Alice In Dunderland

Admittedly, it's helpful of the Miami Herald to separate theater listings into "Professional/Equity," "Professional Non/Equity," "Community," "Dinner Theater," and "In Spanish" (as if Spanish is a show-business category), but such divisions mean nothing unless they are defined. As South Florida gains a more vital, arts-oriented population and more refugees from substandard films decide to give theater a whirl, an explanation needs to be made of the distinction between the major and minor leagues, straight up, with all the proper cautions. Here and now, I think, are as good a time and place as any.

"Professional/Equity" refers to a production composed of union (Actors Equity Association) staff, from the performers to the stage managers, folks who can earn decent money in the theater and who, for the most part, have received some semblance of training. This mark is not a guarantee of quality, to be sure, but at the very least the singers can be relied upon to sing most of the notes, the dancers rarely trip, and the actors have some semblance of diction. Coconut Grove Playhouse, for example, is an Equity house, but so are the "road houses," from TOPA to Kravis to Broward. The difference lies in the origin of the fare. Road houses produce almost nada, most of the time bestowing upon the audience lesser versions of Broadway pop-trash. The Grove Playhouse, which sometimes offers original works, perennially hopes the shows it premieres become Broadway pop-trash, most often written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and starring Michael Crawford. A sure-fire way to identify Equity theaters: the tickets usually cost more than the show is worth.

Community theater provides a cute neighborhood service by allowing people who probably should be bowling, barbecuing together, or baking cookies to fulfill a lifelong dream and appear on-stage, regardless of talent. As they range from horrendous to unintentionally hilarious to maybe-kind-of-okay, don't spend money on these unless you know someone in the cast or have nothing better to do (drinking several glasses of wine beforehand may put you in a suitably sardonic mood). These guys must be given credit, however, for getting up there and trying so hard, and the price is less than the movies. Besides, lately, community theater is more worth the dough.

I don't really want to expound on dinner theater, but you may want to go. In a nutshell, it's sometimes fair, musical to an unbearable level, and headlined by hard-core has-beens -- and I personally don't have the stomach to endure well-done roast beef with a side of songs from Oklahoma!. But if that scenario sounds attractive to you, give it a whirl. Who knows? You may encounter a "charming" production and a good bargain on chicken. Just don't expect breathtaking literature.

I refuse to segregate Spanish-language theater -- it should be grouped just as English-language productions, into the above categories. And if that is the case, most of it quite frankly plays like community theater, with some notable exceptions, particularly at the Hispanic Theater Festival.

Which leaves me with the final tricky term in this town: Professional/Non-Equity. I tackle this category last because attending such a show requires serious warnings. Literally a trick-or-treat affair, don't be fooled by that coyly used adjective, "professional." It simply boils down to one fact: community players don't receive any payment, but these actors do. On the other hand, "professional" compensation sometimes takes the form of free pizza and Cokes, or maybe five bucks a show. Granted that ACME Acting Company, New Theatre, and other groups under this heading present top-rate drama, there are also totally clueless troupes masquerading as "professionals." Some of these hacks, repeatedly defrauding audiences in this fashion, should be run out of town. Quality starts only with quality and goes up from there. Or, as the Queen in Alice in Wonderland succinctly states: "Sentence first, verdict afterward.... Off with her head!"

Off with the heads and out with the throats of everyone concerned with the repulsively outdated "feminist" revue A...My Name is Alice, currently at the New River Repertory Company and listed in the Herald as -- you guessed it -- a Professional/Non-Equity production. A perfect example of community theater disguised as skilled entertainment (or, as the British say, mutton dressed up as lamb), both the material and the production of such works compels me to use the word "bimbo" when referring to it. Unlike the Herald reviewer, who supposedly saw this third-class shtickfest several times, my visit was an introduction. Considering how badly it stank, I find it impossible to imagine the piece being redone -- over and over again, yet! I thank God for my mommy, my daddy, and the fact that I never saw it before.

Filled with sense-defying monologues and songs that supposedly address the "female" condition, this dreck was "written" by two zillion contributors with no common idea -- an epidemic that appears to be sweeping the film- and television-writing industry as well. As for the cast, go to your local community venue instead -- or better yet, do the dinner theater experience and tough out the old beef au jus. Inconceivable as it may seem, Alice -- a largely musical revue -- is performed by five women who can't sing. Actually, that's only partly true -- Stephanie McNeil and Angela Thomas have decent vocal chords, they just don't know how to move and use them at the same time. Then there's Vivianne Collins, Gracia (Jean) Gordon, and especially Jackie Newman, all of whom belt out such nauseating notes, I expected the coyotes to migrate from the hills of Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale. How can any hungry beast resist the wailing of the lost and wounded? Overacting, mugging, and standing frozen in place seems to be everyone's forte, particularly Newman, who ruminates the scenery with so much brim and spittle, with such verve and so little skill, I spotted splinters peeking out from between her front teeth.

Take off Carole Ries's head for direction, too, and Leslie McMillan Perez's for designing the set as a bunch of blocks with famous women's faces -- from Madonna to the Madonna -- which the actors carry on, off, and around the stage to no discernible dramatic purpose. A cleverly crafted simple set might have worked nicely, but when it came to talent and creativity, the cupboard was obviously bare. Ries's blunders include high school-caliber staging, casting amateurs, and using each element to the worst possible effect. One of the only effective bits in the show, "The Portrait," a melodic salute to a dead mother, is cremated by Newman, the hands-down Queen of the Flat Notes. Instead of letting McNeil's pipes do some justice to the one good song in the show, she gets pinned to the recurring "For Women Only" poems, one-joke monologues devoid of a punch line.

As for yuks, the performers' comic timing equals Pat Robertson's. If jokes ever existed in these milksoppy scenes, the ladies' lackluster presence dooms them completely. Sad to say, no one projects a pinch of charisma, but at the same time, none perform so badly you're rewarded with unintentional humor, even if you drank a whole bottle of Wild Turkey before the first act. The one chuckle eventually comes midway through the show: Hollie Berger's piano playing -- on an ancient instrument -- reminded me of my first-grade teacher pounding out those happy sing-alongs, like "Frere Jacques." I found myself longing for my blanket, milk, and cookies, but alas, they never came.

Alice herself put it nicely at one point in the play when, while picking her way through the woods, she proclaims, "At any rate, I'll never go there again -- it's the stupidest tea party I ever was at in all my life."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

A...MY NAME IS ALICE conceived by Joan Micklin Silver and Julianne Boyd, with contributions from 28 writers, directed by Carole Ries; with Vivianne Collins, Gracia (Jean) Gordon, Stephanie McNeil, Jackie Newman, and Angela Thomas. At The New River Repertory, 640 N Andrews Ave, Ft Lauderdale, through October 25. Performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm; Sundays 7:00 pm (and Sunday 2:00 pm on 10/25). Tickets cost $10. Call 523-0507.


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