several seasons. It has produced scripts about porn stars and male hustlers and doesn't flinch at featuring nudity or simulated sex acts on-stage (all in the service of art, of course). The space also serves as a venue for local directors unaffiliated with other theaters, including Matt Glass, Roberto Prestigiacomo, Peter Zaragoza, and Kevin Dean, and for original works by local playwrights, including Glass, Prestigiacomo, and Jim Tommaney. (Tommaney happens to be artistic director of the theater, but hey, what's a little nepotism in a world persistently unfriendly to struggling artists?)

Foraying, as it has done before, into the realms of sex, power, loneliness, and the search for love, EDGE has lined up three one-act plays: Subway, a world premiere monologue by New York actor-writer Chuck McMahon, gives voice to a disaffected, possibly drug-addicted young man; Bondage, by nationally acclaimed playwright David Henry Hwang (whose latest work Golden Child has been earning favorable notices at New York's Public Theatre) investigates the relationship between a dominatrix and her client in an S&M parlor; and The Problem, an early offering by A.R. Gurney, Jr., the American theater's foremost chronicler of WASP ennui, delineates the elaborate games played by a bored married couple.

On paper, the presentation of this trio seems a compelling and quirky way to limn the mysteries of the human heart. In execution, however, the productions fail to satisfy. Although each one flares at isolated moments with energy and a modicum of insight, the evening as a whole is marred by Kevin Dean's unimaginative direction and a series of stilted performances devoid of nuance.

McMahon's 1995 Subway leads the pack. Anyone who has ridden the New York City transit system has encountered the character in this opening piece, or at least someone very much like him. Using a train ride as the framework for the monologue, McMahon introduces us to a disheveled street kid with nowhere to go, but plenty of attitude. Like many homeless public transportation riders with a story to tell but no listeners, this young man claims a subway car as his stage and regales passengers (in this case invisible ones) with philosophy, perceptions about humanity, and snippets of his personal life. While "audience members" on the real subway might chuckle quietly at a trenchant observation or two, they would probably change seats or bury their faces in newspapers so as not to encourage him. By shaping a street person's ramblings into an intelligible story and sustaining that story throughout a 100-block trip, McMahon forces us, in theory anyway, to listen to a sometimes funny but mostly sad tale told by someone we would otherwise tune out. But this uninspired production does very little to illuminate McMahon's material. As if we really were on a ride with a semicoherent passenger, we stop paying attention long before the end of the journey.

Actor Teo Castellanos certainly looks the part. Unshaven, with hollowed-out cheeks, sharp facial bones, and a glazed look in his eyes, he appears not to have eaten in days. Wearing a ratty bandanna and rumpled, baggy clothes, he convincingly mimes moving from strap to pole on a subway car and, for added effect, his leg shakes to the rhythm of the moving train. (Or are those the involuntary tremors of a junkie?) But he makes the big mistake of never, not once during the entire monologue, establishing eye contact with the audience. (Here the blame must also be placed at the feet of director Dean for not drawing the actor outside himself.) Since Castellanos makes no effort to connect with us, his internalized, self-involved characterization elicits more impatience than sympathy; ultimately, we simply don't care.

The next, and the most provocative, of the three, David Henry Hwang's Bondage, starts off with a compelling premise and the hint of engaging comic performances. Eventually, though, as the long-winded script overstates its points about ethnic and gender stereotyping, as the actors begin repeating themselves, and as the staging grows redundant, the production runs out of steam.

Bondage was commissioned by the Humana Festival at the Actors' Theater of Louisville in 1992. In the script Hwang, best known for the captivating, 1988 Tony Award-winning M. Butterfly, uses the ritualized, highly theatrical practices of sadomasochism to wrestle with themes that have concerned him in much of his work, including identity, sexuality, and immigrant assimilation into American culture. The action takes place in a bondage parlor, where a dominatrix named Terri (played by Lisa B., as she calls herself in the program) draws a salary by fulfilling her customers' fantasies. On this particular day, she and a client named Mark (Robert T.), both dressed in black leather from head to toe, including hoods, are role-playing different races: First, Terri is a blond WASP and Mark is an Asian man; next Terri pretends to be a tough-talking black woman while Mark becomes a liberal white dude; when Mark returns to playing an Asian guy, Terri counters him as an Asian woman. With each shift Hwang has the pair sling stereotypes at each other, driving home the idea of how ethnic labeling imprisons us: By pigeonholing, we keep our emotional distance and protect ourselves from ever getting close.

