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Community theater comedy: Just the Funny and Confessions of a Jewish Shiksa

Frannie Sheridan keeps it in the family.

Whether your comedy taste involves straight-up slapstick with a side of sledge-hammered watermelon à la Gallagher or dark, clever, awkwardness spiked by silliness like Andy Kaufman's Foreign Man singing the Mighty Mouse theme, two community theaters in Coral Gables currently have performances sure to tickle (be it with a feather or cross-dressing lumberjack's hot pink boa) your funny bone.

Since landing a 275-seat theater in a Coral Gables strip mall, 22 year-old Area Stage Company has not only produced well-known plays such as Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret, it's taken pride in showcasing smaller, lesser-known works such as Confessions of a Jewish Shiksa... Dancing on Hitler's Grave!, a production by Canadian and South Florida resident Frannie Sheridan. On the other hand, Just the Funny Theater, a local improvisational and sketch comedy company tucked off McDonald Street on Coral Way, prides itself in being, well, funny. Launched in 1999, JTF not only puts on weekly on-the-spot shows, it also offers a class in the art of hilarity that has sent alums to New York's Upright Citizen's Brigade and Chicago's Second City.

In fact, Just the Funny was the first troupe to introduce South Florida to one of the windy city's greatest contributions to theater — long-form improv — when it staged How We First Met in 2003 to a packed house. The work called on real couples to tell their "how we first met" stories while an improv ensemble recreated pivotal story moments with improvised sketches and songs. Short form style involves the quick theater games you'd see on Whose Line Is it Anyway? or Nick Cannon's Wild ' N Out. Long form, on the other hand, is all about creating short scenes around a story, character, or theme.

Last weekend, during the theater's monthly Main Stage Show, the troupe's mainstays — Carlos Rivera, Johnny Cabrera, Maria Tomaino, Manny Catalino, and Michelle Domb — relished in the art form, creating an entire show based on anchovies, a random suggestion by a member of the audience. After expressing anything and everything they knew about the tiny, salty fish ("it's the cryptic ingredient in a Caesar salad," "it shines beautifully in the sun," "it's what douchebags order on their pizzas"), the cast created an hour-long show based on those utterances.

The resulting scenes included an elderly lady's adorably named stray cat (Princess Pumpernickel) killing another stray (Fluffy) over a single can of Fancy Feast and then slowly eating its victim alive on stage, and a mock Little Mermaid piece that saw Sebastian the crab (Carlos Rivera) singing a ditty off the top of his head about corporate Disney. Other hysterical, on-the-fly bits tackled Jersey Shore, the worst Flag Day ever, and eating your own boogers.

Each performer brought an individual strength to the stage: Rivera's quick, dry wit; Cabrera's chameleon characterizations and arsenal of impersonations; Tomaino's awkward, highly referential yet highbrow sense of humor; and Domb and Catalino's easy, carefree styles flecked with a fair share of darkness. Although the main-stagers don't emerge as one knee-slapping unit on a weekly basis, each is involved in a show every weekend. (Of the two shows every Friday and Saturday, the 9 p.m. show tends to be more PG. The 11 p.m. show is more PG13... or R.)

Past shows ranged from long-form shows (including a memorable hour-long fairytale about a crystal dildo), short-form shows that featured such crowd pleasers as the Love Machine and Jeopardy games, and a stand-up night headed by JTF performer Diane Garcia called Hilarious Bastards. There are also shows by improv groups formed at Just the Funny. Special in a Bad Way, for example, is a silly and often sexually charged ensemble that has been known to "shit on squirrels," perform drive-by dentistry, and take trips to Cupcake Land.

If defecating on cute, nut-hoarding critters seems a bit too twisted (or, okay, gross) for you, Confessions of a Jewish Shiksa... Dancing on Hitler's Grave! is likely more your speed. That's especially true if you're bringing children to the theater, happen to be Jewish (or belong to any culture that's been severely persecuted), and have always loved the play The Diary of Anne Frank but felt it was missing something — like a rubber chicken, whoopee cushion, or Hitler getting a pie in the face while Eva Braun slipped on a banana peel.

Such was the thinking of performer Frannie Sheridan when she sat down to pen her family's story in Confessions. Although the play is downright hokey and sprinkled with some genuine gut-busters every now and again (such as matzo balls as ornaments on a Christmas tree and an angel's halo mistaken for a bagel), it's spurred by a powerful and fascinating true story. Raised Catholic, 9-year-old Frannie's life turned upside down when her father let it slip that her family is actually Jewish. Because her dad narrowly escaped the Holocaust and was the victim of a horribly anti-Semitic act after fleeing to Canada, the Sheridans (or rather, the Sigals) regarded their ancestry as a dangerous secret. When Sheridan finds out the truth, comedy ensues. Sort of.

Sheridan decided to play all 18 different characters in the play — her parents, siblings, racist neighbors, the woman who owned the Chinese restaurant her family frequented, herself — creating a one-woman show that, ironically, sometimes felt too much like a one-woman show. Though some of the characters are delightful (her older sister Mary is a nerd who likes to create sculptures out of food) most are one-dimensional and slightly confusing due to Sheridan's limited range as a character actress. Both parents are played with the same German accent, and the only distinguishing characteristic is her father's hunched back. And though Sheridan switched profiles when she swapped from one parent to another during intimate conversations, it was unclear which parent was speaking at any given time. As for her impression of the Chinese restaurant owner, at first it seemed spot-on, but then it sailed into Mad TV's Ms. Swan territory... and then it started to sound like Margaret Cho's impression of her Korean mother. To make matters worse, when Sheridan tried to transform into the snotty French country club owner who rejected her father, her pan-Asian accent occasionally crept into her French one.

Still, her characterization of herself as a young girl seemed the most delusional. Naïve and saccharine as a sugar-loaded Shirley Temple, Sheridan sounded like an Amy Sedaris parody of an obnoxious little girl.

Although the true story behind Confessions is dramatic enough, and the play has an important message to impart about acceptance and tolerance, the script and production could use some tough love. Sheridan should write another draft, have it edited by someone she's not closely associated with, and think about employing a full cast of actors to portray the characters. That could make the final product less self-centered. If acceptance is the theme of this play, Sheridan may want to accept this friendly advice.


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