Stage Fright

When you walk into the Miami Light Project's theater space, you will find yourself momentarily onstage. The space is set up so the stage has its back to those entering; you have to walk through it to get to the chairs. There's a sensation of getting lost backstage and accidentally stepping out in front of a full house. It's not some avant-garde form of audience participation theater but rather an inventive, logistical turning of the tables, symbolic of the first company to perform in the Light Box Studio series, Mad Cat, and its mission. Like John Rodaz of Oye Rep, Paul Tei, creator and artistic director of Mad Cat, hopes to fill a niche in South Florida by producing original work and contemporary adaptations of classics that a modern audience can relate to and enjoy.

In fact the Mad Cat mission statement even identifies potential audience members ranging from “kids in clubs to bored intellectuals looking for a new “religion.'” Tei, who recently has performed in roles at GableStage and New Theatre and also teaches drama and directing at New World School of the Performing Arts, has a refreshing take on young theatergoers. Unlike many who think younger people don't go to the theater because they are not smart enough or don't have the background to appreciate it, Tei thinks it's just a matter of making the works more relevant. “Kids today are smarter,” he says. “They know more and have more information. The club scene can only last for so long, and they start to get bored. If we can make theater that speaks to them, it could be a vital and powerful movement.” Helluva Halloween is Mad Cat's first attempt to do this. It also is the first play to run as part of the Miami Light Project's Light Box Studio performance series, which will offer events focusing on the presentation of new work by Miami-based artists.

Carolina Ashman's subtle but accurate stage design sets up a couple in their late twenties who aren't completely committed to being one. Their furniture consists of remnants from college: an old futon, piecemeal table and chairs, a high-tech water gun and a megabong on the coffee table, a bag of Doritos and some beers on the kitchen table. Hanging on the wall above the CD player is a photo of Lisa (Samara Siskind) and Pete (Michael Vines), the central protagonists of this comedy. Helluva Halloween deals with that seemingly infinite little stretch of time, from about age 28 to 30, when you realize you don't really like anyone you hang out with. Boys think, “Hey, my girlfriend's cute and nice and all, but I'd really like to bang someone else.” Girls wonder, “Where is this all leading? I think he wants to sleep with someone else. Pig.”

These are the sort of existential quandaries with which Lisa and Pete are wrestling on the eve of the Halloween bash they've decided to throw. Unbeknownst to Lisa, Pete has invited his FedEx co-worker, a knockout named Sandra (Maria Heredia), to the party in hopes of having a fling with her. While not actively pursuing anyone, Lisa isn't lacking in options, either. Her second cousin, Lucas (Jason Allen), recently released from a psych ward in Pittsburgh where he had been treated for an aggressive antisocial disorder, is back in town and seems to have the hots for her. And then there's Pete's best friend Gino (Ken Clement), who proclaims his unrequited love for Lisa later in the evening. As dramatic tension goes, it is nothing wildly inventive. It's your basic who will betray whom first.

What is interesting and funny about Helluva Halloween are the characters, which are well crafted in the script and well portrayed by this talented group of young actors who play out their quirks and idiosyncrasies to a tee. Jennifer Lehr is a standout as Gillian, a friend of Lisa who comes to the party as Polly Purebred, the girlfriend of Underdog. Appropriately dressed in tailored jacket and swing skirt with white knee-highs and clunky librarian shoes (Karelle Font-Levy does an excellent job outfitting the entire crew), Gillian is uptight, hyperactive, and completely neurotic. She runs from the bathroom screaming, “Why do you use Scott tissue? It's bad for your parts. It leaves lint.” She tends to stomp around and rave about everything from her job to her lack of sex; whatever the topic she is the queen of ranting. She grips her inhaler, breathing between long stints of frantic bitching and storytelling. Gillian is going to end up with whoever reaches the party first: the questionably heterosexual Michael or the lesbian Fritz. Otherwise, as she puts it: “I'll go home, take a Xanax, whip out the vibrator, and call it a night.” Lehr just finished a successful run in Popcorn at GableStage (along with Tei, Kendra Kasuba, and Michael Vines) and hopefully will be a frequent face on the South Florida theater scene.

Prudence (Jenni Pierre) and Samuel (Daniel Levain) add a farcical element to the play. Dressed as Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, they burst into the party and perform a medley of tunes, such as “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” It doesn't get much cornier than this; Prudence and Samuel do-si-do around while the hip partiers look on in disbelief. And the question remains: Whose friends are they anyway?

One of the most interesting aspects of the character development is the use of interior monologues. At various points in the play, each main character's inner thoughts can be heard through speakers. These monologues don't exactly divulge the buried yearnings and repressed disappointment of these young people; rather they give more texture to characters who do not hide their feelings yet are not very articulate. What's amusing is each actor's physical relationship to his or her interior monologue; they all have excellent control of gesture, motion, and physical expression. For example Pierre clutches her hands nervously as she reveals her desire for a more masculine man. Her eyes grow wide, her face flushed. She is the picture of Puritanism. The writers also have managed to make the transitions from the interior monologue to the spoken work quite comical. As Prudence silently questions her husband's sexual orientation, she suddenly bursts out: “Let's bob for apples!” The interior monologue is just one aspect of Tei's creative and effective use of audio, which ranges from the original Halloween theme song playing on the TV to Pete putting on a House of Pain CD before attempting to kick Lucas's ass.

Lines such as “I took a cab so I wouldn't lose my space” and “Honey, don't tell me you forgot to pick up the appetizer trays at Publix” leave no doubt that our philanderers live in South Beach proper. Even disturbing news is disseminated in the most Miami of ways when Sandra exclaims, “I was on the treadmill at Crunch when they announced on TV there's a serial killer on the loose!” The manner of receiving this news is equally South Beachy: “Oh my God,” Lisa says as she twists her freshly blow-dried wave of blond hair, “do you wanna beer?” The Miami references are not overdone and in fact add another dimension of parody to what otherwise would be simply a humorous comedy about contemporary relationships. The Beach-specific satire makes the piece more interesting, entertaining, and intimate (the audience also is literally sitting in the couple's living room). Where else would we play spin-the-cell phone instead of spin-the-bottle?

But some aspects do feel false. Michael Vines plays a winning jerk and general son of a bitch (and when he acts out his aggression in his pig costume, adds both hilarity and absurdity), but he doesn't have the right look. Shouldn't the role of Pete be played by a hunkier type if we are sitting in on a Beach pad? How can this chubby, average-looking guy be the object of not one but two women's affections without even being a club owner or a trust-fund brat?

Without giving away the ending, can you say overkill? Playwrights take heed: Follow your instincts, not fads of the moment. The central conflict between Pete and Lisa is abandoned too soon for an easier Hollywood ending. We get yanked from an interesting interpersonal drama and thrown into a slasher movie for no particular dramatic or revealing reason -- a letdown in what was a funny and entertaining evening of theater. But something tells me the next show easily could end on a different note. Mad Cat has an exciting and contagious energy that comes from talented young directors, playwrights, and actors who are working for themselves and their peers. It is a vital and promising experience.

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Mia Leonin