Alan Farago poses a challenging question at our interview at J.J.'s restaurant several blocks from El Carrusel, where he's starting his new company, Theater FLX. "Why does the city of Miami think theater is unimportant but finds the money to build monuments?" I can only sip coffee, because if I knew the answer, I'd be working on the solution. "For a venture to succeed in this town, all we need is a couple of hundred thousand," he adds. "Does Miami want theater that deals with new plays, that possesses the shock of the new?"
Good God, I hope so. Although the picture often looks bleak, I keep waiting for those in power, those who hold the wampum to wake up one morning and realize that Miami will never be a cultural haven without a first-class repertory company funded by the state. Lots of other places have them. Cities all across America support companies featuring the same actors and directors, financially and logistically able to try theatrical experiments and nurture playwrights by developing new works. As I've said many times, this town won't earn any national kudos by doing revivals of plays done better -- and first -- somewhere else.
At least Farago is doing something and putting his money -- about $25,000 of it -- where his heart is and launching Theater FLX (a name partly derived from the outstanding Theatre X in Milwaukee) with his own play, Ms. Smith Goes to Washington. But Farago boasts a natural tendency toward doing rather than merely talking. Starting out as a poet, he worked in China as an interpreter, launched a successful fiber optics business, then moved his family to the Keys, where he worked avidly as an environmentalist, even producing and hosting his own ecologically oriented TV show called Sounding Line.
Farago's commitment to theater came after a car accident broke his back and cleared his vision of the future. Upon healing, he dumped the business world and earned an MFA in drama from Columbia University. A series of his one-act plays were produced at the Manhattan Punchline and the River Arts Repertory in Woodstock. In 1990 his quirky Making Babies Like Crazy was a highlight of ACME's new-playwright festival. With ACME's lighting designer Betsy Cardwell serving as associate producer, Farago decided to write a play the right way, building the work from the ground up with a talented group of Equity actors, and hoping that the audience response will prove enthusiastic enough to launch a permanent company.
"Theater has become moribund here because people who produce it think they have to compete with movies and television," he explains. "The audience is not required to do anything, but true theater is a place where you're supposed to be challenged."
Playwright and director Farago started auditioning repertory-style -- as early as the beginning of October -- for Ms. Smith, which opens December 11 at El Carrusel Theatre. "I knew I had the basic story, but when you work with the actors you can evolve the script." Rehearsing during the weekend and rewriting during the week, Farago developed the work with the input of the cast, a true collaborative effort. Some of the greatest pieces of theater -- such as the adaptations of Peter Brook at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the masterful Dancing at Lughnasa from the Abbey Theatre in Dublin -- evolve in this painstaking way, but it takes time and money and often the help of a dramaturg shaping the work in each of its stages.
Farago and company hope that Ms. Smith -- a black comedy about environmentalism, bureaucracy, and feminism -- will inspire people to start thinking about nurturing new works in Miami. "If we're lucky, audiences will come forward and say they would like more theater like this."
If we're really lucky, Alan, someone will be listening. While the city continues to rant and rave about the need for a multi-million-dollar performing arts center (with no mention of a theater company in the budget), maybe some power broker will get the itch to support the dramatic arts. After all, as Farago points out, "a society is only as good as the art we leave behind."
Speaking of theater and money, I can't be the only person in the neighborhood wondering why the Main Stage of the Coconut Grove Playhouse chose to occupy its boards with the pure dance spectacle of Tango Pasion. Although billed as a "new musical event poised to take on Broadway" (in the tradition of its predecessor, Tango Argentino) and as "intertwining scenarios of romance and deception in an evening filled with intense emotion and theatrical power," it is NOT. Rather, you get an evening of about 50 tangos -- yep, count 'em -- some saucy, some slow, some romantic, some morose. If tango sends you to new heights of euphoria, you'll be thrilled, much like the majority of the house that stayed after intermission. Not so the considerable bunch who left, obviously finding tango after tango tantamount to Sominex.
I fell somewhere in between, admiring the excellent dance skills, choreography, and singing voices, acknowledging the tremendous competency of the production, but at the same time fruitlessly searching for any intertwining scenarios and dramatic action. I've seen many dance pieces full of theatrical merit, but this limp attempt at a story line fell flat. Supposedly, two lethargic lovers rediscover passion by sitting in a cafe filled with the ghosts of sensuous tango partners. Mind you, I'm really reaching for this interpretation, and the payoff seems horrifically predictable: the modern couple dance the tango and come to glorious life again.
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According to the Playhouse press release, "Tango is the vehicle by which the desires, despairs, pleasures, lives, and anguish of a disparate society can freely and simultaneously find expression." Is it only me, or does that sound like horse manure to you, too?
With so many financial pressures crippling theater, and so many people like Alan Farago dipping into their own pockets because they believe theater matters, I'll be boiled in oil before I praise the one venue in this town that gets decent money and grants, when they spurn true drama in place of flashy cabaret like Tango Pasion.
THEATER FLX For more information about Ms. Smith Goes to Washington call 532-0025.
TANGO PASION Conceived and supervised by Mel Howard, musical conception and direction by Jose Libertella and Luis Stazo, choreography by Hector Zaraspe; with a cast of 30 of Argentina's dancers, singers, and musicians. At the Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy., through January 3. Tickets cost $24-$35. Call 442-4000 for times and further information.