By Monique Jones
By Travis Cohen
By Liz Tracy
By Terrence McCoy
By Morgan Golumbuk
By Ciara LaVelle
By Carolina del Busto
By Michael E. Miller
Bar trivia: What Miami watering hole boasts a bed center stage instead of a band? Forget the prissy canopies of South Beach. We're talking stained Sealy Posturepedic sans headboard or box spring, an amplifier and mike in one corner, with Sears catalog, crusty take-out boxes, and empty bottles of Jack Daniel's strewn about. Climb the stairs of Miami's oldest bar, Tobacco Road, and you'll find a place to rest for the weary and, more recently, theater for the adventurous. The Road's second-floor stage has always been a hit-or-miss, catch-all performance space. Case in point: The longstanding Butterfly Lightning Series has gone through wild mood swings, from packed houses cheering on promising local wordsmiths to painfully silent readings consisting of one poet, three friends, and someone who got lost looking for the bathroom.
It's Monday night after the long Fourth of July weekend, and the plastic chairs are set up in Tobacco Road's multipurpose second-floor space. A couple of mattresses and the aforementioned miscellany litter the stage, creating a ransacked-motel-room effect. There are a few people here and there, but the house is virtually empty. Undaunted, costume designer and Trap Door Theatre producer Meredith Lasher bounces up to center stage, enthusiastically announcing the evening's program. She talks a little about Trap Door Theatre's guerrilla-style approach: It's all hands-on, grassroots, low-budget, do-it-yourself theater, fueled by high-spirited young actors/students with insane levels of enthusiasm. I fear I'm in for one of those well-intentioned but excruciatingly long nights of community theater. Then Yvonne Gougelet and Gregg Weiner hit the stage as Cavale and Slim in Sam Shepard's classic one-act Cowboy Mouth. Two hours go by, and I've forgotten that our current president is the first Western leader to go to South Africa and not have a meeting with Nelson Mandela. I forget that despite winning the war, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and weapons of mass destruction have not been found and that American soldiers are getting popped off at close range while they wait in line to buy sodas in Baghdad. I even forget that I'm eight months pregnant and that every five minutes or so, there's a foot ramming against the inside of my rib cage. In other words, I've been transported. Good theater does that sometimes, and this is damn good theater.
Director Stuart Meltzer has selected two groundbreaking one-acts from the late Sixties and early Seventies that thwart, warp, dismantle, and defile the concept of love to exhilarating theatrical extremes. The evening, called both "Tied Up" and "Hate and Love," features Cowboy Mouthand Terrance McNally's Sweet Eros. While it's a testament to what young, energetic thespians can pull off on a less-than-a-shoestring budget (the owner of Churchill's Hideaway lent the actors $250 to pay for the rights to perform the plays), it is a more important reminder that in the scheme of things, the universal truth of theater is simple: Good acting, writing, and direction make for good theater -- no matter where it takes place, how the word gets out, or how many seats get filled.
Gougelet and Weiner, current and former New World School of the Arts students respectively, have managed to redefine the roles of Shepard's Cavale and Slim. This is no small feat, considering the characters are thinly veiled renderings of Shepard himself and Patti Smith, who over the course of several sleepless days and nights fashioned the play while holed up in a Manhattan hotel. The director and actors have wisely not tried to create raven-haired, drugged-out Shepard and Smith lookalikes, making this 32-year-old one-act surprisingly seamless and timeless. Cavale has kidnapped Slim with an old .45 and wants to make him into a rock and roll star/savior. Slim's wife and child have left him, and he alternates between falling under Cavale's spell and realizing that nothing good can come from this manic union. While Slim clearly symbolizes the archetypal, doomed-from-the-start American hero, Cavale becomes both messiah and pariah of this drama. Gougelet's raw, gut-level portrayal of Cavale makes her both a white-trash femme fatale and an endearing lost soul.
Weiner, just back from a successful stint working off-Broadway and on soaps and network television, is no doppelgänger of Slim either. He's a big strapping boy with a shaved head (a far cry from the dark-haired, wiry, junkie look that the role was originally designed for), but it's that same strong persona that affixes him to Cavale's mania, creating an exhilarating roller-coaster effect. Weiner is hilarious and surprisingly sobering as the reluctant rock star/messiah. His moments of lucidity anchor the play and underscore Shepard's talent for spinning incredibly genuine and complex characters from unbelievably absurd situations. Throw in the dark humor and grotesque satire and you've got a cinematic modern-day Romeo and Juliet.Think Juliette Lewis and Brad Pitt in Kalifornia or Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage in Wild at Heart. Thanks to Shepard's script and Meltzer's direction, it's even better as far as depth of character goes.
Meltzer is obviously a director who doesn't "direct." He's a sort of co-actor, a director who plumbs the gut level with his actors, prompting their characters to unfold. He also knows when and how to step back and help the piece take shape. His pacing of the actors helps Gougelet and Weiner sustain almost an hour of drama, dark humor, and absurdity without crumbling into pure oblivion or hyperbole.