The Old College Try

Go ahead, try to run from them. I guarantee, however, that if you go to the theater on a regular basis, you will not be able to hide from the contemporary phenomenon known as the one-person show. In the past two decades solo shows have proliferated at an exponential rate. A quick perusal of Manhattan theater listings reveals seven such productions currently playing on Big Apple stages (on Broadway and off), while South Florida has hosted at least a dozen since this past summer, four in recent weeks, including Marjory at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, Schweitzer at New Theatre, and John Barrymore: Confessions of an Actor at 3rd Street Black Box (which finished its run on April 6). All three dramatize well-known public figures. In the fourth, actor-playwright Gregory Henderson portrays six characters in his dynamic, unsettling, and often mesmerizing Big Wind on Campus, now at Area Stage Company on Miami Beach.

The one-person form provides performers and writers with a range of possibilities: Actors with backgrounds in traditional theater have starred in memorable biographical portraits, notably Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight!, Robert Morse in Tru (about Truman Capote), and Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson in William Luce's The Belle of Amherst. In another spin on the solo format, artists with an experimental bent -- Spalding Gray and Karen Finley, to name two -- have channeled the angst or anger of their own experiences to fashion autobiographical works. And in yet another approach, Lily Tomlin, Eric Bogosian, Sherry Glaser, and Anna Deavere Smith have performed theater pieces in which they assume several different personalities.

Henderson, a 30-year-old Oklahoma-born actor who now calls New York City home, subscribes to this last format in Big Wind, which explores the inner lives of six people on a college campus located, as vaguely noted in the production's program, somewhere in the South/Southwest. Engagingly directed by Joseph Massa, the candid and carefully crafted 100-minute piece, performed without an intermission, at first seems like a loosely linked collection of down-home impersonations that poke fun at both collegiate and Southern stereotypes. Yet as the power of the piece builds, Henderson's and Massa's intentions grow clearer: Big Wind presents a complex cast of characters, each of whom hides behind who they think they should be while barely holding down the lid on who they really are.

Throughout the evening the infectiously energetic and chameleon-like Henderson turns himself inside out in order to play five students and one old man whose fates intertwine before, during, and after a tornado touches down at State U. First up is Bitsy, a sorority sister whose fizziness skirts the hem of hysteria. Next we meet J.K., an elderly campus groundskeeper whose unusual scheme to remain close to his dead wife sounds morbid, yet makes weird sense. Third on the character roster: Bitsy's boyfriend Bubba, a good-old-boy-in-training who has asked Bitsy to marry him and is awaiting her answer. Then there's Jake, who leans on Jesus for help while he practices, practices, practices in an effort to be named first drummer in the college marching band. Next, Priscilla, who after getting dumped by Jake has sworn off men and committed herself instead to meteorology. In the most compelling vignette of the evening, she cajoles Bitsy into crouching in a ditch with her during the twister so she can take pictures of the storm. Finally we meet Steve, a drum major in the throes of admitting to himself that he's gay; he longs to escape to the bright lights of Broadway.

Although Henderson uses costumes and props to help him transform before the audience's eyes from one character to the next, he refuses to rely on these old standbys alone. Instead, he draws on a considerable arsenal of voices, facial expressions, and body movements to effect his uncanny alterations. The extremes to which he goes to inhabit his characters prove both convincing and irritating. Dressed in Cruella de Ville black, Priscilla's eye rolling and lip pursing jibe perfectly with her role as campus intellectual and outcast; Jake's facial tic rings true for a kid who is so repressed that he asks Jesus to forgive him every time a swear word passes his lips. (By the way, Jake turns out to be one mean drummer. Henderson, in character, treats us to an exhilarating solo in the middle of the show.) On the other hand, Henderson's Bubba overdoes it with the crotch clutching; after the first six or seven times, we get the point that he's checking to see if his private parts are still there. And J.K.'s palsied hand and the sucking motions he makes with his mouth made me so nervous I had to look away from the stage.

("Yankees love the characters but assume they're exaggerated," Henderson notes in an interview included in the production's press kit, "but Southerners know these people and know they're real." Maybe so. After all, depictions of Brooklyn Italians and Jews that seem caricatured to non-New Yorkers tend to appear normal to natives. In any case, if you're a Southerner and you've seen this show, call me with a reality check.)

Henderson and Massa debuted Big Wind in New York, then traveled with it to Rochester and Cape Cod before bringing it to Miami. As collaborators, they take advantage of the one-person format, effectively using the concerns of a half-dozen characters to draw us in. Although the production is saddled in places with over-the-top acting that might make you squirm, the show's undeniable spirit will sneak up behind you, grab you, and not let you go.

Stage Whispers
"If the young people of today don't begin to understand and learn about theater at a young age, they won't have the appreciation for theater and [eventually theaters] won't have an audience," asserts Earl Maulding, director of Theatre for Young Audiences at Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables, a program that was founded in 1987. "We're up against a lot with television and videos and everything else that's out there. So our main mission to begin with was to provide a future for ourselves and for other theaters."

However, in 1984, after eight years of producing children's shows, Maulding felt that first-rate original work was drying up. "I was getting extremely frustrated in finding the kind of work I wanted to do," the director notes. "Work that challenged our audiences, didn't talk down to the kids, and was entertaining to the parents as well." To remedy this dilemma, Maulding and the staff at Actors' Playhouse started the National Children's Theatre Festival in the fall of 1994, an event that includes a national play-writing contest. "We decided to start a national festival to encourage works for young people and to try to give [such work] recognition," states Maulding.

The second annual festival kicks off on Monday, April 22, and runs through Saturday, April 27, culminating in back-to-back performances of the two winning entries. Thirty-five manuscripts were received from around the nation and judged by a local panel of six that included Actors' Playhouse artistic director David Arisco, Books & Books owner Mitchell Kaplan, and New World School of the Arts high school musical theater student Gwen Hollander. First prize in the musical category went to Phoebe's Closet, by Mary Gail of California. An intergalactic musical adventure drawing on the traditions of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, it can be seen on April 27 at 10:00 and at 2:00. Anna's Dream, by Phillip Policoff of New York, snared first prize in the play category. The story of a teenager who finds herself through the help of a zany fortuneteller, it also will play on April 27, at 11:30 and 3:30. For further information on the festival, call 444-9293.

Big Wind on Campus. Written by Gregory Henderson; directed by Joseph Massa; with Gregory Henderson. Through April 28. For information call 673-8002 or see "Calendar Listings.


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