Theater on the Redeye

Six plays from scratch in 24 hours means no sleep and lots of laughs.

At Barry University on a recent evening, Antonio Amadeo was showing signs of strain. "All my writers are leaving," he said as he watched another top-tier SoFla playwright disappear into the night. He looked like a kid whose best friends had bailed at a slumber party. "My prediction is, in another 45 minutes, very few people will be left."

But all is well now. It's 8:30 the next morning at GableStage, at the Biltmore in Coral Gables, and Amadeo is running around, reveling in a turnout that represents perhaps the greatest display of solidarity ever birthed by the region's theater scene.

This is the 24-Hour Theatre Project, conceived by Amadeo and willed into being by a cast of dozens. Last night six of South Florida's most accomplished playwrights, a half-dozen of the region's best directors, and 24 of its finest actors met up at Barry. The playwrights drew from a hat the names of six hypothetical plays. From another hat, they each drew a director's name, and from a third hat, the names of four actors. Then they went home to write a script based on the supplied titles. Now the directors and actors are whipping these newborn scripts into plays. They have less than 12 hours. Shortly before 8 p.m., the house will open and fill to near-capacity with theatergoers who've paid $50 a head to watch great artists narrowly avoid meltdown, calamity, and humiliation.

Extremely good vibes are in the air. Playwrights, directors, and actors busy themselves in and around the big theater. At the moment, great peals of laughter are rolling off the stage as Paul Tei, the punky, goateed patriarch of Mad Cat Theatre Company, tries to block his actors for Michael McKeever's How My Sister, Sally, Collected Her Winnings Despite the Dead Mime in Her Car, a play about a lottery ticket, an angry mime, and Morrissey. Tei is directing actor Reiss Gaspard through a mime routine. Gaspard has just materialized an invisible kitty. He's petting it.

"Give the kitty to them," Tei says, gesturing to the seats. "Make a face, like, what's this?"

Gaspard grins a soft little mime grin.

"Now blow up the balloon. Now try to turn it into something."

Gaspard twists his imaginary balloon, getting flummoxed, hands moving more frantically.

"Right, right — get frustrated!... And then ... pop it! Just pop it!"

Gaspard jumps on the imagined balloon, a look of blazing hatred on his face.

"Perfect!"

"What'd I tell you?" says actor Matthew Chapman, in character, smiling hugely. "That is one angry mime!"

McKeever is sitting in the audience, looking delighted. He did not sleep last night. "But I'm doing well," he says. You believe him. McKeever has the pecs of a Renaissance sculptor's most optimistically proportioned wet dream, and he looks ready to run a decathlon. "We talked for about a half-hour, 45 minutes last night. Then I went home." He got to work immediately. "I've always loved the concept of angry mimes. And then near the end — about half of what I wrote, I dumped out and started over."

He finished somewhere between 4 and 4:30 a.m. "The alarm went off at 5. We got in the car and left."

Writer Marco Ramirez, whose Mister Beast is showing at Mad Cat, sits down next to McKeever.

"Same thing for me," he says. "It was an all-nighter. Maybe slept 20 minutes. Michael and I kept calling each other, playing phone tag — 'Hey, what's up? How's it going?'"

Rather than write a single play for four actors, Ramirez penned two pieces during the night: one for Promethean Theatre's Deborah Sherman and the Naked Stage's David Perez Ribada, and another for Mad Cat's Scott Genn and GableStage's Joe Adler, who is stepping out from behind the scenes to act. The prospect sent ripples of giddy anticipation through the community the moment word got out. When Adler arrived at GableStage this morning, he discovered he'd be playing a Stormtrooper. Not the Nazi kind. The Star Wars kind.

"It's that edgy sketch-comedy kind of stuff," says Ramirez. "I figure for the Joe Adler piece, everybody's going to be anticipating big laughs."

"He has the best line of the night," says McKeever: "Fuckin' Ewoks!"

The good vibes continue unabated for hours. Stuart Meltzer is in the dressing room, looking very businesslike, running his people through Juan C. Sanchez's Less than Beautiful. In the corner of the house, practicing Will Cabrera's I Was the Only Lemming on Noah's Ark, Ceci Fernandez is trying to figure out what a lemming sounds like when it cries, and come up with a stupefyingly cute cross between a hiccup and a squeal. In the back of the theater, Kim St. Leon is watching her crew read through Ricky J. Martinez's Dime Store Novel, and Bechir Sylvain is working on a broad-stroke parody of an Indian accent that's sending Martinez into paroxysms of giggling. He looks totally sleep-deprived, but he's plainly tickled to hear his fresh-off-the-printer words given life by some of SoFla's most beloved actors. Somewhere, Meredith Lasher is trying to midwife Andie Arthur's apocalyptic Dinner at the End of the World. Outside, Andy Quiroga is bouncing back and forth from Adler and Genn, who are cracking themselves up with Ramirez's Star Wars script, to Perez-Ribada and Sherman, who are working on Ramirez's soberer Twenty-Six. Twenty-Six is about a man who overnight has grown 30 stories tall, and the sister who comes to visit him.

