Glasses clink behind the bar, air conditioners grind on and off, and bodies, covered in more make-up than clothing, swing from the rafters. It's difficult to see, sometimes impossible to hear, but the rumble of excitement builds to a near-erotic pitch. These houses quickly sell out, no matter how bad the show. Animated hordes swarm odd-shape rooms, hungry for offbeat, nonfamily entertainment.
Could this be theater in Miami, that milquetoast of revivals, road shows, cornball comedies, and drawing-room mysteries, with the occasional gem tossed in? Well, not exactly. This newest addition - unsuitable rooms filled with highly hormoned audiences - comes to you straight from Miami Beach. South Beach, to be specific.
It was bound to happen. Even the cynics at CBS News and New York Magazine have given the metamorphosed SoBe a shocked once-over: the restoration, the construction, the burgeoning blend of modeling agencies, boutiques, and restaurants. And now there appears to be hope for theatrical progress.
While ACME and Area Stage consistently present fine work in the vicinity, their competition grows weekly. Hotels and clubs, such as Semper's and Le Loft, reap profits in the early evenings by surrendering dance space to a form of seduction safer than that typically practiced in their milieu - theater. So what if they're ill-equipped to showcase plays? Minor details such as poor acoustics, lack of stage lights, and bad seating don't cramp the creativity of artists who romp in similar dramatic playgrounds elsewhere. New York recognizes - and appreciates - solid work, whether it's performed in a Soho loft, or the basement of the guy next door. Any circumstances under which actors act, and audiences respond, qualifies as theater. As some of Miami's most lavish playhouses continue to prove with numbing regularity, sophisticated architecture is no substitute for talent. It's not the medium, it's the message.
And the message on the Beach leans toward camp - not quite inventive, yet inching in that direction, and not always good or new; I'm seeing productions first staged ten years ago. But hell, this tango's moving in the right direction, and it deserves a chance to dance.
The most successful of the current lot, at the Waldorf Towers, is being held over for two weeks. An energetic attempt at the affected lunacy of Charles Busch, the Experimental Theatre Company's Vampire Lesbians of Sodom - a one-act piece teamed with a shorter companion, Sleeping Beauty or Coma - resurrects the 1980s Off-Broadway huge success, a theatrical landmark of dishy-bitch spoofs. Busch favors cross-dressing and parodies the whores of Hollywood, a perfect combo in these new, decadent days of Deco Beach.
In Coma, the better ditty, a bunch of Carnaby Street hippies rise to fame, experience sick twists of fate (one suffers an overdose of LSD, another is sabotaged by a business rival), and eventually find relief twenty years later through megavitamin supplements. Vampire Lesbians offers a disjointed tale of two Sapphic undead, from their first encounter of the arteries in ancient Sodom, to their comeback at a Las Vegas nightclub. That's the root material: ridiculous in an endearing way - no earthshaking brilliance, just nasty-cute.
Busch's work was written to be overdone, like a classic bad movie. To succeed, the actors need a broad comic style, and the costume designer must plant tongue firmly in cheek - which, fortunately, Brian Reeder does, employing loads of leather, chain-mail minis, and shocking pinks. Director Eric Bedenbaugh competently stages the idiocy, given the space limitations. A montage of chase scenes mocking cheesy Sixties movies is particularly funny.
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In Richard Jason Ascher (as femme fatale designer Fauna and vampire lesbian Madeleine) and Sally Mullins (as Cockney model Briar Rose), Bedenbaugh guides local actors born to personify this genre. Ascher, especially, evokes Busch's dream drag-princess, a manufactured woman with true female charisma. Both performers mug believably, strut with gusto, and take more comic risks than Tammy Faye Bakker. The rest of the cast, however - with the exception of Kathy Byrne, who almost succeeds as the vampire La Condesa - is undone by tentative actions and plain old bad acting, exhibiting no understanding at all of a commitment to the absurd.
The timing also needs tightening, or this company - which plans to do more Busch - won't come close to achieving the playwright's goal of turning out a slick, fast-paced shocker. Still, the attempt isn't a complete failure. Ascher's quite good, and as a member of the audience, you'll become part of an atmosphere charged with the anticipation of what's coming next.
Is Miami finally coming of stage age, thanks to facilitators like SoBe and the New World School of the Arts? Egads, Virginia - Santa might soon have a bikini and brains. Before you know it, a star could emerge from this fine clime, or possibly an award-winning playwright - or at least an audience that knows the difference between tepid trash and piping-hot potential.
VAMPIRE LESBIANS OF SODOM/ SLEEPING BEAUTY OR COMA by Charles Busch, directed by Eric Bedenbaugh; with Richard Jason Ascher, Kathy Byrne, Sally Mullins, Mark Fetterly, Max Grimm, Beny Paret, Jr., and Duncan Pflaster. At the Experimental Theatre Company, Waldorf Towers, 860 Ocean Dr, Miami Beach, through April 11th. Performances Thursday at 8:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. Tickets cost $12. Call 538-5406 for more information.