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Mama Traumas

Having just learned from a reader's letter that one's perception of art is fact and not opinion, a whole new world of commentary has opened up for me. In case you don't remember the missive sent to me by one of Pia's musicians, it stated: "That's how good our performances were. That is fact, not opinion."

Whew! What a relief. Now I can deal with the objective truth rather than vague, subjective ideas. Armed with this new confidence, I present two theatrical facts:

1. The only way South Florida can obtain a serious profile in the theater world is through the discovery and presentation of new works. Just as Driving Miss Daisy bestowed great honors on Georgians, the production of a play that is capable of moving forward to greater glory would surely help to silence the legion of New York snotnoses snickering about beach-blanket stagework. Presenting endless revivals here of pieces done much better somewhere else may entertain South Florida audiences, but leave about as permanent a mark in our community's history as yesterday's dandruff.

2. Good news: ACME Acting Company, AREA stage, and the new Miami Skyline Theatre have already begun to recognize the above and tread gingerly down the new-play path.

But wait! A footnote must be added: New plays should also be good. "Cutting edge material," rife with obscenities and wacky ideas, too often typifies a pretense of art rather than the genuine article. To avoid such blunders, scholars known as dramaturgs -- or literary managers -- prove handy, even necessary, on a playwright-selection team; subsequently, they serve as careful, knowledgeable collaborators who work with the author of the play. Rarely are actors and directors alone capable of choosing worthwhile foundations; in their quest for "great parts" or "great scenes to stage," they may fail to see the script as a whole, whereas dramaturgs -- who frequently inhabit dramatic literature, comparative literature, or even just literature departments -- tend to specialize in the increasingly alien concept that it's not how you say it, but what you say.

Unfortunately, the first offering of ACME's Fourth Original Play Festival -- A Cradle of Sparrows, by University of Miami graduate Brian Michael Riley -- neglected the crucial addendum above.

When I recently asked playwright Riley if he liked Christopher Durang, he wasn't acquainted with the name. A shame, considering that Durang is one of the few biting comedians capable of writing obnoxious, disgusting, and nauseatingly brilliant plays. Baby With the Bathwater and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All for You are masterpieces. In a wildly sarcastic vein, these works deal with real-life issues, such as parenting and religion, exposing human ugliness in the harshest comic light, flickering in and out of reality. Just as you begin to think things have normalized among Durang's characters, they blithely perform unspeakable acts.

Riley's version is no poor copy. This nightmare centers around the Jones family, who spend their Christmas seasons tormenting and molesting lifelike dolls. Mom's a Bible-Belting lesbian psycho, Dad's a bisexual maniac, son Mickey seems nice enough -- until he pimps out his sister, and Celine, the sibling doll of the current yuletide season herself, overheats at the slighest tweak of a nipple. Any humor about mixed sexual signals, child abuse, and twisted sitcom families wears thin after ten or fifteen minutes, but the play goes on for two acts. In one truly annoying moment of relentless, contrived perversity, Dad tries to convince Celine to behave like the previous season's doll, Lady, who spoke as though she had Down's Syndrome.

Getting it almost right, pert Melissa Pergola as Celine invokes sympathy and even affection, although her doll's diction sounds too much like Roseanne Arnold. She and Hise helped develop this production at UM; perhaps they possess a better understanding of how to portray the characters than the other members of the food chain.

On a positive note, ACME's new 150-seat space at Alton Road and Tenth Street is stunning, a testament to good taste and hard work. And curiously enough, adorable Jerrod Hise as Mickey royally transcends the show. He renders his material not just palatable but, at rare times, even funny. (Durang should get his home phone number.) The clever, twinkling set design by Andrew E. Braun -- along with all the technical elements of production -- deserves a very high grade. It'll be fun to see a real play here.

But then there's Robert Lowery's direction, which combines wooden staging with a tone that wavers between tragedy, comedy, fantastic realism, absurdity, and Stephen King. With Peter Paul de Leo and Maria Canals filling the roles of the quintessential dysfunctional parents, I worried about ACME's new building. Both actors gesticulated so wildly and employed so many screeching mood storms, the entire ex-Hibiscus Auditorium/Masonic Temple -- let alone the scenery -- stood in danger of consumption. I hope ACME's next two entries, plus the Monday night play-reading series, meet some wiser dramaturgs along the way. (More on that in coming weeks.)

One producing director acutely aware of literature is the Theatre Club of the Palm Beaches' Louis Tyrell. (This might explain why the Broward Center of the Performing Arts wanted his group as their resident company.) The current production of Mama Drama ranks among the best works I've seen in the area and manages to be at the same time relatively new and wise, funny, moving, and real. No tricks, no cutting-edge gimmicks, just the same magic that worked for playwrights from Shakespeare to Durang -- something honest dissected by the heightened reality of the stage.

Director Ann Sachs strings together monologues and scenes about motherhood -- or the lack of it -- written by a group of actresses (including herself). Like the simply ingenious Falsettos, a score of relevant subjects emerges -- eating disorders, cancer, adoption, Alzheimer's disease, divorce, boyhood, and abortion -- with nary a cliche. Possibly the only predictable aspect of the show is a photographer distanced from life. Had the character been a dancer, for example, everything would have been fine.

To honor her fellow authors, director Sachs employs easy, fluid staging, a multifunctional set design by Eugene Lee, perky music by The Roches, and most of all, five fine actresses playing major roles as well as supporting ones. Each displays a range of authentic emotions, but Suzanne Dunn is a standout, building two distinct, believable characters without so much as a make-up change. Elizabeth Dimon also does excellent work, delicately drawing broad humor from a bloated, skittish pregnancy.

The dialogue inspires respect. One little boy to another: "My mom's a writer, she writes." The second boy's reply: "My mom's an actress, she auditions." On postpartum depression: "Who can love a woman whose breasts leak into her soup?" And a bereaved child recalls her mother's death as filled with "the honesty of fear."

Too often, "new" becomes synonymous with "hot," "cool," or "artistic." But as history has proved time after time, the empty chic of today eventually fades into the fishwrappings of tomorrow. South Florida, now tiptoeing toward a true theater community, must take care. Try new things, but with discretion and help from literary managers. I, for one, crave new theater. And though I realize that the bad must be taken with the good -- because in art there are no facts -- when you spare the rod, you're in danger of spoiling all the future children.

A CRADLE OF SPARROWS by Brian Michael Riley, directed by Robert J. Lowery; with Jerrod Hise, Melissa Pergola, Peter Paul de Leo, Maria Canals, and Juan C. Sanchez. At The ACME Acting Company, 955 Alton Rd, Miami Beach, through July 26. Performances Tuesday -- Saturday at 8:15 p.m., Sundays 7:15 p.m. Tickets cost $12.50-$15. Call 531-2393.

MAMA DRAMA by Leslie Ayvazian, Donna Daley, Christine Farrell,
Rita Nachtman,and Ann Sachs, directed by Ann Sachs; with Barbara Bradshaw, Elizabeth Dimon, Suzanne Dunn, Karen Stephens, and Judith Townsend. At the Theatre Club of the Palm Beaches, 262 S Ocean Blvd, Manalapan, through July 26. Performances Thursday -- Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m., Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. Tickets cost $18-25. Call 407-585-3433.


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