"It's mind-blowingly amazing, the structure of the piece," says Sherman. "There's a real arc — a beginning, a middle, an end — a great story, you know about these people. And you care about them. Hopefully. If we don't fuck it up."

"Are we feeling competitive? It didn't even occur to me," says Sherman when asked. "I guess I'm naive a little in that sense. I figure we're all equally fucked."

People keep wandering in and out, laughing, checking in on each other. It's unheard of to have so many people from the theater scene together in one place at one time, and the assembled seem to be delighting in the number of familiar faces. It's like a class reunion, if a class reunion involved memorizing 15 pages of dialogue in less time than it takes most people to read 15 pages.

Even though the writers went home last night, almost everyone else kept the party going for as long as possible. Many got home well after 1 a.m. and slept only three or four hours before returning to Coral Gables at 7:30. By midafternoon, much of the adrenaline has gone out of them. Out front, Deborah Sherman is looking fidgety and drawn. On a nearby stairwell, Carlos Alayeto, Arnaldo Carmoze, and Michaela Cronan are preparing for doomsday (their costar, Erik Fabregat, is MIA for the moment). They're looking as tired as everybody should have felt hours ago, trying to learn the lines of the talky minidrama Dinner at the End of the World. In it the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have a last meal at Denny's before destroying the planet. Famine, played by Carmouze, is trying to make a point about Casablanca. Pestilence, played by Carlos Alayeto, is having none of it.

"Any conversation not having to do with the end of the world needs to end now!" he screams. "All I'm saying is that the problems of two demonic angels don't amount to a hill of beans!" Michaela Cronan, fresh from the similarly themed End Days at Florida Stage, is looking especially harried. She misses a cue. "Is that me?" she asks, looking up from her script. "Shit."

If Amadeo had to bet, he'd anticipate the first stressed-out diva meltdown arriving in two or three hours. "You're already starting to see little tiny cracks. People are getting tired; people are getting anxious about how they're going to learn their lines — that kind of thing."

But he insists it's unimportant. "That sort of all dies down as the show is coming. It's like, 'Fuck it! Let's go!'"

It hasn't happened yet, though. The finishing touches are being added to How My Sister, Sally, Collected Her Winnings Despite the Dead Mime in Her Car. The mime is onstage, angry as hell. "Yeah, I'm fucking her!" he yells. "Mime fucking! Fuck you!"

Actor Todd Allen Durkin creeps backstage, horrified at his inability to nail his lines. "Oh, man," he whispers, "this is gonna be fucking bad. It's like sketch night at GableStage."

The place gets quiet as the audience assembles outside. Amadeo gathers his actors, directors, and writers in the house, and exhorts them to have fun, whatever happens. The sounds of assent are half-hearted in comparison to the gleeful noise the crew was making seven hours ago. And then the doors open.

Less than Beautiful is first, and an amazing thing happens: They do not fuck up. The actors, portraying four plastic-surgery-addicted friends attending the funeral of another friend who died during lipo ("She went in to have her fat taken away — not her life!"), do everything right. And in contrast to the typical staid, polite theater audience reception, the crowd hollers, screams, and cheers. You could go all night without realizing that most of this response originates with the participants themselves, seated in chairs off to the side of the stage. But it doesn't matter. Once the hooting starts, the paying public joins in lustily.

Actors improvise like mad in I Was the Only Lemming on Noah's Ark. Dinner at the End of the World elicits crazy laughter. People actually cry during Ramirez's Twenty-Six, which turns out to be as artful and gorgeous as any non-24-hour production. During Strike, the crowd goes ape-shit when Joe Adler removes his Stormtrooper helmet. Scott Genn explains that his brother was injured during a youthful speeder bike crash involving Ewoks. "Fuckin' Ewoks!" cries Adler, madly firing his blaster at offstage rebels. The crowd goes ape-shit again.

Up next are Dime Store Novel, inspiring more laughter (especially when, after a particularly overcooked scene, the actors break to award Lisa Morgan a Carbonell), and How My Sister, Sally, Collected Her Winnings Despite the Dead Mime in Her Car, which elicits more guffaws. Then it's done. It was nowhere near perfect — everybody fucked up, except for Meltzer's crew, and Adler wasn't even off book — but the theatergoers are thrilled to have seen such a thing, and together with the project's principals, they quickly take to sucking down booze in the parking lot.

"It happened," says Amadeo. "It went off, so that's a success." He looks exhausted. Despite his words, he seems unsure whether it was a success. Like everybody else involved, he's still too close to see the thing clearly, uncertain how to weigh the various onstage goofs and gaffes. But it was the project itself that mattered — its sheer audacity, the abandon with which it was pursued. You get the sense they'll be doing this again.

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