If high drama is your cup of tea, you should find what you're looking for at theater companies all over South Florida. Just don't look on the playbill. The offstage news from several local theaters is as full of dire foreboding, narrow escapes, and last-minute miracles as The Perils of Pauline. In Coral Gables the clock is ticking on GableStage, which loses its lease at the Biltmore Hotel at the end of this season. New companies -- from the Dreamers Theatre to the Sol to the Mosaic -- struggle to find audiences and benefactors. The Coconut Grove Playhouse, as reported last week, faces serious challenges in funding and state support. Area Stage/Oye Rep announced a new season and then had to postpone, reportedly in the wake of repercussions from September 11. With all this Sturm und Drang behind the scenes, why is it that many of South Florida's theaters can't seem to put dramatic conflict on the stage?
Think over the programming choices so far this season, especially the new plays: Most concern troubled characters at odds with themselves. The result is talky, rather static shows, however well-produced, that just don't light or heat up the stage. Call me old-fashioned, but whatever happened to the bad guys? Without adversaries, there is no character-based conflict, only inactive heroes with inner problems and maybe some tough luck. In premiere after premiere, South Florida theaters are opting for evanescent, lyrical texts that offer plenty of staging possibilities but very little substance for actors or audiences to sink their teeth into. That's the case with the Caldwell Theatre's opener, Concertina's Rainbow by Glyn O'Malley, an intriguing gossamer of a play that offers several strong elements -- ideas, poetic language, some first-rate performances -- but precious little drama.
The situation certainly has some promise. Edgy, self-absorbed, fortysomething Maureen travels to Vienna in 1992 to adopt a three-year-old Bosnian Muslim orphan named Concertina who has been spirited out of Sarajevo to escape the genocidal war. Maureen, who's childless and divorced, isn't exactly sure what she's doing, but she presses on anyway, full of apprehension and misgivings. On the flight to Austria, she encounters an older woman, Maisy, an artist returning to her homeland for the first time since 1939, when she was a girl of ten fleeing Nazi genocide. Both women are prickly and outspoken, but they nevertheless strike up a genuine friendship. Maureen, who happens to be an art gallery owner, offers to represent Maisy in Vienna, then invites the artist to stay with her at the luxurious Sacher Hotel.
The Caldwell Theatre Company, 7873 N Federal Hwy, Boca Raton
Through December 16; 561-241-7380.
Once in Vienna, both women encounter major surprises. Concertina turns out to be a near-deaf ten-year-old, not the toddler Maureen had expected. Maisy's return to her family home brings back horrible childhood memories. Maureen resists taking Concertina but ultimately relents, returning to start life anew as a mother. When Maisy dies before returning to Vienna for her first art exhibition, Maureen and Concertina take the flight back in her honor. All ultimately ends well, perhaps too well -- or at least too easily.
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O'Malley is a gifted wordsmith; Concertina contains a great deal of evocative poetry, as when Maisy describes her long-absent husband as having "floated away like a cinder." O'Malley's social and historical concerns ripple through this play with a post-September 11 resonance and relevance. The play demonstrates that Maureen's dangerous journey toward war-torn Bosnia has direct parallels to Maisy's journey back to Holocaust memories. In so doing, O'Malley makes a strong case that the horrors of the past are not only not over but, to reference Faulkner, they're not even past. The sorrows of history can't be ignored; they are revisited upon us in unexpected ways, especially if they are never confronted fully in the first place.
The presence of such themes is decidedly to the good, but ideas and language, however enticing, are not enough to power a play. What's lacking here is Drama 101, and I don't mean the bookstore on Biscayne Boulevard. As accomplished as this production is, the folks at the Caldwell don't have a tinker's chance of generating much excitement in a play as lacking in fundamental conflict, jeopardy, or suspense as this one.
O'Malley's tale features some interesting, complex characters, notably the late-blooming Maisy and the quirky, self-doubting Maureen. As the latter, Jacqueline Knapp delivers a brittle, tightly wound characterization, but her anguish tends to be rather one-note: Once Knapp establishes Maureen, there's little left to discover about her. She's also saddled with some arch, overly literary monologues. Fortunately Elizabeth Perry, a veteran New York City actress, is perfectly wonderful as Maisy. Perry's acting is natural; she inhabits the play. She's also very generous: The rest of the cast seems to relax, rise, and shine when they're onstage with her. Another light is Harriet Oser, who appears all too briefly as a wily Bosnian grandmother. Young Tiffany Leigh Moskow is another plus, playing Concertina with an effective and affecting simplicity. Jason Field and Jessica K. Peterson fare less well in multiple roles, delivering them, like Knapp, with more punch and calculation than necessary.
Director Michael Hall's staging is fluid and evocative, aided by his first-rate design team. Hall wisely takes a story-theater approach, using a bare stage, a few high-backed chairs, and Thomas Salzman's ever-shifting lighting design to move the tale from an airliner to a hotel and from 1992 to 1939 and back again. Tim Bennet's set, a series of colorful, shifting flats, evokes both the artwork and the world of art that frames the play's action. It's a neat visual metaphor for the endurance of art, which gives shape and context to the tumult of human experience. In Concertina the characters and the settings seem to shift and drift, but art, ultimately, prevails.