By a recent count, more than 300 theatrical productions are staged each year in South Florida -- just about one new show a day. Of course, it doesn't work out so neatly -- most shows open on or near the weekends and go up against an array of competing openings. That certainly was the case at the start of March, when at least eight theaters premiered new productions, some in the same ZIP code. The wide range of dramatic choices may make the local theater scene a publicist's nightmare, but for ticket buyers, it's heaven. That's the case in Coral Gables, where two crackerjack companies, the New Theatre and GableStage at the Biltmore, opened new productions, both Florida premieres, on back-to-back nights.
The Credeaux Canvas at the New Theatre is a prickly, unsentimental look at struggling artists in Manhattan. The setting is a seedy downtown artists' loft, where a young art student, Winston, lives and paints, to little avail. His real job is as a library clerk, and he's frustrated by his inability to get a career break in the brutal New York art scene. His roommate, Jamie, is a tightly wound rich kid with suicidal tendencies and an abiding loathing of his art-dealer father, who dies leaving Jamie disinherited. Jamie's girlfriend, Amelia, has her own disappointments. A wannabe singer, she's also relegated to a thankless dead-end job. All are desperate for some cash, and Jamie has a plan. It seems that Winston has a knack for copying the paintings of dead masters. For a school project, he once copied a painting by an obscure French painter, Jean Paul Credeaux, and Jamie thinks he can pass off one of Winston's fakes as the real thing to a gullible art buyer. The others balk, but Jamie works on them, and they agree to create another Credeaux canvas, with Amelia posing nude for Winston. But while Winston paints Amelia by moonlight, the original forgery plan takes a sudden erotic detour.
The play was written by a talented young New Yorker, Keith Bunin. The playwright neatly sets up his characters and their shaky forgery caper, then creates a forgery of his own by inventing Credeaux, an imaginary character whose work, technique, and place in the development of modern art is described with such detail and verve, it really seems as if there were such a painter. Bunin's observation of the traits and habits of the urban art scene are dead-on perfect, and to his credit, he doesn't try to sentimentalize or elevate his characters. Though these three are likable in the early going, their story soon gets nasty indeed. When it does, Bunin doesn't try to apologize for what the characters do. The same applies to Rafael de Acha's production, which is beautifully staged but deliberately stark. Scenes and acts end without fanfare or codas. Rather, they just evaporate, like these friendships do.
The cast is strong. Brian Louis Hoffman makes a dazzling South Florida debut as the peripatetic, lithium-deprived Jamie. Leif Gilbertson, who scored as an edgy, aggressive student in GableStage's The Shape of Things, does a complete 180 as the languid, amoral painter Winston, who doesn't mind who he sleeps with as long the fling is fun and short. Aubrey Shavonn's Amelia is believably unhappy and conflicted, but her flat vocal rendering and lack of humor makes the character hard to watch after a while. The production gets a real boost when Kimberly Daniel makes an all-too-brief one-scene appearance as the uptown art buyer, Tess. Tess is so completely vibrant, the three friends suddenly look cheap and dirty for trying to cheat her, an essential plot turn that Daniel aces in a memorable performance. As is now the standard at the New Theatre, the production staff turns in excellent work. Michael McKeever's dingy yellow artists' garret is starkly realistic, yet Travis Neff's lighting transforms it at times with romantic moonlight and shadows.
Meanwhile, GableStage presents a different, equally stark look at creative life in Tabletop. This off-Broadway hit is set in a commercial film studio, which is jammed with camera, tripods, lights, stands, and electrical boxes and all the jumble of equipment that makes up a professional film set. But this studio is different. It specializes in "product shots," or "tabletop," the insert shots of products featured in television commercials. There are no actors or dialogue filmed here, just ultra-detailed close-ups of "the hero," industry slang for the product itself.
The work looks easy, but it isn't. The days are long and the routine is relentless, and so is the fanatical attention to detail. The crew's production assistant, Ron (Michael Vines), is gung-ho for his job, which he sees as completely creative. But the regular crew members think otherwise. Prop man Jeffrey (Paul Tei) has a bitter, jaundiced view of television and commercials and spends a lot of time defending his turf and taking claim for Ron's ideas. Camera assistant Dave (Joe Kimble) just does his job, preoccupied with a new secret love affair. Grip/gaffer Oscar (John Archie) wants out, with a plan to start his own business. And the intense Andrea (Pamela Roza), the company's assistant director/script supervisor/production manager, just wants to get the day's work done. All are tyrannized by their boss, Marcus (George Schiavone), a foul-mouthed ranter who screams at anyone and everything in his range -- especially Ron.
Playwright Rob Ackerman has created a hyperrealistic, real-time, "slice of life" story based on his own experience in the tabletop trade. Realism is the operative word. The script is crammed with so many film expressions, the dialogue must sound like Aramaic to the uninitiated. The hyperreality is further intensified by director Joseph Adler's long experience as a commercial director (hopefully not as a screaming meanie like Marcus) and the production background of several of the actors. Adler's staging, natural but clean, is incredibly detailed: He has six people doing simultaneous, seemingly separate tasks that must be orchestrated and timed together without anyone noticing. Adler intensifies the natural feel by holding back all conventional theatrical elements: This show has no music, no atmospheric sound effects. Lighting designer Jeff Quinn works with no obvious stage lights other than working lights used in the filming, and no one is credited with costume design for the nondescript clothing the characters wear. Add Tim Connelly's sprawling, detailed film set, and the experience feels more like watching real life than a dramatic construct.
That's the intention, and that's good, on the whole. While the direction and acting are first-rate, there's not much story here, and the proceedings sag. Ackerman tries too hard to land some points about creative integrity, selling out, and the evils of commercial advertising, but this all feels schematic. Each character seems at times to exist primarily as an example of human frailty, like the seven sins in a medieval morality tale. But that's a cavil. The attraction here is not the story; it's the skillful production and the insiders' look at the film business, a subject that holds a fascination for many.
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