Lisa B. hits the ground running as Terri, wielding a riding crop and clad in a dominatrix's cat suit that fits like a second skin. She's brash, funny, self-assured, and dynamic to watch -- up to a point. Similar to the way that Hwang's script hammers us over the head with his multilayered metaphors about race and sex long after we've gotten the message, Lisa B. runs through an arsenal of gestures and stage struts, then winds herself up and does it all again. The script allows her to break out of dominatrix mode several times, particularly when shifting gears from one role to the next. Here she has the opportunity to deepen our understanding of Terri by providing a glimpse of the real person behind the "trained professional," as the woman describes herself. Unfortunately the actress opts for whining during these moments so that the Terri behind the mask seems more a spoiled adolescent than a working woman.

Like the good submissive that he portrays, Robert T. alternately cowers in the shadow of Terri's abuse or whines along with her. The actor does attempt to bring some dignity to the one-act's closing speeches, through which Hwang tries, unsuccessfully, to infuse the work with high-art purpose. But he can't seem to transcend Hwang's preachy writing.

At first the bondage outfits and masks work as a powerful metaphor for the fear of intimacy, but by the end the costumes morph into a distraction. As the show finally concludes with pretentious soliloquies about the coming millennium and self-important lines spoken by Mark, such as "Inside this costume lives the experiences of all the ethnic races that haven't been born yet," I found myself going AWOL, interested more in how Lisa B. and Robert T. were keeping themselves from suffocating inside those hoods than by the actual resolution of the work.

To wrap up the night, EDGE resurrects a 1970 set piece by A.R. Gurney, Jr., that, at least in the way it is directed and acted, seems just one rung above the Love, American Style television humor of that era. The Problem opens with a wife (Natasha Tsakos) telling her husband (Castellanos) that she is pregnant. Since the couple has not made love in three years, the announcement raises a few questions. Trying to explain and rationalize the situation, they contradict themselves; they try to top one another with ever more convoluted tales of infidelity. How far, Gurney seems to be wondering, will a suburban couple go to transcend their inhibitions when the love flame goes out on the Kenmore stove?

Dean's direction puts more of a campy spin on Gurney than the playwright usually receives, and this is not an entirely wrong-headed approach. In the long run, however, the insistently tongue-in-cheek portrayals he elicits from Tsakos and Castellanos dampen the sense that they are real people engaging in what, for them is, risky behavior.

To seal the fault line in their middle-class relationship, the husband and wife indulge in role playing and fantasy. In a nice bit of irony, Castellano's borderline-offensive imitation of a black man who the husband claims is the wife's lover recalls the stereotyping Hwang is attempting to skewer in Bondage. There's also a less satisfying connection between the two productions: As if echoing the acting in Bondage, the actors in The Problem are locked into an unvarying pattern of responding to one another without enough complexity to hold our interest. The results are one-note caricatures, lacking in subtlety and suggesting no comprehension of the intricacies of marriage.

In providing an outlet for local writers and directors, in hoisting world premiere scripts onto the stage, and in paying homage to the work of noncommercial authors, EDGE/Theatre's intentions are extremely admirable. But good intentions alone do not produce captivating theater, as evidenced by the company's disappointing current offerings.

The Subway.
Written by Chuck McMahon; with Teo Castellanos.

Bondage.
Written by David Henry Hwang; with Lisa B. and Robert T.

The Problem.
Written by A. R. Gurney, Jr.; with Teo Castellanos and Natasha Tsakos.

All directed by Kevin Dean.

January 3 through 19. For information call 531-6083 or see "Calendar Listings.

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