While I am genuinely thrilled by the growth in the number of small theater companies and theatrical experiments cropping up in the local scene over the past two years, I am also aware of certain demons that nascent groups may encounter no matter how hard they try to avoid them. At the helm of these evil influences is the multi-thorned spoiler -- a lack of money. If a company starts out with a meager budget and no loyal audience following (as most do), they find it hard to employ actors of any merit. Hence, they make the grievous error of hiring anyone who can memorize lines. This leads to poor reviews and a dismal word of mouth, resulting in scant attendance. Often the whole project folds before it even has the chance to show the area what it only could accomplish with more gifted personnel.
Unfortunately, this scenario is far more common in South Florida than in places such as New York and Los Angeles; in the latter two locations, excellent actors will work for next to nothing just to be seen, ideally by casting agents and directors. Since agents don't regularly attend the theater here, and most major shows are cast in New York and L.A. anyway, that incentive has been taken away. And the love of the art doesn't hold enough of an allure when the actor is reduced to eating nothing but cereal every day and driving a car that won't pass inspection any more.
So I am giving J.D. Steel the benefit of the doubt by blaming money shortages for his weak production of Manuel Puig's fascinating play, Under a Mantle of Stars. This surreal serio-comic fable by the gifted author of Kiss of the Spider Woman would be a challenge for the most experienced of performers. But Steel -- director of this piece and director of the Bridge Theater (now in a new home on Miami Beach) A makes a serious blunder by launching his season with a highly inexperienced cast, most of whom are scarcely fit to believably portray the simplest of characters and situations, let alone bring to life a complex tapestry such as this one.
When the play opens, the Master and Mistress of the House -- they are given no other names -- worry about their foster daughter's mental health. They recall the day, twenty years before, that her parents were killed in an automobile accident. The Master wonders aloud whether his Mistress had an affair with the girl's dead father, and if the girl's parents were en route to visit the Master and Mistress to discuss the issue, driving too fast and too carelessly. The Mistress denies everything, pledging eternal love for her wealthy husband.
Soon after this, the Daughter herself enters, speaking mournfully of a fiance named Eduardo who has left her for another woman. And all appears reasonably normal until an odd-looking man and woman, clad in old-fashioned clothes, arrive. They are identified by the playwright, again, in the broadest of terms: simply Visitor and Lady Visitor. The Master and Mistress believe these two are their dead friends returned from the grave, while the daughter believes they are Eduardo and his new girlfriend. Meanwhile, the intruders claim to be jewel thieves on the run from the police and a crime syndicate. But everyone may be lying.
If this sounds a bit confusing, it's meant to be. Puig's premise is that people see reality as they choose, and they can replace the loved ones they lose with careless ease. This theme is expressed perfectly by a story line in which everyone distorts the truth and assumes many identities. In spite of the almost hallucinatory dialogue and action, however, audiences will find it easy to follow the plot, which in spite of all its intricacies is highly entertaining.
J.D. Steel stages the piece well, and the set by Gary Douglas is very elegant and carefully crafted. As I mentioned, the singular but enormous problem with this production is the cast. With the exception of Kristina Rodriguez as the Daughter, who nicely embodies a manic, love-starved teenager, the rest of the players are so inept they are often difficult to watch. Particularly upsetting is Sophia Landau as the Mistress, who doesn't know what to do with her hands on stage. Consequently, she waves them about, folds them awkwardly over her chest, adjusts her hideous wig, but never once stands comfortably and naturally.
Needless to say, all the dark humor Puig intended here is lost by the flat renditions given by the company; I had to strain very hard to hear the excellence of the play, almost smothered by the cast's dead line readings. I admire J.D. Steel for bringing an interesting work of this nature by a Latin-American author to Miami, for presenting it in English, and for planning a season of similar, unusual plays by Latin writers. I just hope he gets enough cash, influence, and/or wisdom to hire more expert players to match his fine taste in drama. Putting Puig's skill as a writer in the hands of these amateurs is almost sacrilege.
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A far less disastrous effort is being made by the Mandalay Opera House (a traveling company next bound for New Orleans), performing in a very cramped space in the back garden of a Beach restaurant called El Barrio. There, amidst hanging vines and water-stained walls, they offer up a totally uninhibited rendition of Charles Ludlam's Medea. Ludlam, the famed creator of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in New York, left no dramatic icon unturned in this camp version of the Greek tragedy in which Jason (of Golden Fleece fame) is undone by his evil wife, who kills their children to avenge his adultery.
Ludlam's satire is a vast exaggeration of classic melodrama, and the results can often be hilarious, in a very silly sort of way. When a map of Greece falls from above the stage, complete with directions to Gloria Estefan's house, and Medea takes a shower but most of the water sprinkles on the audience, you know you're not in the Parthenon. Ryan Landry in the lead role of the hysterical femme fatale is a hoot, and his supporting cast, playing many roles (including a red-robed, Supremes-influenced Greek chorus) never falters. They manage to bravely head way over the top, just the way this ridiculous theater genre intended them to. Never once do they care what fools they are making of themselves, which is exactly what makes the effort so wonderful to watch. Especially adorable in female garb is Mario Silva as Consuela, the children's cha-cha teacher. Tristan DiVincenzo as Jason/King Creon and Walter McLean as the Nurse are simply perfect for this genre.
My only criticism concerns the size of the space, again dictated by the troupe's meager funds. The actors stand too close to the audience, too much water is spilled on your clothes, and when performers literally sit on your lap, that's pushing it. In short, it's a fun evening, but you have to be in that kind of mood. If you wouldn't be caught dead in the Warsaw Ballroom and you don't like Carol Burnett-type comedy, especially when performed by a rowdy band of transvestite-actors, I'd recommend you avoid Medea.
Before any new company launches its season or attempts an innovative production, a careful budget should be drawn up and discussed with seasoned theater professionals. Then the appropriate funds must be gathered from public and private sources. The tendency to perform a piece before it's ready to be seen, an appropriate space secured or the director can cast competent people must not be encouraged, since this kind of activity marks backward movement in South Florida's steadily evolving theater environment. You can't drive a car before it gets off the assembly line. Similarly, you shouldn't see a good play without certain essentials, such as a trained cast or a reasonably sized stage. Drama is a collaborative art in which it's all, or, unfortunately, it is nothing.