Murders, Whales, and Chekhov Remixed: The Best Miami Theater of 2014

Jade Wheeler and Avi Hoffman in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Jade Wheeler and Avi Hoffman in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Photo by George Schiavone

It says a lot that Tarell Alvin McCraney's radical reinterpretation of Antony and Cleopatra -- a GableStage coproduction with New York's Public Theater and the UK's Royal Shakespeare Company, and a play anticipated for more than a year -- wasn't the best or second-best or even third-best work GableStage produced in 2014.

Accomplished as it was in its conception and follow-through, Antony is a faint memory now, a leadoff batter paving the way for the powerhouse sluggers. From May through December, the Coral Gables theater delivered one masterpiece after another, selecting the best material of any company in the region and then producing scintillating, extraordinarily acted renditions that stimulated the brain, touched the heart, tickled the funny bone, and clobbered the gut.

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It's fair to say this was a rebound year for GableStage. While 2013 was far from lackluster, it was also light on year-end standouts, and the company failed to win any Carbonell Awards for its work. That statistic will surely change as the Carbonell judges prepare their 2014 nominations. (Full disclosure: I'm one of them.)

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GableStage's top competitors might just be other GableStage performances and productions: Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike was its first towering achievement, a stylized and schizophrenic comedy that expertly juggled a rogue's gallery of clashing moods and textures. Avi Hoffman and Laura Turnbull provided some of their best work in years, from the deliriously unhinged to the heartbreakingly sad. Next up, The Whale soberingly chronicled a morbidly obese teacher's fraught reconciliation with his daughter. Gregg Weiner struggled and heaved his way around the stage in a painfully convincing fat suit, and a pitiless Arielle Hoffman contributed a breakthrough performance as his estranged daughter.

The company followed with an outstanding Mothers and Sons, Terrence McNally's fresh-from-Broadway play about tolerance, avoidance, and changing times. Angie Radosh's performance, driven as much by silence, facial expressions, and posture as by McNally's dialogue, was an unmissable master class, finding harsh truths and aching regret in her character's combustible marriage of resentment and repression. Natalia Coego, in GableStage's most recent production, Bad Jews, proved equally memorable on the opposite end of the acting spectrum, effortlessly creating an inexhaustible force of nature who would be obnoxious if her every argument weren't so persuasive.

 

Elsewhere, some of the year's best productions emerged from confinement and claustrophobia, in minimalist plays where otherwise benign locations became prisons. The Naked Stage's lone production of the year, Miss Julie, was a gripping, sexually charged take on Strindberg's classic confrontation of class and gender in 19th-century Sweden. Gidion's Knot, an emotionally bruising tête-à-tête between a teacher and a parent over a child's suicide, proved to be New Theatre's finest achievement in years, from its inspired, existential, in-the-round staging to its pair of riveting performances by Patrice DeGraff Arenas and Christina Groom. And in a career-best performance, Christian Vandepas played an imprisoned Army private in 9 Circles, Ground Up and Rising's trenchant, darkly metaphysical study of war crimes and their implications, a play that deserved a larger audience than it received.

This year also showcased fine new work from South Florida's playwrights, with Michael McKeever's infectiously entertaining Hollywood satire Clark Gable Slept Here and Juan C. Sanchez's elegant-to-grimy local treatise Paradise Motel receiving stellar productions from Zoetic Stage and Mangrove Creative Collective, respectively. In a year that saw several short-play collections, none was funnier or more inventive than Mad Cat Theatre's Mixtape 2, a bonkers mashup of hilariously broad comedy, disturbing commentary, and occasionally arresting drama.

While it's never kind to revisit productions that missed their marks, it's important to recognize room for improvement in a handful of this year's pieces. In many cases, the work itself was the problem: The mystical Martin Luther King Jr. drama The Mountaintop was a well-meaning misfire for GableStage, the only subpar work it chose all year, and Miracle on South Division Street is currently putting wonderful actors to middling use at Actors' Playhouse. The technical ingenuity of the Arsht Center's Peter and the Starcatcher, which boasted some of the year's best lighting, sound, and scenic design -- and a brilliant performance from Nicholas Richberg -- couldn't compensate for the juvenile, overlong, overplotted, overeverything source material. The show's popularity is, frankly, mystifying.

Other shows floundered from the get-go. Neither the playlets nor the performances could raise the pulse of the flattest Summer Shorts in years. Miami Theater Center's Everybody Drinks the Same Water was a pretty-looking but soporific bauble -- a sluggish and obvious parable that didn't have an identifiable audience. With its stilted and miscast Not Ready for Primetime, New Theatre somehow made a play about the golden age of Saturday Night Live that was as funny as, well, Saturday Night Live is today.

Rounding out this year in review, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention its two sensational musicals, both outliers in a year dominated by intimate plays. Zoetic Stage hit its targets, and then some, with Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, the first musical it has ever produced. The captivating and detailed set design resembled a carnival in Hell, and the exceptional cast captured the show's perverse glee.

But ultimately, nothing quite matched the enormous satisfaction of Murder Ballad, a scintillating, deeply moving urban love triangle turned deadly. This edgy rock opera required a complete reconfiguration of Actors' Playhouse's second-floor theater into a cabaret-style, three-quarter thrust, with a few lucky audience members sitting in the middle of the action. There was nothing easy about any facet of this transformative show, but David Arisco made it look like another day at the office. The cast was flawless, the direction peerless, the rock-band musical direction superb, the lighting ravishing -- and when characters fought, they looked like they were actually fighting.

Murder Ballad was the sort of bar-raising production that reinvigorates a genre. If its apparently low box-office returns end up squelching future shows in the same experimental vein, it'll be the region's loss.

Top 10 Miami Productions of 2014

1. Murder Ballad (Actors' Playhouse)

2. Mothers and Sons (GableStage)

3. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (GableStage)

4. Miss Julie (the Naked Stage)

5. Assassins (Zoetic Stage)

6. Bad Jews (GableStage)

7. Gidion's Knot (New Theatre)

8. The Whale (GableStage)

9. Clark Gable Slept Here (Zoetic Stage)

10. Mixtape 2 (Mad Cat Theatre Company)

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