Good things sneak up on you in Miami. Some days you'll discover that a scurvy-looking takeout window at the wrong end of the Design District is selling the best damn Cuban sandwich you've ever eaten. Some days you'll discover that the drug-addled geek who drew your portrait for a buck on Lincoln Road in 1997 has just sold an oil painting at Art Basel for a million dollars.
And for about three months out of the year, you'll be stunned to discover that the best theater in the state is not coming out of million-dollar venues like the Actors' Playhouse, Caldwell Theatre, Florida Stage, or even the Arsht and Broward performing arts centers, where dinosaur productions from Manhattan stomp across the stage under the banner of "Broadway Across America." During those special three months, the best theater in the state comes from a tiny room at 3000 Biscayne Blvd., where a man with a weird wardrobe, chronic bed-head, and a galaxy of holes in his face puts on spooky, funny productions that are inspired and intimate. That room is the Light Box, the man is Paul Tei, and the company is Mad Cat Theatre. And as near as I can tell, they cannot help but rock.
This is true even of their bad plays. Mr. Beast, a show about werewolves, was so chock full of pulp and groan-worthy lines that even the actors bitched about it. But last fall, no show rivaled it for sheer fun factor, and only dumb people failed to admire the way the cast paused to savor the script's cheesiest lines, milking the corn for all the graceless poetry it was worth. They were in on the joke, and it was a good one.
Written by Neil LaBute. Directed by Paul Tei. With Todd Allen Durkin, Erin Joy Schmidt, Asha Loring, Miriam Wiener, Pilar Uribe, and Sofie Citarella. Through March 15. Mad Cat Theatre at the Light Box, 3000 Biscayne Blvd, Miami; 305-576-6377, www.madcatcompany.com.
But give Mad Cat a great script and it's like being shotgunned through the looking glass into an alternate universe, where the teeth are all sharper and everything is dangerous. I do not know what Mad Cat does to make its shows so haunting, so full of creeping dread. All I know is that every time somebody opens a door during a Mad Cat show, I expect a corpse to come tumbling out.
To see what I mean, go see Neil LaBute's Some Girls, running there for the next three weeks. Some Girls isn't even supposed to be scary, at least not in the traditional sense. LaBute likes to horrify by creating characters so awful that we, the audience, feel soiled for just belonging to the same species. In the Company of Men featured two brutes conspiring to destroy a deaf girl, Fat Pig was about a guy dumping the woman he loves because of his co-worker's rude comments about her weight, and The Shape of Things depicted a girl ruining a boy's life for no reason at all.
Some Girls is a surprisingly similar story. It follows a guy named Guy, played by Todd Allen Durkin, as he struggles to make amends to the many girls he's wronged. He'll soon be married, he explains, and he wants to get some kind of perspective, settle some scores, and make some peace.
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He's not weird for wanting this. Every Guy carries around guilt over long-gone romantic fuckups. Most beds are battlegrounds, and so at first it's a little difficult to feel bad for the first of Guy's victims to arrive onstage. That's Erin Joy Schmidt's Sam, and you'd hate her if she weren't so obviously having trouble holding herself together. She speaks like an annoyed but resolutely professional customer service rep, and only when she finally admits she'd half-believed Guy had traveled across the country just to run away with her do we get a sense of how badly he must have fucked with her head.
As girl follows girl through bland hotel rooms across the nation — Asha Loring's hypersensual Tyler, for whom sex is both weapon and refuge; Miriam Wiener's Reggie, whose terrifying shared history with Guy is made all the worse by her lack of rancor; Pilar Uribe's older-and-wiser Lindsay; Sofie Citarella's girl-that-got-away Bobbi — very bad things come to light. But the girls, save Schmidt's Sam, never seem all that distressed over Guy's sudden incursion into their lives. He is scum, they now know, so why be angry?
But the thing is, they are angry, delicately straddling the line between schooled indifference and rage. The whole situation is ugly like scar tissue. No matter how badly Guy is worked over by these encounters (and he is; by the end, he has the frantic, trapped look of Fred Phelps lost in a Greek bathhouse), nobody has really found catharsis. The ever-present Mad Cat aura conveys a feeling that Guy's failures will not end with the curtain call, and his girls will never be clear of his long shadow.
This aura is at the very root of Mad Cat's constant success, and it is the reason Some Girls might never find a better home. Through every scene, the weight of past and future betrayals bears down on Guy, his girls, and everybody else in the room — the sense that Guy's confessions have meant nothing, and that there are vast, unsettled debts to be paid. Not only by Guy and not only his girls, but also by anyone who has inflicted incontrovertible harm on another, or had harm inflicted on them. Many questions remain unanswered (Does the title indicate a response to the Rolling Stones' most misogynistic record? Why do all the girls have androgynous names?), but Mad Cat does not deal in resolutions, here or anywhere. Mad Cat is in the accusations business. It is a theater that anticipates consequences and fills all comers with the dread suspicion that those consequences cannot be faced onstage, but only Out There — in the parking lot outside 3000 Biscayne, in the surrounding streets, in the city and world beyond. Which makes this Some Girls neither an escapist retreat from life nor a passive dissection of it. When filing out of the theater, you get the sense it was a warning.