Footlight Parade

Like the school year, vacations, and marriages, theater seasons kick off with anticipation, fueled by promises of pleasure, fulfillment, and growth and driven by unarticulated fantasies that, in theatrical terms, look like this: An inspired melange of classic, contemporary, and cutting-edge work with tickets priced at the cost of an afternoon movie. A smidgen of comforting realism. A pinch of truly great musical theater. A substantial dose of the new -- work that finds fresh ways to convey what's been hashed over before. A few visiting greats of the American stage to wow us with their immense, unflagging talents. Powerful acting by known performers whose work has deepened with each successive season, along with one or two dazzling newcomers, plus directors who press beyond the obvious.

As with the school year, vacations, and marriages, reality can be sobering. Too many theater seasons end up like this: Ho-hum interpretations of classic texts we can recite in our sleep; shopworn revivals; lite contemporary fare; television stars feeding our lust for celebrity proximity; actors who barely sniff at the possibility of their roles once they've memorized their lines; and directors who march their casts through tired staging and cliched emotions -- all for the price of, if we're lucky, four movies on a Saturday night.

How did last year in South Florida rate on the fantasy-reality scale? The season hosted its share of shining moments: Angels in America, Jelly's Last Jam, and Shlemiel the First in the touring arena; John Kelly's Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte and Mark Holt's F_agmented Ideas on the alternative end; and knockout performances by the likes of Margot Moreland, Allen Swift, Blaine Dunham, Sally Levin, John Felix, Walter Zukovski, Bill Hindman, and Todd Allen Durkin. But in truth, I wanted to go back to see only one show again and again: New World Rep's Faith Healer, with Andrew Noble, David Kwiat, and Cynthia Caquelin. As a result, I was rarely moved to examine my assumptions about life at the end of an evening, nor did I soar out of many theaters on an adrenaline high. Dare I fantasize about the coming year?

The 1995-96 season includes a lineup of the usual suspects: work by Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams; entertaining but safe plays by the likes of Israel Horovitz, Herb Gardner, A.R. Gurney, Wendy Wasserstein, and Neil Simon; the unrestrained male rage of David Mamet; and nostalgia pieces such as The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, and Mame. But two plays from this year's nineteenth annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville will grace our stages, as will Edward Albee's Three Tall Women and Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion!, direct from runs in New York. Expect to see the work of Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, masters of the enigmatic and oblique; challenging plays by Jane Martin, Jon Robin Baitz, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Romulus Linney; and several world premieres.

Whereas last year I had to be dragged to most Broadway Series events, this time around I'm downright psyched about the tangy offerings. On October 5, the indomitable Chita Rivera launches a smoking year at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts with a three-week run of Harold Prince's Kiss of the Spider Woman, a version of Argentine author Manuel Puig's novel that, amazingly, translated well to the dramatic stage and to film before winning nineteen Tony awards as a musical. My not-to-be-missed list includes the innovatively designed thriller An Inspector Calls, a haunting revival of Carousel, the Pointer Sisters in Ain't Misbehavin', The Who's Tommy, and the comic portrayal of a small Texas town in Greater Tuna.

With five companies active in Coral Gables, New Theatre artistic director Rafael de Acha considers the place "the theater destination." With any luck, one of the highlights of the entire year will be New Theatre's January production of Richard Kalinoski's staggering Beast on the Moon, the hit of this year's Humana Fest, about an Armenian immigrant and his mail-order bride living in Milwaukee in the 1920s and 1930s. Actors' Playhouse unveils a renovated Miracle Theater on the Gables's Miracle Mile during its November season opener, Man of la Mancha. Akropolis Acting Company, homeless since losing its Salzedo Avenue storefront, decided to rent space at El Carrusel Theatre, Teatro Avante's quarters on Alcazar Avenue. Because of high costs, the adventurous company will mount just three plays this season, and only for short runs: Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, about an obsessive fashion designer, opens October 5; Carl Sternheim's expressionistic social satire, Bloomers, opens in January; after that, The Corridor, by Jennylin Duany, plays in June. Teatro Avante features world premieres by Cuban playwright Joaquin Baquero and Cuban-American playwright Cesar Hernandez-Cant centsn, as well as Mario Ernesto Sanchez's Matecumbe: The Flight of a Pedro Pan. Florida Shakespeare Festival's fingers are crossed for opening Hamlet in their new Biltmore digs by the end of October, pending receipt of a permit of occupancy from Gables city officials.

