Lost in Space
Picture this: You have been invited to a party on a dark night in a strange neighborhood, and you have no idea how to get there. The host offers to meet you and lead the way. But he drives so fast, it's hard to keep up with him. He makes sudden turns without signaling, and soon you lose him -- and all sense of direction. That's the feeling you may get from Steven Mark Tenney's new play, Into The Mist: One Night, Two Motels. In its world premiere at the Dreamers Theatre, this sci-fi comedy is so difficult to follow, it quickly turns into a bewildering blur of multiple plots, concepts, and characters. Into the mist? Into the fog, more like.
Some things are clear: The story is set in the future and has to do with a film crew from Miami that has arrived on location at Niagara Falls, where androids are used as hotel check-in clerks. The producer wants to bring in a computer-game writer to rework the script, much to the dismay of the assistant director and the screenwriter -- who gets distracted by some kinky bondage with a bisexual staffer. Meanwhile two female aliens must land their malfunctioning spacecraft in the same vicinity, and figure that an auto repair shop named Star Car Auto Body probably can fix up their ailing starship. The commander also must contend with her vengeful ex-lover back on her planet while his android assistant secretly pines for her.
The confluence of aliens and Earthlings creates havoc for all concerned. A young married couple's anniversary gets upended when the husband starts channeling the thoughts and words of an alien. One of the film's stars finds himself locked into a frozen grin and can't speak. The assistant director is similarly possessed. The aliens battle over a power cube containing a magical stone. All of this is accompanied by an ever-present narrator, the Connectriss, a sort of onstage stage manager who accompanies the main story's dialogue in an endless stream of overlapping and sometimes simultaneous techno-speak jargon.
Follow that? I couldn't. Tenney appears to have thought very carefully about his themes and storylines. But neither he nor director Yolandi Hughes has given enough thought to textual clarity or focus. The play references the notion of parallel universes, cinematic narrative structure, and the "New York-Miami film axis" (whatever that is). Its themes revolve around the nature of love and the power of language, both technical and poetic. But more than that I can't tell you. The complex plotting involves twenty characters played by a cast of nine in a series of quick changes that fly by so quickly it's hard to identify who's playing what when. Events -- some slapstick humor, some seduction, some romance, and several movie-set conflicts -- appear to be resolved by play's end, but what it's all about is anybody's guess.
Despite the textual confusion, Hughes scores points with a nicely staged, visually inventive sci-fi world, well supported by wild lighting from Travis Neff and some whimsical costume designs from Taio Daraio. After its inaugural two-production season last year, Dreamers wisely has jettisoned its former strategy of complex, ponderous set designs, opting here for Michael Essad's looser black-box experimental look. This is mirrored by the acting ensemble, which plays this loosey-goosey script in a wild, broadly comedic style that's quite entertaining despite the impenetrable material.
The company provides some appealing performances. Joel Kolker does well as both a hard-boiled producer and a local yokel. Niki Fridh is terrific both as the alien commander done up in Norma Desmond headdresses and as her alter ego, Cineflex, the sexed-up movie staffer. Allan Forbes is very droll as Astin the goofy a.d., and Laverne Lewis turns in good work as the strange Connectriss and a tough-talking talent agent. Although Into The Mist is in desperate need of workshopping, Hughes, Tenney, and company can't be skewered for timidity: This is a bold, stylish experiment.
What's going on here? Experimentation is suddenly the focus of several theaters. Into The Mist with its film-future-android ideas echoes Comic Potential at Actors Playhouse; the use of an omnipresent stage manager recalls Mad Cat's Seventy Scenes of Halloween. All feature dynamic staging, deft acting ensembles, and problematic scripts. This is an encouraging trend but one that may well be short-lived, if box office receipts don't follow.
The coveted Carbonell Awards will be given out on November 18 at a formal, black-tie-optional gala at the Amaturo Theatre in the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. The Carbonells, South Florida's answer to the Tonys and Obies, are well regarded within the theater community but remain decidedly obscure to the public at large. Despite being professional producers, publicists, and critics, the Carbonells people haven't put much effort into educating the public on who or what they are. Part of this may be because of success: This is the 27th annual awards event. Thus its managers may think everyone who needs to know does know about them. They also seem rather touchy: When I poked mild fun at the Carbonells' mystery in a recent column ("Who are those guys?"), one insider e-mailed me a name to call for information and couldn't resist tweaking me back: "None of this is a secret."
Maybe not, but if I am in the dark about the Carbonells, you can bet the general public isn't much more enlightened, especially residents who haven't been here very long. Accordingly, here are some facts:
The annual awards honor excellence in South Florida professional theater. Originally founded by the South Florida Critics Circle (I don't know them either; I expect I'll get another e-mail about that), the awards became jointly administered by the Theatre League of South Florida in 1994. The Carbonells now are managed by their own board of trustees. A committee of volunteers votes on awards for acting, directing, design, and several other categories. The voting committee consists of critics from the Miami Herald, the Sun-Sentinel, the Palm Beach Post, and other publications, as well as arts administrators, writers, directors, and educators, all of whom are required to see a minimum of 35 productions among the many affiliated theater companies in the region.
The awards are named after Manuel Carbonell, the Cuban-born sculptor who created the original bronze and marble award in 1976. His gallery, Beaux Arts Collections, casts and donates the statuettes each season. Legendary Broadway director George Abbott (1887-1995), a long-time Miami Beach resident, lent his support to the Carbonells in the mid-1980s; his widow, Joy, continues to present the George Abbott Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts, the high point of the event. The Carbonells also sponsor visual arts, performing arts, and journalism scholarships. Since 1978 more than $100,000 in scholarships has been awarded to students in the tri-county area. Mystery solved.
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