Gold by the Dropperful
Far more good things than bad transpired on the stages of Broward and Palm Beach in 2007, and many of them are obvious only in retrospect. Quite often in theater, you won't think much of a play or of a scene in the moment of performance. It's only later, after the moment has fermented a bit in the juices of the subconscious, that its lasting value becomes apparent. The opposite is also true: Things that seemed wonderful in the moment will sometimes turn out to be cheats — failures of imagination or worse. Below are three moments from the theater year that have only grown larger in stature since first viewing and one moment that, after seven months, stinks worse than ever.
April: 9 Parts of Desire at the Mosaic Theatre
This was a one-woman show in which Pilar Uribe portrayed a number of Iraqi women, delivering gorgeous, poetic monologues about their lives and perspectives. It was not an especially political show — as the women made their ways across the stage, too many political viewpoints were convincingly sold and disproved for any one to hold water by show's end — but it did drive home the human terror that can arise from political happenstance. The theater year's most frightening moment came when Uribe spoke in the guise of Umm Greyda, an old woman who lost nine children in the American flash-bombing of the Amiriyah shelter. Just as the factual Greyda does in the real world, Uribe gave us, the assembled Westerners, a tour of the shelter's ruins, pointing out the silhouettes of long-vaporized human beings on the walls, telling the story of families boiled alive after the shelter's piping superheated and burst. All of the other characters Uribe portrayed had exaggerated movements and vocal mannerisms: They were loud, operatic. But Umm Greyda was so still, the play all but ground to a halt when she appeared. She refused to allow the next scene to begin until we had absorbed this one, and we did. Afterward, not many folks were in the mood to see a play. We stayed anyway, just to see if she could do it again.
Moral: Everybody knows war is tragic, and you won't get far by restating the fact. If you want to make your audience feel something, tell them something new: War is horror.
November: Triptych at Inside Out Theatre
Inside Out Theatre gave Triptych a valiant try but couldn't quite make it stick. Alas, Triptych isn't much of a play. But as we said at the time, drama's where you find it, and Lisa Morgan's portrayal of a jilted wife squaring off against her hubby's mistress and her hormone-wracked adolescent daughter was so crazy that it made the show, sucky play or no. Morgan was sanguinely feline but unmistakably menacing and funny too — both in the purr of her words and the elegant aggression she expressed with her body, especially her ginormous boobies, which she heaved around the stage in a way that could only be called martial. The vulgar confidence with which Morgan slung her cleavage underlined the greater vulgarity underlining her role, which stopped the show over and over again in joyous detonations of gross impropriety. The greatest example came when she had her husband's mistress trapped in a dressing room, engaged in a demo of pornographic one-upmanship. Musing about female orgasms, she wondered if all women cum the same way or if "it's different for each one of our cunty little selves." She delivered the line with such icky lubricity that it felt like she was eating it, and actress Sandra Ives, who played the other woman, appeared instantly shell-shocked. Who the fuck is this woman? We sympathized totally.
Moral: If you're in a play that sucks, suck with élan. The audience may never know anything's amiss.
December: Doubt at the Caldwell Theatre
Doubt was all about, you know, "doubt," and that's a hard thing to sell in theater. Or any popular art form, for that matter. People like their expectations reified. But to make an audience think it knows something and then make it think it knows the opposite thing and then make it change its mind again — this is what open-minded people spend their lives doing, and it usually takes them years to complete a full flippity-flop. John Patrick Shanley's big trick in Doubt was making it happen over and over again in a single play. He did it with an icky issue too — in Doubt, one Father Brendan Flynn, a Brooklyn priest in the early '60s, may or may not be buggering the first black boy ever to attend the church's school. The woman making the accusation is the formidable Sister Aloysius, a strict, old-school nun played by Pat Nesbit with all the gravitas of a pissed-off iceberg. You'd think that's as deep as it gets — until Pat Bowie shows up. When Bowie, who plays the alleged victim's mother, is summoned for a meeting with Sister Aloysius, the resulting confrontation is not only thunderously emotional; it's also utterly ambiguous. Since the play's still running and since it's new enough that theater people might not know how it goes down, I won't give away more. Suffice it to say that the horror and outrage you'd expect out of a mother confronted with her son's potential molestation never quite materializes — and by the end, you're half-convinced she's right not to be horrified or outraged. That's the script doing its work, sure, but it's also the actors: At various points in the play and afterward, it's easy to be convinced that every character is somehow monstrous, and changing our minds is quite a feat. Watching Nesbit and Bowie at work, you're watching great actors learning not only to empathize with their characters but to believe that those characters' motivations are good and just. Their showdown leaves us filled with doubt, not only unsure about what's true but also unsure about what Sister Aloysius' accusations might mean if they are true. It's a painful place to be. Theater people owe a debt of gratitude to Bowie and Nesbit for going there night after night.
Moral: If you're doing a scene so wrenching that it's guaranteed to upset the audience, you'd best get pissed off yourself.
May: The Lion King at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts
The theater year's most ridiculous moment, by far, was the arrival of The Lion King at the Broward Center. It was a huge event — advertisements appeared in all the area's publications, and people who never think about the theater dragged their families and friends out for the occasion. The event itself was a joke: an underpowered orchestra, a sound system that refused to amplify low-frequency singing, a reduced set, and the most blatantly racist plot since The Turner Diaries (which, by the way, has yet to hit Broadway). It's hideous that we'll turn up by the thousands for this tripe when good work is being performed to half-capacity audiences at smaller theaters across the country. The folks in charge of The Lion King banked on the suspicion that we, the lumpen proles of Broward, had no standards whatsoever. To thank them, we filled their coffers.
Moral: If you're dumb enough to eat shit, somebody else will be greedy enough to sell it to you.
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