The venerable Julie Harris and the impressive Eileen Brennan headline the cast of Coconut Grove Playhouse's November 14 season opener, Ladies in Retirement. In January, Hal Holbrook stars in Death of a Salesman, after which the production takes off for a national tour with a cast that includes up to seven roles cast locally. The Playhouse commemorates its 40th anniversary with a revival of Beckett's Waiting for Godot, which had its American premiere there on January 3, 1956. Edward Albee's stunning Three Tall Women closes out an infinitely more estimable season schedule than last year's listless one.

Understandably reluctant to commit to a yearlong schedule considering the survival odds of small theaters, the nascent Trap Door Theater (which claims downtown Miami's Tobacco Road as its home) plans to play it by ear, having opened two Israel Horovitz pieces earlier this week. In December the company hopes to produce Jane Martin's Talking With, which consists of five monologues by women.

Miami Beach's Area Stage Company starts a tantalizing contemporary season in November with a world premiere by Argentine playwright and journalist Mario Diament, who now lives in Miami. His Interview brings together a reporter and a past-her-prime movie star for a dark encounter. Also on tap are Pinter's The Birthday Party; Mrs. Klein, about German psychoanalyst Melanie Klein; Tony Kushner's adaption of Pierre Corneille's L'Ilusion; and another world premiere, Passage, about Cuban balseros, by former Miamian Loretta Greco. Also on the Beach, the Edge Theater will stage Tennessee Williams's Suddenly Last Summer beginning September 22, followed by Raymond Povod's La Puta Vida.

Florida Playwrights' Theatre in Hollywood opens next week with a play by the late Charles Ludlam, founder of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, followed by a solid mix of work by James McClure, Donald Margulies, Craig Lucas, and Eric Bogosian. Next door to FPT, Hollywood Boulevard Theatre bookends its lineup with Terrence McNally's Lips Together, Teeth Apart and Jon Robin Baitz's The Substance of Fire.

At first glance, Brian C. Smith's Off-Broadway Theatre seems to be pandering to the condo crowd, but October's King of the Kosher Grocers may pack some substance, with a young African American stepping in to modernize a grocery store when its Jewish proprietor gets sick. Slated for January, Herb Gardner's Conversations with My Father has been done to death, but Jonathan Tollins's Twilight of the Golds, about a couple who discovers, through prenatal genetic testing, that their son almost certainly is gay, may push some audience buttons; it opens in May. Farther north, the Caldwell Theater Company in Boca Raton inaugurates its year with Arthur Miller's adaption of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People. A guaranteed audience draw will be McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion!, this year's Tony Award winner for best play, a funny, seamlessly crafted, and very moving ensemble piece offering eight substantial male roles and a good deal of nudity. Manalapan's ever-inventive Pope Theater Company has announced three of its five scheduled plays, which include a world premiere by Gen LeRoy, Not Waving; Richard Dresser's Kafka-esque satire about the absurdity of corporate life, Below the Belt, which debuted at the Humana Festival; and Romulus Linney's unsparing exploration of Hermann Goering's trial at Nuremberg, entitled 2.

On the alternative performance front, Miami Light Project and Cultura del Lobo will co-present Mountains Made of Barking, a blend of dance, theater, and film from innovative Belgian choreographer Wim Vandekeybus and his company, Ultima Vez, at the Colony Theater on November 10-11. Also of note from Miami Light Project is Memory Tricks, a one-woman play by Marga Gomez, one of the original members of Culture Clash -- December 8-9 at the Colony. And in February, Cultura del Lobo brings us Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane -- "Still/Here"; Jones's powerful work about surviving with AIDS stirred up a critical controversy in New York last year.

On top of mind-boggling performances, expert production values, and visionary direction, my theater-going fantasy includes two seemingly pedestrian items: professional black-and-white photos provided to me in every press kit, instead of the hand-held, drugstore-printed, flash-bleached color snapshots I'm usually handed with my admission stub; and theater programs an audience can wrap its collective mind around, with ample information on the playwright and (what a concept!) some context for the production. Not by any means do all South Florida theaters dispense such paltry press and audience accoutrements, but those of you who do -- and you know who you are -- be advised, I'll be watching.


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