Best and worst theater of 2010

I am moving to New York City this week and I'm sad to go. From seats in the gloom of South Florida theaters, I've seen and heard extraordinary things. I'm forever grateful to those who enabled my constant attendance over the last four years — the directors, actors, set designers, technicians, and editors.

This, then, is my last year-end roundup. If you caught the good ones, congrats. If you saw any of the bad ones, don't let it put you off the form. There's fabulous stuff out there. (And if you produced one of the bad ones, fear not! I've provided simple suggestions — in parenthetical breaks, just like this one — at the end of blurbs, explaining how subsequent and similar disasters may be avoided.)

The best:

Blasted: Never again will Florida see a production quite like Sarah Kane's Blasted. It's expensive to produce (midway through, the hotel in which the play is set is exploded by a bomb), and those few companies with the pocketbook to pull it off don't have the inclination. The play begins with a rape, ends with the cannibalism of dead babies, and there is little light in between. Of South Florida's theaters, only Joe Adler's GableStage could or would have done it, and this company did it right. Todd Allen Durkin gave the steeliest and (literally) nakedest performance of his career as an amoral British journalist in a hotel room in a war zone. He abuses an apparently mentally handicapped young girl, played by Betsy Graver, who then spiritually and physically saves him. Graver's soft, exquisitely vulnerable performance was a painful contrast to Durkin's journalist; the power differential between the two set the audience's teeth on edge. The beauty of Kane's script lies in the girl's defenselessness that enables her to survive in the brutal world imagined by the play; the beauty of GableStage's production lies in the dramatization of the world's brutality. The set literally rips itself apart in the middle of the play, in an act of such violence that we marveled, stupidly, that the actors managed to survive.

Equus: Oh, James Samuel Randolph, we could listen to you talk all day, even if all you have to talk about are the weird psychosexual issues of a kid who likes horses a little too much. So it was with Equus, Peter Shaffer's haunting play about Alan Strang, a disturbed 17-year-old who confuses ideas about paganism, Christianity, and his own libido that drive him to an act of terrible violence. Randolph played Dr. Martin Dysart, who takes Strang's case and comes to question what sanity might mean in a world where magic is dead and passion is sedated. On New Theatre's small stage, Equus played as a surrealist festival of light and shadow, full of barely glimpsed leaping beasts who seemed freshly escaped from the walls of Lascaux. David Hemphill gave a star-making performance as Strang, seeming to weld together within his own spirit the dual worlds of the sane, well-lit psychiatrist's office and the chaotic world of worship, darkness, and sexual power.

Orphans: Two years ago Alliance Theatre Lab was barely on the radar, then — bam! — suddenly it became Miami's coolest troupe, eking vibrant, half-crazed performances from a stable of smart, young, rookie actors. Orphans is a strange and touching tale about two young brothers who've had to scrounge for themselves since the long-ago departure of their parents. They come under the tutelage of a conman — an orphan himself — who uses them, loves them, and then dies. It's a simple show with a simple premise, but at Alliance it was full of life and wisdom. What makes an orphan? What makes a father? If Orphans couldn't provide answers, it at least artfully posed the questions. Actors Justin McClendon, David Sirois, and Travis Reiff worked perfectly together. The spaces between their performances were full of need and listening. One felt they were reaching out to one another across some vast darkness, nearly touching, and then falling away.

The worst:

Hour of The Tiger: New Theatre gave it a good shot, but Hour of The Tiger was un-salvageable. Allegedly a love letter from playwright Sandra Riley to the Japan she visited in the '70s, The Hour of The Tiger tells the story of a Japanese geisha's lesbian love affair with an American writer. In the telling, Riley managed to screw up basic facts about geisha life (they don't have pimps, they haven't worked as prostitutes for over 100 years, etc.), and what Riley didn't mangle, New Theatre's stable of under-experienced actors did. Lines that were meant to be humorous came out as accusations; pronounced Japanese accents disappeared by the third or fourth scene, even while the actors retained the staccato rhythms of tentative English-speakers. (The moral: If you're going to write and/or produce a play about a foreign country, do some homework and hire an accent coach.)

Twelfth Night: Though framed with historically accurate English folk tunes, the SoBe Arts Council's reimagining of The Twelfth Night was mostly abysmal. The problem was a total absence of basic consideration for the comfort and aesthetic pleasure of the audience. An errant spotlight shone directly onto a front row seat, forcing an audience member to don sunglasses. An unoiled hinge of an off-stage door squealed angrily each time an actor prepared to make an entrance. A small band of musicians to the side of the stage was obscured by a sloppily hung black curtain, and an open door blinded spectators with headlights. These were failures of imagination. (The moral: It's the little things that count. When producing a play, it doesn't hurt to sit in the audience a few times.)

The Color of Desire: Pulitzer Prize-winning Miamian Nilo Cruz might have jumped the shark with The Color of Desire. What a pity! It could have been so, so good, if only Cruz had subjected his work to another rewrite or two, and if only director David Arisco had allowed the play to be what it so clearly wanted to be: a symbolic, highly figurative meditation on love, lust, and control, set at the violent apex of the Cuban revolution. But The Color of Desire was produced instead as realism. This is, after all, a script about a Cuban actress seduced by an American entrepreneur who demands that, in the bedroom, she play the role of his long-lost love. The forced charade becomes strange and dark. The actress weaponized her role, even as the American became a sexual totalitarian. This production bleached the conflict of its darkness and mystery. A more serious disconnect between script and director I have seldom seen. (The moral: David, you're the best musical theater director in the southeast! Stop mucking around with this stuff!)

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Brandon K. Thorp

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