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How far will one friend go for another? In Trembling Hands, Ivonne Azurdia's grotesque, funny crime drama now in its world premiere by the Mad Cat Theatre Company, the answer is very, very far indeed. Following up on her splendid Tin Box Boomerang, a hit for Mad Cat last season, Azurdia spins a tale of loyalty, menace, and money woes, this time among three Miami med school students whose quest to come up with quick cash leads them into a ghastly scheme that goes haywire. Filled with film noir references and pungent humor, Hands is another high-energy entertainment effort from the Mad Cat crew.
Like many a Mad Cat show, the story is set in Miami and plays out against a backdrop of well-known local settings. At the start, three gal pals are cramming for their second-year med school exams. But high-strung Charlotte (Samara Siskind) panics, certain that she's bound to lose her scholarship with a bad grade. Sure enough, she tests badly. Her funding is terminated and, with it, her prospects for a medical career. Her best friend, Alex (Azurdia), vows to help raise the tuition cash by stripping in clubs, but sarcastic trust funder Sloan (Michaela Cronan) doubts that will bring in enough. Soon, though, the students are approached by Ria (Maria Heredia), a tattoo artist who is involved with a get-rich-quick scheme. It seems that a mysterious man with a generic European accent (Joe Kimble) will pay big bucks for human kidneys, but only those from males with a certain blood type and genetic characteristics. Ria, who manages to secretly test the blood types of her clients, has already identified a potential victim. Running out of time and needing only three kidney harvests for the money Charlotte needs, the students go for the scheme.
Style trumps substance here. Delivered in a series of rapid-fire, movie-like scenelets, some no more than a brief visual sequence, Trembling Hands takes a while to get going. But when it does, it rockets along with increasing jeopardy and tension. Much of the fun comes from director Paul Tei's crisp staging, which uses a series of hospital curtains to quickly reveal, then just as quickly conceal, the brief scenes. These skitter among apartments, bars, and nightclubs around Miami. Azurdia makes a lot of use of local references -- Churchill's, the Stampede Bar, and the late, lamented Gables Pub are all punch lines for in-jokes. Even in the most desperate situations, Charlotte, Alex, and Sloan can't resist humorous putdowns. When one particularly moronic frat boy (Craig Kaul) barges into their bar conversation, the girls' sarcasm is so deadpan, he doesn't even notice. Thinking he's making a big impression, he earnestly belts out his version of a painfully out-of-date pop song while the women sing harmony in a terrific, off-the-wall comedic riff. Azurdia's playful, pungent sense of humor is in evidence throughout the play, which oscillates from high emotional melodrama one moment to hilarious black humor the next. (Gregg Weiner is particularly funny as Squirrel, Ria's hapless admirer).
The Mad Cat's signature style, using high-decibel music and slick, quick pacing, is well in evidence, including a grounded, naturalistic acting style and expert production support. As usual, the design team shines. Karelle Levy's thrift-store costumes are subtly inventive. Lighting designer Travis Neff has a field day painting with noirish shadows and highlights. Nathan Rausch's sound design creates a visceral geography of Miami nightlife. It's a testament to Mad Cat, which, by my reckoning, is the only true theater ensemble in South Florida, with everyone involved seeming to do his or her best work.
That said, Trembling Hands is not without its flaws. If you can overlook the organ-heist premise (Stephen Frears covered the same territory in his recent film Dirty Pretty Things) , it's hard to dodge the play's basic implausibilities. In fairness, every story has one or two unlikelihoods -- that's the nature of fiction (or even fact). But stories stray beyond one or two unlikelihoods at their peril, and this one really pushes the issue. The fundamental problem is decidedly shaky: Sure, Charlotte needs to come up with tuition money, but is this elaborate, incredibly risky scheme the only way to solve the problem? If the three friends are clever and smart enough to get into and survive in med school, how come they are too stupid to think of something else? And later, when they manage to get most of the money, why do they go to such sacrificial lengths to get the rest? Never mind. Sometimes it's better not to ask too many questions.
All of this might not be of much importance if Trembling Hands tipped decisively into a fable-like black comedy, in which plausibility is not so important. But the play also asks for emotional involvement with these antiheroines so that their actions are motivated by something resembling emotional truth. That's a tall order, and neither Azurdia nor Tei fills it decisively. The result is a play that's funny and fast, but the wide swing between emotional honesty and scabrous fairy tale comes across as more muddled than challenging. Still, Azurdia is on to some interesting, disturbing subjects here. Alex is by far the best-written of her characters, revealing a contradictory attitude toward men, whom Azurdia tends to depict as either menacing, powerful antagonists or easily manipulated weaklings. With a history of rebellious promiscuity, Alex bonds only with her girlfriends, but she can't resist tempting or humiliating the men who are attracted to her. When she opts to strip for Charlotte's tuition, she dons a thigh-high, sprayed-on, red sheath dress, ready to go on the hunt. When the kidney scheme kicks in, she's the siren who lures the target males, and she keeps up the male bashing with a series of insults and putdowns of her unconscious, drugged victims. The vengeful kick Alex gets from this warped game is easily the most intriguing aspect of Trembling Hands. Whatever Azurdia does next, this production marks a real step forward in her increasing power as a writer.