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Centralia, Mad Cat's Latest Tragicomedy, Struggles to Find Its Balance

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The real-life mining community of Centralia, Pennsylvania, has been devastated by an underground coal fire since the early '60s. The monoxide-laden disaster has polluted the town's air and prompted a massive government-funded relocation of its citizenry. But a few defiant souls remain living in their hometown--fewer than 10, currently--and their stories inspired Centralia, an offbeat play-cum-variety show developed by Europe's Superbolt Theatre and enjoying its U.S. premiere courtesy of Mad Cat Theatre Company.

Centralia is structured as an amateur theater piece staged by Centralia's three remaining inhabitants, who have decided to tell their stories--and their town's story--through the performing arts, integrating dance, music, humor, and puppet theatre. There isn't much plot to speak of; Centralia is an episodic meander divided into more than a dozen chapters, some of them illuminating different facets of Centralian life while others struggle to find their purpose.

If the city of Centralia comes across as America, Year Zero--flattened homes, often unbreathable air, currency replaced by a primitive barter system--Mad Cat's production also resembles the craft of theatre being rebuilt from the ground up. At their best, the meta-performances of Theo Reyna, Bonnie Sherman, and Troy Davidson channel the unfettered enthusiasm of aspiring actors discovering the form. Director Paul Tei's inspired, semi-abstract set design is similarly unique, less a physical space than a playground of the mind or a site-specific art installation, whose highlights include a glowing coal pipe billowing smoke on command and a Centralian "cemetery" positioned on a nearby window sill.

But there are too many moments in which the faux-amateurishness of the play-within-the-play degenerates into the real thing, and the playful exhilaration of its strongest chapters acquiesces to what looks like subpar improv theater. Initially funny gags--one involving a reconfigured Kenny Rogers LP cover, another an interpretive dance to Cher's "Believe"--overextend their welcomes. Others, like the bewildering "house dance" and, in fact, the final 15 minutes, fail to elicit the dramatic catharsis for which they seem to grasp.

As for the actors, Reyna is the most consistently hilarious, but none are challenged.

Having written a preview of this production, I couldn't help but pick up some cognitive dissonance between the intended source material and Mad Cat's result. When I asked Simon Maeder, Superbolt Theatre's co-founder, about what it takes for an actor to work a Superbolt show, he replied, "'Work' is the key word there. We work very hard on finding the right balance between comedy and tragedy, on perfecting our characters and their own attitudes and idiosyncrasies."

But the one-dimensional characters onstage at Mad Cat do not delve beyond their surface zeal at discovering theatre, and the tragedy of Centralia is so backgrounded as to be trivialized. Either the source material lacks its intended depth or something was lost in the translation; either way, Centralia feels long and tiresome--and it only runs an hour.

Centralia runs through Aug. 31 at Mad Cat Theatre at Miami Theater Center, 9816 NE Second Ave., Miami Shores. Tickets cost $15 students and $30 general admission. Call 866-811-4111 or visit madcattheatre.org.

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