Unbearable Liteness of Being

South Florida is not a region that takes many theatrical risks. A quick study of the current season's lineup for theaters from Palm Beach to Miami makes one thing perfectly clear: Reluctant to strain audience loyalty by introducing what hasn't passed a viewer test somewhere else, most artistic directors tend to program tried and true dramatic pieces. Kudos, therefore, go to New Theatre in Coral Gables for mounting the world premiere of Michael Brady's new drama, Two Bears Blinking, engagingly directed by Barry Steinman and boasting an accomplished cast. However, a quality production cannot mask the script's limitations.

Atop a high desert mesa in New Mexico, a young woman confronts a man whose past uncomfortably intersects with her own. "I don't make nice," the young woman insists when accused of trying to smooth over an upsetting situation. Unfortunately the character's actions throughout most of the play belie her declaration. She -- and everyone else in Two Bears Blinking -- makes very nice; so nice, in fact, that what promises to be an incisive examination of memory, loss, truth, and self-discovery turns saccharine by its end.

The play taps into a device employed by dramatists from Anton Chekhov to Terrence McNally. Gather a group of diverse characters in a single setting, provide them with blithe surface dialogue, include allusions to memory and longing, and then watch what ensues. In this case, the central characters are Martha (Cynthia Caquelin), a go-with-the-flow potter-cum-innkeeper with mystical leanings and an abiding disinterest in financial affairs, and Tracy (Amy Kozleuchar), her type-A personality daughter, recently graduated from college and obsessed with organizing everything from the cutlery in a picnic basket to her mother's monetary situation.

Martha's struggling bed and breakfast features a "Mesa Sunset Program" -- excursions to a nearby plateau that offer an extraordinary view and, for several nights each summer, a play of light at sunset that produces the image of two blinking bears across an adjacent canyon's walls. Mother and daughter lead a cast of supporting characters into this magical arena: Jonathan (Roger Martin), Martha's moneyed suitor; Monica (Lisa Friedman), determined to bask in the sensuality of the desert without discussing where she comes from or where she's going; Joseph (Zach Snow), a sixteen-year-old Orson Welles wanna-be; and Philip (Adam Koster), a temporary transplant from New England bearing news from Martha's past that she is none too pleased to receive. In this exotic locale, cut loose from the affairs of everyday life, revelations and realizations pour forth, some more convincingly than others, setting the stage for the possibility of down and dirty personal exploration. But instead of steering his characters into dangerous and intricate terrain, Brady gallops them toward a series of astonishingly easy resolutions.

With an obvious affection for this collection of appealing -- though not fully realized -- characters, director Steinman brings their constantly shifting exchanges to life through fluid staging, ably utilizing the several levels of Steve Lambert's desert set. Enhanced by Mikuni Ohmae's enchanted lighting, the New Mexican landscape becomes a seventh character, to whom, at times, the others seem more closely connected than to each other. Caquelin, in a wonderfully crafted performance as a mother-friend, infuses her portrayal with gradations of warmth and determination, although she stumbles somewhat in an uncharacteristically harsh response to Philip's revelation. Kozleuchar conveys both maturity and vulnerability as Tracy; Friedman's enigmatic portrayal fits Monica snugly; Martin manages to bring charm to the haplessly written role of Jonathan. Utterly credible as the teenage movie-mogul-in-training, the energetic Snow fluctuates between brash and adorable as the youngest and most cleverly conceived member of the group, while Koster movingly imbues a character screaming for fuller development with an enormous degree of humanity.

Brady clearly took pains to create a collection of unique individuals in his character-driven, conversation-based play. And yet once this quirky crew came to life, the playwright didn't trust himself to venture with them into the messy, unwieldy emotional territory that would make their conflicts compelling instead of predictable. With any luck, Brady will undertake a revision in an effort to mine the substance lurking beneath his current script.

Where Two Bears Blinking relies on language to illuminate meaning for its characters, the startling work of John Kelly consistently avoids using words. His moving, witty, almost operatic theater pieces, which blend dance, music, song, and film, awaken the imagination in ways in which words are not always capable.

Working in collaboration with his New York City ensemble of actors, designers, filmmakers, musicians, and dancers, Kelly often takes as his subject artists and the artistic process. On stage, in intricate productions combining narrative and theatrical techniques, the actor-director-singer-choreographer has embodied Jean Cocteau, Barbette (a trapeze star, born in Texas but the toast of Paris in the 1920s), Joni Mitchell, and twelfth-century troubadours who travel from that plague-ridden time to our own era of AIDS. The Mona Lisa also comes to life through Kelly, as does his own creation, Dagmar Onassis, the fictional daughter of Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis. Tonight (Thursday) he brings the Obie award-winning Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte, detailing the life and work of Viennese expressionistic painter Egon Schiele, to the Colony Theater, on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach.

Kelly's unique vision arose from the tensions he felt growing up with an artistic nature in provincial Jersey City, New Jersey, in the 1950s. As the actor, in Miami for a five-week residency under the auspices of Miami-Dade Community College's Cultura del Lobo series and the South Florida Art Council, wryly notes, "I was expected to love little league, not ballet." At seventeen his passion for dance led him across the Hudson River to study ballet in Manhattan. When it became clear after a few years that he'd started his classical dance training at too late an age, he began studying painting. Yet the isolation inherent in that particular discipline made it difficult for him to produce work. "Many people don't understand the process of making art," Kelly notes in a practical tone. "An artist repeatedly comes back to a sober void. And there's no easy way of doing that."

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Kelly ventured into the club and cabaret scene, lip-synching operatic arias while adding choreography and back-up singers in drag. Ultimately he melded the elements of painting (shape, line, color, movement) and singing into broader, more thematically complex performances. An audience, he realized, gave him the impetus necessary to complete his work. And performing allowed him to "revel in being a chameleon, transforming myself physically and vocally."

The malleable Kelly undeniably transmutes into Egon Schiele in Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte. After encountering Schiele's brooding paintings in art school, Kelly was so moved he immersed himself in Schiele's artistry. Using a mirror to guide him, Kelly re-created the painter's disturbing self-portraits through the angular movements of his own body, incorporating this obsession into a theater piece about Schiele's life (the artist died in the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic). In addition to Kelly, Pass the Blutwurst features four actor-dancers; together they explore Schiele's relationship with his mistress, his wife, and two alter egos (called "alter Egons"), as well as the process by which the expressionist created his haunting work. The show includes a captivating melange of on-stage drawing, choreography, film, music by Mahler and Beethoven, and songs by composers Hugo Wolf and Arrigo Boito rendered by Kelly in his arresting countertenor.

As demonstrated in Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte, Kelly's multidiscipline approach to theater confounds categorization, and viewers bound by the need for dialogue to nail down meaning may have to adjust from a long history of watching traditional work. But those willing to do so are in for a powerful production.


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