By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
Now that the holidays have been dispensed with, the South Florida theater scene kicks back into gear with a flurry of openings. No fewer than twenty new productions open this month, with another truckload of shows rolling up in February. Meanwhile several intriguing productions are finishing their runs. If you haven't done so already, catch two in particular: the devilishly funny Black Sheep at Florida Stage and the unique one-man show Art Metrano's Accidental Comedy at the Coconut Grove Playhouse's Encore Room.
Black Sheep is the second Lee Blessing play that Florida Stage has produced this season after opening with a weak staging of Thief River. But this time around Florida Stage has a spectacular hit, some of the best theater this area has seen in quite a while. Blessing's script takes gleeful aim at racial relations, the indolent rich, and insipid pop culture with a bravura theatricality that is a dazzling, welcome departure from his earlier, more traditional plays. The story has to do with a likable ex-con, Carl, who goes to visit his wealthy relatives whiling away their time in a lakeside estate. Carl (Brandon Morris), who was convicted of murdering his white half brother, is the family oddball, the son of a biracial marriage that caused a family scandal. Nevertheless he's welcomed with open arms by patriarch Nelson (Jonathan Bustle) and his wife, Serene (Angie Radosh), who plan to adopt him and help him start life anew. But Carl soon discovers his family has secret plans for him, as each member wants him to bump off the others to gain the family fortune.
Is this for real, or just something he's dreaming? Carl is not sure and neither are we as the story takes many a bizarre turn. This is a weird fun house of a play with a cast of deliciously droll characters, including Paul Tei as Max, the bratty family heir, and Caitlin Miller as his slinky, scheming girlfriend Elle.
Black Sheep is a very dry black comedy that guest director Michael Bigelow Dixon has staged as a phantasmagoric dream: Sense suddenly turns into nonsense, characters seem to appear and disappear again as the physical locations change and mutate. Dixon, the literary manager for the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, has an elegant, spare directing style and a strong visual sense. Victor Becker's all-white set, a seemingly endless array of panels and screens, is a marvelous, ever-shifting playing space, to which he adds a gorgeous lighting design. Lynda Peto's all-white costumes add a casual elegance, while the complex music and sound score by Michael Roth give a balance of playfulness and menace.
Carl is the straight man of the story, an ordinary guy who happens to have had a run of bad luck and the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Morris plays Carl in a deadpan manner that works well, though he seems a bit tentative as a leading man. Nevertheless he holds his own among the wild characters. Tei's Max is hilarious, a rich boy who has the emotional maturity of a four-year-old paired with an endlessly frustrated libido. Radosh as Serene manages a good balance, teetering between plausibility and a tongue-in-cheek absurdism.
Another worthy production is playing at the Coconut Grove Playhouse: Art Metrano's Accidental Comedy. Metrano, a veteran film and television actor, is a comedian whose life story isn't very funny: When he fell from the roof of his house, he broke his neck in six places and was completely paralyzed. His slow recovery and ultimate triumph is the subject of a remarkably entertaining one-man show.
Metrano's tale starts off with a video montage of his early career: his comedy act on the Tonight Show, his jokey performances in the Police Academy movies, and other clips. Then Metrano makes his entrance, in a wheelchair. Metrano is a born comic -- he's happy slinging out the old borscht-belt jokes that he interweaves with the darker story of his accident and his slow recovery. He talks about his early days as a Jewish boy in Brooklyn, with an abusive father and loving mother, his earlier brush with death when he was shot by an enraged parking attendant, and his relationship with his Waspy wife. Although Metrano is a funny guy, he's not particularly likable. His humor is coarse and crude, riddled with deplorable ethnic stereotypes and a general dyspepsia underneath the comic patter.
At first he appears to be hiding something. Even his acting style seems forced. Though he's telling the audience what really happened to him, it doesn't sound real; it feels like a performance. But as delicately staged by Joe Bologna, the show moves from razzle to honesty as the reality of what happened to Metrano slowly creeps into his performance. He describes a harrowing incident in which he's lying in a hospital bed, unable to move his arms or legs. A nurse carelessly closes the door to his room, leaving him alone in the darkness. Suddenly claustrophobic, he panics but can't move to ring the buzzer to call the nurse. It's at this point that Metrano's account becomes suddenly, vividly alive. Through his terror and vulnerability, Metrano the patient confronts his own despair, and Metrano the performer makes a profound connection with that feeling: It's an electric, brutally honest theatrical moment, and from that point the show takes on new meaning. He drops the smart-ass tough-guy pose, abandons the prison of victimhood, and begins looking for what's real and good about his life. By the end Metrano has found the courage to face the truth -- the good, the bad, and the ugly -- head on.