Unsteady As She Goes

To sum up South Florida's theatrical menu in 1993, I must use one of the most famous -- if rather cliched -- passages in English literature, Charles Dickens's opening of A Tale of Two Cities:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way...."

Why are these words the perfect summation for our local theater this year? Because in this boom town, where many dramatic experiments, new plays, and seldom-seen works are suddenly appearing, most companies have been so inconsistent as to seem positively beset by split-personality disorder. It is not uncommon in the world of show business to endure flops as well as to enjoy great successes, but the still-adolescent growth phase of South Florida theater yields grand works followed by impossibly stupid and incompetent ones.

Consider these examples. The Miami Actor's Studio presented a superbly acted, well-written play by William Inge called Natural Affection, only to follow it up with a hopeless new piece by Sarah E. Bewley called A Short Time of Near Perfection, in which the inane writing was only topped by the totally clueless acting on the part of a cast that seemed dragged off the street instead of an acting class. The newly reorganized Florida Shakespeare Festival presented a thoughtful (if slow) rendition of Ariel Dorfman's powerful play Death and the Maiden, and after that produced another intellectual, challenging piece -- one focused on the poets Byron and Shelley, Howard Brenton's Bloody Poetry. So far, so good, right? No. The same artistic directors -- Ellen Beck and Rose McVeigh -- then offered up a treacly, almost nauseating salute to phony Yuletide cheer called Voices of Christmas. In this turkey, actors frantically climbed way over the top telling pointless stories about what Santa and his elves meant to them.

The Bridge Theater under the direction of J.D. Steel, with its new location on the Beach, came up with a fascinating premise: produce little-known works by Latin-American playwrights, translated into English. And Steel unveiled the project with an enthralling play by Manuel Puig (Kiss of the Spider Woman) called Under a Mantle of Stars. The lights, costumes, and sets were splendid. The actors, on the other hand, were so dismally unprepared and unskilled, you often had to look down at the ground to hide how bad you felt for them.

The Actors' Playhouse persisted in bringing back old chestnuts like Damn Yankees and Oliver!, and although they did a credible job with both, there certainly weren't any surprises or new interpretations. But in the same year they suddenly presented an astonishing rendition of Jane Wagner's highly contemporary The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe with a bravura performance by Donna Kimball. The Public Theatre of Fort Lauderdale kept changing spaces as well as levels of competence: Their rendition of Lanford Wilson's Burn This was spectacular; their rendition of Jerry Radloff's meandering gay play, Venice, was dismal.

Several other theaters limited their creativity because, according to them, "we have to sell tickets." (Honest, they all protest with the same line!) The Caldwell Theatre Company introduced South Florida audiences to Someone Who'll Watch Over Me by Frank McGuinness, a searing and comic look at the plight of Middle Eastern hostages, but in the same year included a melodramatic, anti-feminist piece of dated fluff by William Inge, Picnic. Brian C. Smith is now running a great, wacky cash cow, the interactive camp mystery Shear Madness, and before that produced a vivid, electric production of David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly. Still, pandering to his largely elderly audiences, Smith also persists in running low-rent theater-lite like Beau Jest, which admittedly made so much moolah that the greedy Coconut Grove Playhouse snapped it up and produced its own inane version.

Speaking of the Playhouse, Artistic Director Arnold Mittelman exhibited the oddest behavior of them all. While placing the play of the year -- Oleanna -- in his small Encore Room, where he often debuts excellent work, his artistic brain waves suddenly flatlined when it came to booking the 1100-seat space. There he went from presenting the totally awful mime show by has-beens Shields & Yarnell, Him, Her & You, to flooding this season with third-rate sitcoms like Tom Dulack's Breaking Legs and Dan Goggin's cheesy Nunsense 2. Even the acting changes dramatically; in the Encore Room the performers are top rate, whereas on the main stage, they are mostly inadequate. I'll never understand why Mittelman persists in not hiring some of the fine local talent, since most of the imports from New York and L.A. I have seen on the big stage are weak at best. We have much better, Arnold. Trust me.

In Miami Beach it was a strange year, where the key to success appeared to be camp. Charles Ludlam's madcap drag version of Medea packed houses, and new playwright Mick Farren's inventive and odd work, A Criminal Sorority, is bringing new devotees by the day into Rose's Bar & Lounge. But the usually experimental ACME changed tactics without success. By going from avant-garde to more traditional shows, they lost much of their audiences. They had to shorten their summer new-play festival, and the only show they could fully produce during the festival, Hadleyburg, U.S.A. by Matthew Witten, was didactic, misdirected, and just plain boring. While ACME's recent production of The Elephant Man boasted some fine acting, the huge Colony Theater was not even a tenth full on most nights. Subsequently, ACME has been forced to cancel their scheduled New Year's Eve opening of Death of a Salesman owing to a lack of funds. Even recent grants of more than $100,000 from the Dade Cultural Affairs Council haven't completely bailed out ACME or helped it find a new space yet.

While ACME struggles with finding a space and money, and the always topnotch AREA stage fears losing their home on Lincoln Road because of rising rents, the Performing Arts Trust tried to convince me that building a $172- million-dollar symphony and opera complex with scant room for theater would not harm the local theater community; the trust's advocates argued that the new edifice would not take away contributions or attention from small theater groups. I doubt it. Perhaps the members of the growing Theatre League of South Florida -- an organization composed of all the venues in the four counties -- should stop patting each other on the back and throwing excellent Christmas parties and instead exercise a campaign among theater lovers, challenging the phonies who want their showy Performing Arts Center at any cost.

On a cheerier note, two brave and interesting theater festivals graced our area. The Hispanic Theater Festival introduced Spanish-speaking audiences to some fine work from Argentina and Spain. Far superior, though, was the Key West Theater Festival, which, with the help of more than 60 dramaturgs unveiled three major works: The Bed Plays by Shel Silverstein; Parting Gestures by local playwright Rafael Lima; and West Coast author Bill Svanoe's experimental and excellent Trader Jack and the Stinger.

The road shows remained consistently competent with a luscious production of Phantom of the Opera and Crazy for You, and an uneven unveiling of the watered-down rock opera, The Who's Tommy. But then again, these are the people with the big bucks, so expect nothing less or ask for your $70 back.

For my money, the best of the year were:
1) Oleanna at the Grove Playhouse, which, fortunately, is still running (see "Theater Listings" for more information).

2) Mountain at New Theatre, a company whose work this year has proved consistently fine.

3) Zombie Prom at the Studio Theatre, a campy rock musical workshopped here and now on its way to New York.

All told, I wouldn't have missed this seminal year in South Florida. I just wish I'd had a crystal ball and missed the shows in which the artistic directors lost all sense of judgment and taste. I hope that in 1994 the pendulum between the stage of wisdom and the stage of foolishness will still swing, but not so widely.


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