To a person with even a passing acquaintance with South Florida theater, seeing the characters of Broadsword onstage is a little weird. Not that Broadsword's characters are inappropriate subjects for a play. It's that nobody had an interest in treating them as such before Marco Ramirez came along. They are too young and too baffling to be treated by even the current generation of hip playwrights as more than sociological curiosities. Millennials in the theater have been objects of study but never subjects of drama.
Marco Ramirez — a South Floridian and recent Juilliard grad — is a Millennial himself, and so are his characters, no matter their apparent ages. Like the YouTubing, anime-loving, comics-reading, videogame-playing demo he reps, Ramirez has little time for artificial divisions between high and low culture, or between "serious" art and entertainment. It's all in the mix — every artifact and genre democratized by free and easy access. Maria Callas and Modest Mouse, Stephen Sondheim and Miley Cyrus — they're all two clicks from anywhere. The tradeoff is that they are stripped of their intended contexts. Their new context, and perhaps their final one, is each other.
For Ramirez, everything is a possible inspiration, and anything can be borrowed, stolen, or modified to fit his vision. His plays belong to no tradition, and like Quentin Tarantino, he works straight-faced within genres that others would enter only ironically. Pulpy supernatural thrillers, sci-fi, and comic-book action-heroism — he treats them all with utter respect and crafts them all with glee.
Broadsword, a pulpy supernatural thriller, is Ramirez's best play, and it's a shame its first full production at the Arsht Center is only two weeks long. (The play was workshopped at the Light Box last year by Mad Cat Theatre, the same collective responsible for its current incarnation at the Arsht.) Given a chance, Broadsword is the kind of show that could develop a cult following among young hipsters. The word would spread: Watch a heavy metal band reunite to save one of its members — from Hell!
That's Broadsword's premise. The band Broadsword was four young dudes with no prospects and some chops, trying to play and party their way out of a shithole called Rahway, New Jersey. There were signs they were going places, but not enough. Broadsword broke up when the singer took a manager's offer to go solo and get famous. After that, the bassist and drummer gave up on music and took boring, blue-collar day jobs. Only the lead guitarist, Richie (David Hemphill), stayed put, becoming a virtual shut-in in the basement where the boys used to practice. There he played his instrument, traveled deeper and deeper into obscure musicological texts, and sought lost and arcane chord combinations and tonal structures. Some of these, he believed, were magic.
Then he disappeared. No warning, no note — just his amplifier humming disconsolately in the cellar. His friends and family waited for six months and then planned a memorial service. It is there that the ex-bandmates find themselves, together for the first time in almost two decades. There's bad blood between them, and they'd barely talk if it weren't for the arrival of erstwhile Vatican musicologist Dr. Thorne (Ken Clement), who tells them a fantastic story of what became of their former bandmate — and what they must do to get him back.
Broadsword was much more intimate last year at the Light Box, which always felt like a basement anyway. There is a moment in Broadsword when a character plays a cassette of atonal, metallic music that Richie recorded in the course of his research. At the Light Box, the lights flickered, the walls seemed to shake, and it wouldn't have seemed all that weird to feel a skeletal hand clawing at the back of your neck. When a beer bottle shattered of its own accord, everyone in the audience saw, and a few people screamed.
The same scene is less effective at the Arsht's Studio Theater, which is maybe four or five times the size of the Light Box, because Sean McClelland's lavish, technically marvelous set is unavoidably self-contained. It is no longer enough for the basement lights to merely flicker, since those lights are now props rather than primary sources of illumination. To achieve the same effect at the Arsht, a whole lighting rig must be mobilized. If a beer bottle shatters at the Arsht, you might catch only the sound.
But the change of location, along with a substantial rewrite from Ramirez, has done the show more good than harm. The band members — singer Tony (Erik Fabregat), bassist Victor (Eli Peck), and drummer (Paul Tei, who also directs) — seem freed by the new space afforded them, more flamboyant, and less tied to the realism that is any actor's default mode in a small space. (Ramirez's work requires something a bit more flashy.) Ken Clement (who, like Peck, didn't perform in the workshop) grandly plays the musicologist, in a comic Wagnerian mode, earning laughs never anticipated in the script. And Gregg Weiner, playing the uncannily frightening manager who lured Tony away from the band 16 years ago, benefits immeasurably from the presence of moody backlighting.
But the most interesting characters are in the band. Like Ramirez's heroes past, they fear neither death nor indigence nor infidelity nor ennui. They fear growing up, or not growing up, depending on the day. There is never any doubt that they can squash whatever demons their music might summon (just as there is no doubt that heroes can kill a werewolf in Ramirez's Mr. Beast or that a superhero can best a supervillain in Macon City). The only question is whether they are man enough to play the music.
"Man enough." So far, Ramirez's work is about boys snatching manhood from the pizza-box jungle of perpetual adolescence, and his females tend to be static — wiser than the boys, tougher, and a lot less complex. When Marco pens the rare leaden line, it's usually destined for an actress's mouth. In Broadsword, that mouth belongs to the lovely Sofia Citarella, who makes the most of it. Her evident difficulties, however, reveal that Ramirez is a bit of a geek and probably speaks most clearly to the segment of our generation whose first crushes were on Laura Croft or Sora. (Puzzled? Ask a grandchild!) It's for those of us with the world at our fingertips and no idea what to do with it.