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If South Florida theaters were planets, Miami's Mad Cat would be off in a separate galaxy. The gritty, award-winning ensemble works out of a small performance space on lackluster Biscayne Boulevard, putting up shows that are unique to this region. They're mostly about ordinary South Floridians with basic problems of survival. Mad Cat's style is as distinctive as its substance. While other theaters present splashy shows with flashy sets and costumes, Mad Cat puts total focus on performance, with a consistently high level of acting quality. I don't know how this happens, but I'd bet that the main reason is Mad Cat's artistic director, Paul Tei, who, as an actor himself, understands the actor's process and puts that empathy to good use in show after show. Tei doesn't merely stage Mad Cat plays -- pushing the furniture around and setting lighting cues -- he directs the performances, beat by beat. The result never looks calculated -- there's a free, improvisational feel to Mad Cat's acting style, which often feels more like realistic movie acting than the more arch, formal theatricality found in other venues. The company's confidence pays off -- whether or not every show is a success, Mad Cat always delivers talent, skill, and heart.
All three are in fine form in Mad Cat's latest production, Artful Dodgers, a new play written by Tei that's a tale of addiction and self-deception among a group of hard-pressed young adults struggling to make ends meet. In a restaurant, a school guidance counselor, Joe (Joe Kimble), belts down a scotch while his estranged wife, Beatrice (Samara Siskind), tries to discuss their rocky relationship. Bea sees that Joe has a drinking problem, but he doesn't. Meanwhile, Joe's pal, Sebastian (Todd Allen Durkin), a habitual gambler, complains about his problems with his girlfriend, Gina (Ivonne Azurdia). Then there's Bill (Gregg Weiner), an auto mechanic, who compulsively spends his money in strip joints and has an eye for one dancer in particular, the statuesque Lona (Lorena Diaz).
On the night in question, all three men end up at a strip club where, sure enough, Bill manages to finagle a date with Lona while Sebastian must leave to cope with his bitter younger sister Bonnie (Claire Murray) who has gone back to drugs after three months' abstinence. Like past Mad Cat shows, Artful Dodgers plays out in a recognizable Miami, with frequent local references that are often the punch lines of jokes. Behind it is a keen social awareness and a palpable sense of young characters trying to sort out their lives in the dim light of a broken world. Money and family histories are constant subjects for these characters, all of whom -- a legal assistant, a mechanic, a counselor, a physical therapist -- are barely making ends meet.
The acting ensemble is excellent, a model for what ought to be the standard in South Florida. Each actor gets a chance to shine. As Beatrice and Joe, Siskind and Kimble set the tone immediately with fine, nuanced portraits of two people caught in a complicated web of love, panic, and insecurity. Durkin's hyperdefensive Sebastian is a high-energy act, deftly balancing hilarity and despair, while Azurdia clearly delineates Gina's push-me/pull-you inner struggle; Gina loves Sebastian's best side but knows she can't go on tolerating his self-destruction. As Bonnie, Sebastian's strung-out sister, Murray brings the high-voltage energy she brought to her role of a lethal goth grrrl in Mad Cat's Shoot of two years back, but now she adds considerable clarity and depth in an arresting performance. While all these characters struggle through difficult histories, the budding relationship between Bill and Lona adds some loopy poignancy. Bill's a horny fantasizer, while Lona's a single mom from Hialeah just trying to support her kid. This relationship could be played strictly for laughs, but Weiner and Diaz evoke a whole range of colorations, as this odd couple totters among humor, danger, sadness, and hope.
Using character relationships to create a sense of place and history, Tei is tight and effective with his direction. His script is less so. It's more of a character study than a dramatic structure, but it makes its thematic points, focusing on the illusions and excuses that people (men especially) use to avoid seeing themselves. Some of the scene work gets repetitive -- plainspeaking Bea lets Joe have a snootful of reality, then Gina does the same with Sebastian, who also gets some from Bonnie. And while the script sets up vivid characters and interlocking relationships, it doesn't take them anywhere conclusive. The final scene, a surprisingly sweet and optimistic turn after all the drunken sound and fury prior, offers hope and balance to Joe and Beatrice's marital woes. But the play doesn't end as much as it just stops. Still, Tei has a terrific ear for pungent, quick-paced dialogue and character rhythms. Artful Dodgers may not be Mad Cat's finest show ever, but it's fresh and funny and true and as good an excuse as any to watch this fine company get a workout. If you want to see the best acting ensemble in South Florida, get on down to Biscayne Boulevard right now. These Cats will be running for only a few more weeks.