Ground Up and Rising, the minimalist Miami theater company, is still at war. Two months after its production of Bill Cain's 9 Circles dramatized the hellish fallout of an American soldier's unspeakable war crimes in Iraq, the company remains ensconced in the psychological shrapnel of combat.
This weekend, Ground Up opens Dying City, Christopher Shinn's time-jumping domestic drama from 2006. It begins with war widow Kelly (Valentina Izarra) receiving a surprise visit from Peter, the identical twin brother of her late husband, Craig, who committed suicide under mysterious circumstances (both brothers are played by Christian Vandepas). Their uncomfortable discussions trigger flashbacks to Kelly's final night with Craig. As past and present commingle, defenses fall, secrets are unearthed, and the horrific, transformative nature of war is scrutinized. (As usual, audiences can attend free outdoor preview performances of Dying City this weekend at Miami Beach Botanical Garden before the show transfers to its indoor home at Artistic Vibes.)
"When I first read the play, I absolutely loved it," says Collin Carmouze, artistic director of Ground Up and Rising. "It's political and social commentary, it's a family drama, and it has the potential for tour de force performances for any actor who plays either character. Each scene builds on the last, and it's this cat-and-mouse game between the characters — between what they're saying and what they truly mean underneath — that I found fascinating. It also poses a lot of questions that it doesn't fully answer; it has the courage to ask and then leave it up to the audience member to answer."
Dying City caps a carefully curated Ground Up and Rising season in which the two plays seem to converse with each other. Both reference the aftermath of wartime atrocities that are not seen, leaving our imaginations to fill in the gruesome gaps. And both scripts are peppered with literary allusions: While 9 Circles compared a soldier's descent to the spiral in Dante's Inferno, Dying City is peppered with pointed references to Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night and the novels of William Faulkner, whose bold eloquence colors Shinn's writing. Dying City's dialogue resides on the border between the naturalistic and the lyrical.
"From a literary standpoint, I absolutely love the writing," Carmouze says. "There isn't a word that goes by that doesn't have meaning. It's one of the things we found most difficult to do in rehearsal; it needs a particular type of actor. If you can't pull it off, it sounds like a mess. But when done correctly, it just sounds very natural, very beautiful, and very melodic and poetic."
But the play's most distinguishing facet is the dual role of Craig/Peter — two characters birthed from a single zygote yet markedly different in their orientations and career paths, played by the same actor. It's Vandepas' job to bring out both their differences and inherent similarities.
"When you see documentaries about identical twins, they have this connection," he says. "They were born at practically the same time; they know each other backwards and forward. Sometimes that can lead to similar personalities, but it's also interesting to have the differentiation between them. It's cool to explore. They have to be totally different, but there has to be the thought, at least in Kelly's mind, that, Who am I really talking to here?
"I feel like much of the play has that sense of confusion, almost," Carmouze adds. "I want the audience not to know who's walking onstage [Peter or Craig] until they hear him speak — or until they realize that this is a different person, this is a different time."
Though this production of Dying City marks its Miami premiere, it's not the first time the show has been produced in South Florida. Plantation's Mosaic Theatre mounted the regional premiere in 2010 in a production that accrued several "Best Of" accolades from New Times Broward-Palm Beach. So why produce Dying City so soon after the last South Florida version?
"After some time has passed, it can be exciting and engaging to revisit a special show under the helm of a different creative team," says Arturo Rossi, executive director of Ground Up and Rising. "The theater patron is drawn to see an actor render a new Hamlet because each incarnation is different. But unlike Hamlet, there are many people unfamiliar with the play, and they will have an opportunity to experience it for the first time."
Dying City feels as relevant today as ever. At the time of its Plantation premiere, American ground troops remained in Iraq, and the horror of warfare felt wincingly close. Vandepas himself lost a childhood friend to the Iraq War.
Four years later, a new threat has prompted the U.S. military to once again target this godforsaken region. A ground invasion is even possible in the foreseeable future. If that happens, it will result in a familiar cycle of suicidal tendencies, broken families, and widowed partners not unlike the characters drifting through Shinn's play. For now, Operation Iraqi Freedom may be "over," but the city is still dying.