Real-Time Car Talk
The Mad Cat experience Here in My Car may not be for everyone, but it may be for you. The best way to tell is not whether you've acquired a studied cool or nerdy hipness, it's really more a matter of semantics. To find out if you qualify to get in the car, take the following quiz:
Define the following:
a.) A clever acronym for angry mothers against spandex
b.) A mysterious yet tasty canned meat to be served with hash and fried eggs
c.) A clever young DJ who scratches and mixes rumba and hip-hop
2.) The Road
a.) Dadeland Mall dismembered, disguised as Art Deco, and plunked down between Washington Avenue and Alton Road
b.) Miami's oldest bar
c.) A long strip of asphalt between the Everglades and the Atlantic Ocean where Miamians feel most at home
a.) A new line of feminine-hygiene products
b.) Those tantalizing, tangy chicken parts they serve at the Gables Pub
c.) Paul McCartney's post-Beatles creative effort
If you're still not sure, here's a small preview (sample scenes set in an older-model sedan):
Two girls head to the mall. Perri (Maria Heredia), an aspiring fashion designer, kicks her foot up on the dash and intermittently snorts coke and paints her face. Sylvie (Ivonne Azurdia) alternates between bursts of road rage and lamentations that her boyfriend doesn't understand her poetry.
Bruce (Ken Clement) and Eddie (Michael Vines) make their way to the Gables Pub for beer and wings after a night of gambling at the Miccosukee reservation.
Joanna (Caroline Edelen) haphazardly steers with her right forearm, talks on her cell phone, and writes a shopping list on her left hand all at the same time.
I walked out of Mad Cat's current production, Here in My Car, wondering what separates the cast members from any other coke-snorting, pub-crawling, abuela-disrespecting group of artsy, twentysomething Miamians. And for that matter what distinguishes me from being just another café con leche-slurping, DJ Spam-grooving, hostile Miami driver? The answer? Nothing. Really, nothing. And that's the beauty of it.
Mad Cat's third play, which is the third original piece penned by Azurdia and Paul Tei, combines a bit of Melrose Place with a healthy dose of The Real World, plunks it down in Miami, and just lets the "camera" (that is, the audience) keep rolling. This is not reality-based theater. It's real-time theater. To say it's local is an understatement. With references to Publix and the impossible parking situation on South Beach, Mad Cat's debut production of Helluva Halloween was local. But Here in My Car is beyond local. It's personal. It reveals the travels and travails of a group of young Miamians. Some of them are Cuban-American; most of them are artists, actors, and filmmakers. They listen to Green Day and Frank Sinatra, hang out at Tobacco Road (not Lincoln Road), and connect to the outside world via their cell phones.
One character who happens to be an actor, Nick (David Cirone), refers to a role he has in the GableStage production of Thomas Edison. (New Times recently reviewed Citizen Tom Paine at said theater.) Another character, Luis (Ralph De La Portilla), is obsessed with his new gig as a promoter for "Patatun," which is strikingly similar to "Fuácata," the alternative night that Portilla and fellow cast member Erik Fabregat have created on Thursday nights in Little Havana's Hoy Como Ayer club. Here in My Car might have been conceived a while back, but it clearly continues to develop from the moment the actors start up their engines until the last illegal left-hand turn, and this is what gives the play theatrical vitality as well as an uncanny sense of temporality.
The series of vignettes connects the loves and lives of 11 characters. Some of their lives cross over from act to act, but luckily the writers do not try to hit us over the head with the Six Degrees of Separation principle. All the action takes place in an early 1980s Honda, an artifice that gives the piece cohesiveness and a dramatic starting and finishing point. Despite the fact that actors and audience members alike are sitting for almost two hours, the piece never feels sedentary, thanks to Tei's crisp direction. The numerous transitions are made smoothly with simple blackouts and changes in music. When the lights go down, actors jump in and out of the car, change hats, peel off jackets. The radio spits out the Russian roulette of programming (Power 96, Howard Stern, the oldies station, Y-100) recognizable by any Miami driver. Because the play is set in a car, the music is crucial; sound designer Nate Rausch has mixed a phenomenal sampling of '80s and '90s tunes and thrown in some surprises.
With references as topical and recent as Jack Lemmon's death and subject matter so connected to a relatively small group of people, this play, in its original form, could not be seen two years from now -- maybe not even two months from now. For example, when Janie (Samara Siskind) explains to Luis that she wants to go dancing at "Pop Life" (the Saturday-night party in the Design District) because "they play old-school tunes like the Cure and the Smiths," you may think you too have recently had this same conversation. You either relate to this material or you don't, and if you do it's a sensation of déjà vu that could give you whiplash. One of the most interesting aspects of Mad Cat's work is that, in a world where theater still tries to be universally appealing, this troupe doesn't try to attract a broad range of theatergoers by performing universally themed plays. Tei is not creating a new kind of theater; he's creating a new kind of audience.
While the script often borders on superficial, Azurdia and Tei, who are approximately ten years apart in age, bring an interesting blend of decades to the writing: references to Paul McCartney and Wings and Less Than Zero are spliced with talk of Green Day and Blink-182. What keeps Here in My Car from being a narcissistic, "Hey! A Play About Me and My Friends!" production is Tei's excellent direction (his best effort so far) and the Mad Cats themselves. These actors are not talking heads! Without this spontaneous and adventurous troupe of actors, the play would fall flat.
The core company members (Azurdia, Heredia, Siskind, Clement, and Vines) are excellent actors who are starting to find their own energy and comfort levels. Heredia, Azurdia, and Siskind have created three female characters that are as quirky as they are comical. Clement has a confident stage presence that is always a welcome aspect to any Mad Cat show. And Vines has finally found the ideal role. He is hilarious as Eddie, the boyfriend of anorexic barmaid Brandy (Jennifer Smith). Smith and Vines's explosive dialogue adds some much-needed levity to the play. The two weakest actors are Aubrey Zappolo and David Cirone, who play a couple dealing with the complications of a long-distance relationship. This is also the weakest relationship in the play. Because the play runs pretty long, a weaker vignette such as this one could be shortened or even eliminated without detracting from the piece as a whole.
If Spam still means nothing to you, maybe this production won't either. But for the rest of us, this is a good opportunity to catch real live theater. Here in My Car is more entertaining than Friends, costs less than Cirque du Soleil, and has as much cultural relevance as -- dare we admit it? -- a night at "Pop Life."
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