Three to Get Ready

A shipwrecked young woman who protects herself in a strange city by masquerading as a man; an orphaned teenage girl who dons men's clothing in defiance of Jewish laws that forbid the education of women; a tortured man who stops numbing his pain with alcohol long enough to confront his true nature. All three share a gift for role-playing and, for a while this summer at least, all three share a stage.

Transformed identity lies at the core of the three plays that make up Festival Rep '97: William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer's Yentl, and Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Presented in repertory by a company whose members play various roles in each production, the festival is the result of a partnership between Florida Atlantic University and the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. Despite the immense talents of its represented playwrights, the rep's producers may be scripting the series' most convincing case of mistaken identity themselves by disguising collegiate theater as professional offerings; they accomplish this task with slick marketing, a contract with the national professional actors' union, and legit digs in the Broward Center's Amaturo Theatre.

With its three pros (two actors and a stage manager), eleven graduate students, and sixteen undergrads, the company boasts of presenting "quality theatre for South Florida audiences." Quality that results from the students' training, which is "reinforced by, and measured against, the realities of professional theatre." The quality is indeed quite respectable -- for a college production. And theatergoers willing to be a part of the collaborative educational process will not be disappointed. The gutsy troupe tackles Elizabethan verse, Talmudic Hebrew, and Mississippi Delta drawls without the aid of microphones, relying solely on technique and stage presence to fill the 800-seat hall. Surprisingly at ease on-stage and self-assured in their multiple roles, the actors create a cohesive ensemble that makes me mourn the demise of the nation's repertory companies. What would this same group be like after five years of working together and playing off each other in a variety of roles? Such time would give them the chance to add some life lessons to their academic ones, a process that likely would provide this unseasoned cast with the depth and insight needed to inhabit the complex characters penned by the fest's heavyweights.

As for measuring these productions against "the realities of professional theatre," that's another matter altogether. The lighthearted Twelfth Night comes closest to making the grade. Fast-forwarded in time from the Italian seacoast of Shakespeare's day to the Adriatic resort found there in the Twenties, the story finds the shipwrecked Viola (Coleen McDermott) slipping into a straw hat and mustache in her guise as Cesario. While awaiting news about whether her twin brother Sebastian (West Hyler) also survived the shipwreck, she finds employment carrying Orsino's (Charles Atkins III) messages of love to an unmoved Olivia (Suzanne Kovi). Meanwhile, Viola falls hard for Orsino, and Olivia does the same for Viola's male alter ego. Olivia must also contend with her drunken uncle Sir Toby Belch (Dan Brady) and her foolish suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Richard L. Wilkinson) as they disrupt her household by tricking her pompous steward Malvolio (Peter Haig) into believing she secretly loves him.

Most novice actors usually take the Bard's iambic pentameter and turn it into the blankest verse, but, refreshingly, the Twelfth Night cast delivers a clean, easy-to-follow frolic through Shakespeare's convoluted plot twists. Particularly praiseworthy are McDermott, who engagingly begs a suspension of disbelief for Viola's forays as Cesario; Kovi, in a smart turn as a confident, yet gullible, Olivia; and a gangly Wilkinson, who riotously plays up the physical comedy in his portrayal of the stooge Aguecheek. In unusual casting, Sheila Kay Allen (who along with Haig represents the company's professional actors) appears as Festa the gypsy, handling the lines and singing the verses usually given to Olivia's male fool. It's an imaginative move, and it works with the script to supply a convincing reason for the character, an enterprising con artist, to appear in all of the play's subplots -- an opportunity not lost on Allen, who uses her skills at broad comedy to weave the episodes together.

Less successful is director Jean-Luis Baldet's shifting of the play to the Jazz Age; while it certainly gets the men out of tights, his Twenties setting meows rather than roars. Without offering thematic parallels to the story (for example, Viola and Olivia as newly independent flappers, Aguecheek as a partying ex-patriot, or Sir Toby as someone overindulging at a movable feast), Baldet's change brings nothing new to Shakespeare's still relevant 400-year-old comedy.

Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer's Yentl provides additional evidence that theatrical cross-dressing didn't start with Victor/Victoria. The pair adapted Singer's short story Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy for their 1975 Broadway show, with the short story also serving as the basis for the 1983 Barbra Streisand film. After an opening that emphasizes role-playing (the actors warm up on-stage and stroll through the audience before donning their costumes), the comedic drama settles into traditional storytelling as Yentl (Robyn L. Puchyr) talks directly to the audience and leads us through her life in 1873 Poland. Taught Hebrew and the Torah in secret by her father (Haig), she leaves home dressed as a boy after his death rather than assume the uneducated domestic life to which women are relegated. On her journey out of town, she meets Avigdor (Jett Canary) and accompanies him to a yeshiva where the two become study partners. Fighting her attraction to Avigdor, the disguised Yentl courts his estranged girlfriend Hadass (Tammy Killian-Bush) in an effort to bring the two back together.

Told through the Jewish rituals surrounding death, courtship, and marriage, Yentl is as much a loving paean to Jewish life as a dramatic narrative, although this production tends to infuse the play with more reverence than humanity (Killian-Bush as the bubbly Hadass and Alana J. Gerlach as her concerned mother are standouts). Director Jana S. Tift's well-conceived staging brings the past to life, as her homespun-clad townsfolk tell their tales using a few simple props. On the other hand, Tift's respectful handling of the religious material and languid pacing suggest that we are watching a historical pageant and not the humorous, albeit bittersweet, coming of age of a cultural rebel.

But at least Tift conveys some overall impression as opposed to the company's arid staging of Tennessee Williams's steamy and oppressive Southern plantation saga Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. While the series' first two offerings glory in masquerades, Williams's 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama serves up a fractured family on the night all their masks fall away. As Maggie (Gaynelle Caldwell, Jr.) tells her alcoholic ex-jock husband Brick (Richard R. Haratine III) in the drama's opening scene, "There's just some things in this world you've got to face."

His personal favorite among his works, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was constructed by Williams to be a pulsating game of dramatic pinball. Kept inert by alcohol and a paralyzing inability to face his doubts about his own sexuality, Brick is sent careening by the news of the imminent death of his overbearing father, the self-made millionaire Big Daddy (Haig). Before Brick can skid back to the skids, however, he collides with Maggie's desire to put lovemaking back into their passionless marriage, then bumps up against his mother's (Mary Ellen O'Brien) efforts to transform him into a dutiful son, and is banged around by his brother's (Wilkinson) accusations that he is unfit to share the inheritance -- until, finally, he must come to terms with his life.

Set in one room over the course of a single evening, the drama's snowballing momentum fuels the inevitable unraveling of the lies that have bound the family together, yet Thomas Atkins's measured, soap opera direction turns the final hours of Big Daddy's dynasty into just another installment of a gothic melodrama. The production is further crippled by Haig, who confuses the script's unyielding, larger-than-life Big Daddy with one of the title characters in Grumpy Old Men.

Williams's classic, along with the series' other plays, is better served by the festival's talented design team, who certainly lend credence to the rep's professional ambitions: P.D. Wilson's snazzy costumes range from the manmade textiles of the turn of the century through flippantly fun Twenties togs to the ghastly fashion statements of a nouveau riche Southern family. Scenic designer Rex Fluty provides a delightful stone and vine-covered patio for Twelfth Night, minimalist screens and suggested beams for Yentl, and a wicker plantation prison for Williams's caged family. Richard J. Gamble's lighting design evokes Shakespeare's shimmering seacoast, the murky shadows cast by Williams's dissembling characters, and the crisp, unpolluted daylight that shines on the determined Yentl's boundless horizons.

In a scenic element found in all three productions, two trees, one on either side of the stage, form an inner proscenium with their branches. Although supporting young performers in their education is a worthwhile effort, the dramatic offerings found under these elms leave a lot to be desired.

Twelfth Night.
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Jean-Louis Baldet; Yentl. Written by Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer; directed by Jana S. Tift; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Written by Tennessee Williams; directed by Thomas Atkins. Through July 20. For more information call 954-462-0222 or see "Calendar Listings.


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