Theater has long been praised for holding "the mirror up to nature" to reveal reality through the artifice of performance. Yet, remarkably, our post 9/11 reality -- filled with threat, fear, war, blundering, and duplicity -- took quite a while to filter into new plays. Now, a somber, deeply pessimistic pall has settled on American stages. The subjects of the 1990s -- sharp-edged sex comedies and yuppie relationship dramas -- have been replaced with plays about politics and ideology. The 21st-century stage is now awash with something akin to 1940s noir: a sense of dread, futility, and dark forces at work. All three play prominently in producer/playwright Jim Tommaney's Air, Fire, Water, now in production by Tommaney's Edge Theatre. This trio of one-act plays ranges widely in subject matter, but they are linked by a central theme of foreboding. The articulate Tommaney has written a number of interesting scripts in the past -- his vivid description of death squads in the slums of Rio in Couturier resonates two years after it was produced. But Tommaney the writer has often been stymied by clumsy staging from Tommaney the director and by threadbare production values without imagination. As usual, this production continues the tradition of zero set and lighting design. Fortunately, this time out, Edge collaborated with veteran actor/director Mitchell Carrey, who brings the experience of his long professional career to guide Edge's tyro actors.
Air (The Galileo Prize), the opening playlet, is a simple tale about a tweedy intellectual who is asked to give a commencement speech for his daughter's graduating class at Yale. Instead of his prepared text, the intellectual goes off on a blistering critique of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. Afterward, two shadowy government agents take him aside to question him. These spooks don't make direct threats; they don't have to. They just let him know that they have been tailing the egghead's daughter and that they know he will do the right thing by keeping his mouth shut from now on. Tommaney's pointed political stance is a lot more effective than John Kerry will ever be -- but the Kafka-esque interrogation feels uninspired. And while Carrey drives the snappy dialogue at a Ping Pong pace, the actors seem stiff. As of opening weekend, they hadn't found their groove.
The second selection, Fire (Breakthrough), is another routine idea, as an agitated psychiatric patient holds his shrink hostage while he rants about his sexual molestation as a child. But the third selection, Water (Cassie), is a solid success, an intriguing, chilling tale that's well-staged and well-acted. In a South Beach apartment, a young woman, Cassie, shares some wine with her hunky lover, Jack. Cassie is complicated, subtle, and mysterious. Jack is straightforward, simple, and open. Jack wants to buy some tickets to an upcoming lottery; Cassie balks, apparently for ethical reasons. Jack is curious; Cassie finally confides that she can see the future, including the winning numbers. While this seems a sudden asset, Cassie has a darker secret: knowledge of impending apocalypse. Unlike most of the evening's other characters, Cassie's modern-day Cassandra is a fully realized character and given a vivid, engaging performance by Kirsten Upchurch, while newcomer Ross Pivec shows promise as easy-going Jack. When Cassie finally reveals the doom she foresees in an extended monologue, Upchurch really delivers with passion and vocal precision, a moment that echoes the full-throated fury of ancient Greek tragedy. Tommaney should consider expanding Water (Cassie) as a full-length play while other theaters should take a close look at Upchurch.
While Edge soldiers on producing bare-bones shows, a number of larger, more ambitious companies have folded. Along with the venerable Hollywood Playhouse, this year's list includes Dreamers Theatre in Coral Gables, On the Boards in Dania Beach, and the Juggerknot Theatre in Miami. This has generated a flurry of e-mails from and to local theater pros offering postmortems. Since any number of causes might be cited -- recession, war, mismanagement and poor marketing, fierce competition for audiences -- there's no simple explanation for the trend.
In the case of the Hollywood Playhouse, though, there's a historical trajectory that seems to have led to its current plight. During most of the Playhouse's long life, it was a community theater, springing from a tradition that is almost extinct in South Florida. Community theaters were created for dues-paying amateurs, with compensation for putting on shows coming in the form of enjoyment, not money. Still popular in the Midwest, community theaters exist for the fun of it; they're places where bankers, bakers, and sales reps can get a kick out of acting, designing, or crewing a show that's being put on for friends and neighbors. Community theaters foster social cohesion and neighborliness, and the dramatic product is really a byproduct. The shows are rarely top-rank, but the love of theater (and the habit of theater-going) is fostered, and large-cast chestnuts, often too expensive for the pro troupes, can be produced.
While local show-biz pros have focused on the publicity and marketing weaknesses of recently deceased theaters, perhaps more attention should go into long-range audience development, not from persuasion but from participation. When arts are cut back in the schools, young people have fewer chances to participate in theater, music, and dance, and they become more likely to view these as just more entertainment products to consume when they grow up. The real solution to audience development for professional arts organizations may lie not in slicker marketing or better management but in the old-fashioned, community-building amateurism of community theaters. Bring back the good, old, school play.
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