Fresh Seasonings

Since the here and now has been so visceral these last days, many South Floridians may have spent little time looking ahead. But eventually they should, when it comes to theater. The upcoming season looks promising; both established companies and upstarts have ambitious plans.

As has been the case for a number of years, the top-rung professional theaters -- the Caldwell, Florida Stage, Coconut Grove Playhouse, and GableStage -- are focused on recent New York small-cast hits, a programming strategy that matches mature, literate material with minimal production costs. A chief problem with this plan is that of identity. With so many companies producing the same kind of plays, discerning one of these theaters from another, except by geography, is becoming difficult. But that aside, these theaters are serving up a flavorful array of thoughtful, engaging dramas and comedies with many Florida and South Florida premieres. Many of these new plays, a number of which are world premieres, contain explicit social and political themes. If that trend continues, the new century might augur an interesting, vigorous era in Florida stage.

A number of smaller companies, including several new theaters, also offer interesting seasons. The Sol Theatre opens its doors this month, as does Dreamers Theatre. We expect to hear intriguing sounds from some of the area's streetwise companies: Mad Cat, M Ensemble, Juggernaut, Oye Rep. And, lucky us, the list is growing.

Several world premieres are in the offing, and a number of stages are presenting works in progress by local writers, a healthy sign for the local scene. What's missing from the professional lineups is much attention to the classics, particularly American classics. Once again economics is a paramount concern: Many great plays -- those from Calderon to August Wilson -- have large casts and high costs. The university theaters take up some of this slack; each has scheduled at least one classic in its schedule.

But the list of companies in the area is so long that there is no space here to run down all the season schedules. Several highlights:

The Florida Stage in Manalapan continues its tradition of challenging, issue-oriented theater with a four-show season, including Black Sheep, a new play about race relations within one family, and Red Herring, a spy tale set in the McCarthy era of the Fifties.

GableStage in Coral Gables sticks with its winning strategy of Florida and South Florida premieres. The opener, Boy Gets Girl, a suspense tale about stalking, sounds promising. Edward Albee's latest, The Play About the Baby, is another potential winner.

The Caldwell Theatre kicks off with the world premiere of Concertina's Rainbow, followed by A.R. Gurney's New York hit, The Cocktail Hour.

The Coconut Grove Playhouse hosts another affair for its opener, Neil Simon's The Dinner Party, yet one more New York success. But its season highlight is decidedly Proof, which swept most awards and New York theater accolades last year, including the Tony and the New York Dramatic Critics awards.

The New Theatre in Coral Gables continues to grow, with more challenging programming to match its brand-new performance space. Nilo Cruz's latest, Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams, opened September 15; it's a world premiere about some Cuban exiles, Pedro Pan products, who return to their native island. The season also features The Weir, an engaging Irish ghost story, and another world premiere, Smithereens, from Argentine playwright Mario Diamente.

The Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale opts for lighter fare with its opener a two-man physical comedy titled Thwack, and two Off-Broadway comedies, Fully Committed and Maybe Baby, It's You.

Light fare's also the game plan for Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables, with a slate dominated by musicals that range from revues (4 Guys Named José... and Una Mujer Named Maria) to a Broadway classic (The King & I). Same for Footlights, a new Fort Lauderdale troupe, which opens with Knish Alley, a comedy about the glory days of Yiddish theater at the turn of the last century New York.

Such is not the case for some of the small, offbeat theaters. Paul Tei's Mad Cat Company opens with two premieres: Portrait, an adaptation of an Edgar Allen Poe tale, and Shoot, a timely examination of high school shootings. Juggernaut, another Miami outfit, features some new, one-person memory plays, an interactive multimedia project, and the Florida premiere of Valparaiso, an examination of the media industry by red-hot novelist Don DeLillo.

At least two theaters are just entering the local stage: in Coral Gables, Dreamers Theatre will open with a world premiere, Beautiful Dreamer: A Tale of Cassadaga, a romantic fantasy from Dreamers' artistic director, Yolandi Hughes; and in Fort Lauderdale, the Sol Theatre this weeks opens its first production, Shakespeare's The Tempest, a rare classic scheduled this season.

Of the classics getting a showing, most will be presented by one company: the Fort Lauderdale Children's Theatre, with no less than nine golden oldies, from Peter Pan to the Wizard of Oz. The others will be found on the academic stages. The New World School of the Arts will present several, from Ibsen to Beaumarchais, but the most exciting is Aeschylus's The Oresteia in its entirety, with all three parts in repertory. The University of Miami presents Chekov's The Three Sisters, while Florida International University puts on Arthur Miller's The Crucible. In Boca Raton Florida Atlantic University offers another Chekov, Ivanov, but more attention will be focused on Marathon 33, the revival of June Havoc's long-neglected play about the Depression-era marathon dance craze. Edward Villella choreographs the dance numbers.

It's a varied, eclectic season overall, with both encouraging and disturbing trends. On the plus side, young companies seem to be busting out all over, suggesting both new theatrical visions and visionaries and a more open-minded, adventuresome audience base. But troubling evidence suggests South Florida is experiencing a creative brain drain with the flight of local talent looking for work elsewhere.

Finally a note about one new face on the local theater scene: me. As some New Times readers might recall, I have contributed film reviews from time to time. Now I'll be taking on the role of theater critic, succeeding the worthy and always readable Mia Leonin, who has opted to take some time to work on her own creative writing as well as teach. As her successor I hope and intend that readers will find a continuity of the quality, fairness, and integrity she brought to these pages.

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Ronald Mangravite