Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
Ungodly rich from his years of clogging the book racks of airports and drug stores from coast to coast (an estimated 300 million books sold), author James Patterson never has to lift a finger to peel a grape till the end of his days if he so chooses. But Jimmy Jim has a heart and soul, it appears, as evidenced by his latest project, the PBS documentary Murder of a Small Town, which is about crime, punishment, and the hardscrabble lives of the residents of the far other end of Palm Beach County. In Belle Glade, Pahokee, and the other towns around Lake Okeechobee, agricultural labor (when there is any to be found — unemployment rates are staggering) is most folks' bread and butter. Patterson grew interested in those lives during visits to the area as he distributed books to school kids. Now he wants the world to put down his novels for a while and absorb some hard truths.
A ballsy show in more ways than one, Island City Stage's Octopus explored the potential perils of unprotected sex through a surrealist conceit that would make Eugene Ionesco proud. It starts with a shockingly frank orgy involving two male couples, their sexual maneuvering choreographed like a ballet. But the weirdness comes later, in the aftermath of the encounter, when one character apparently takes up residence at the bottom of the ocean and sends cryptic missives to his friends and lovers through a creepy telegraph boy. Andy Rogow's fearless direction plunged into depths few theater companies would dare explore, resulting in a groundbreaking drama that was strange, visceral, and altogether physical, from its many-tentacled tangle of nude flesh to the realistic brawls of its climactic finish, staged in and around a pool of water. Those in the front row could have been warned they'd be sitting in a Sea World-like splash zone, but that would have dampened the show's immersive excitement: We were all in it together.
With Daniel's Husband, Michael McKeever proved that even after years of writing award-winning South Florida premieres, he's still getting better. As Island City Stage's riveting capstone to its best season yet, Daniel's Husband started off as the kind of breezy, erudite comedy McKeever can write in his sleep. At a dinner gathering of two gay couples, we learned the hosts, Mitchell and his partner Daniel, have opposing views of marriage: Mitchell was philosophically opposed to it, and Daniel was waiting — sometimes more patiently than others — for his boyfriend to come around. What made the play uniquely powerful is that it enjoyed its world premiere the year same-sex marriage became legal in Florida. For the first time in history, its characters had the same choice to wed as straight couples have for centuries — and with that choice came responsibility. When tragedy struck Daniel in a bold, twist-ending Act I, the play became a tear-jerking cautionary tale about the perils of voluntarily staying separate but equal, and there was never a question of the playwright's stance on the issue. Hopefully, this brave and personal work's Florida debut will be its first stop of many.
2012's film adaptation of Les Miserables was punishing, and by now, it's hard to get enthused about seeing yet another regional production of this hulking warhorse. But Maltz Jupiter Theatre's superlative, standard-bearing mounting of the operatic Boublil and Schonberg classic breathed new and inspired life into the familiar text. Every element of the production was a dazzling showcase of deeply considered craftsmanship, from Paul Black's heavenly tunnels of light to Gail Baldoni's bounteous variety of period-perfect costumes to Paul Tate DePoo III's towering, ominous set design to Marty Mets' sound design, which ensured that the actors' soaring voices cut through the shifting sonic landscape with crystal clarity. As for those 26 voices onstage? Simply miraculous. The show opened only in March, but no matter what musicals open for the remainder of the year, this Les Miz is clearly the musical to beat headed into next year's Carbonell Awards.
The world of five-star restaurants is kind of like the world of the theater. In both cases, the roiling backstage environment is a far cry from the perfectly presented machine the audience sees. Sean McClelland's scenic design in the Broward Center's Fully Committed envisioned the lowest rung in a restaurant's totem pole, a reservations room tucked away in the bowels of the restaurant, notches below even the private, profanity-laden hothouse known as the kitchen. As the place where an overworked phone jockey spent one hectic evening fielding phone calls from friends, parents, rivals, superagents, and desperate debutantes, McClelland's design was part man-cave, part dungeon, part collection of curiosities whose lack of explanation added to the set's quirky memorability. As uninviting as a Third World prison yet stuffed to the brim with ornamental gewgaws, the set epitomized its inhabitant's saving grace: his ability to bring character and color to a drab, soul-draining job.
This LGBT-focused theater company in Fort Lauderdale gained inestimable respect in 2013, when its acclaimed production of the Holocaust drama The Timekeepers scored six Carbonell Awards. It has kept up that winning track record since, beginning as one of a handful of theaters to share the offbeat space at Empire Stage and emerging as its most important lessee, playing to capacity audiences night after night. The keen eyes of artistic directors Andy Rogow and Michael Leeds are largely to thank for its success. Over the past year, they took a chance on world premieres — Michael McKeever's devastating Daniel's Husband and Michael Aman's POZ, an implacable ensemble dramedy concerning AIDS and spirituality — while mounting South Florida premieres of the acerbic Hollywood satire The Little Dog Laughed and the surrealist masterpiece Octopus. All were gay-specific but universally relatable, transcending the company's niche and resulting in must-see theater for all.
Readers' Choice: The Broward Center for the Performing Arts
Shelly "The Machine" Levene, Rob Donahoe's character in Maltz Jupiter Theatre's Glengarry Glen Ross, is the last of his breed: a dinosaur from an earlier era of real-estate sales, facing extinction from the younger, filthier, more Machiavellian sociopaths who share space in his dingy Chicago office. Donahoe's portrait of Shelly's sheer desperation, colored by a nervous twitching of the legs, was heartbreaking to watch. And his faultless reading of David Mamet's intimidatingly difficult staccato speech vividly realized what, on the page, could resemble a messy word salad. Like a sputtering lawn mower emitting just enough power that you don't want to toss it out to pasture just yet, Donahoe made me care more deeply for the character than any previous production I'd seen of Glengarry, elevating him from one character in an ensemble to the show's bona fide lead.
Effusively praised in his every performance but criminally overlooked during awards season, Ethan Henry's virtuosic talents helped elevate Primal Forces' Sunset Baby from a squalid drama of criminal desperation on society's fringes to a tragic character study of a family ripped asunder. As a drug dealer and deadbeat father prone to fits of rage and jealousy, he was the wrench preventing the already rusted-out gears of his girlfriend and her estranged father (an excellent Makeba Pace and John Archie) from turning toward each other again. From his character's sneaky intelligence to his uninhibited sexuality, he blustered across his dingy apartment with the laser focus of a young Brando, and you got the impression he'd lived this man his entire life, not for the three weeks (at most!) of rehearsal. In the play's most captivating scene, he rampaged the apartment wordlessly in search of a secret, proving that even without deploying that deep, baby-makin' voice, Henry commanded our attention just the same.
The greatest compliment to Ann Marie Olson's performance in Thinking Cap Theatre's Always... Patsy Cline is that I forgot I was watching Ann Marie Olson. This is what it means to disappear completely within a character, in this case this doomed singer who brought Nashville country music into the pop mainstream before perishing in a plane crash at age 30. With very little dialogue, Olson captured Patsy Cline's exuberant spirit and fundamental kindness — but what's more impressive was her pitch-perfect mastery of 27 Cline songs, from hits like "Crazy" and "Wa kin' After Midnight" to the more-obscure selections that would fill four-hour set lists at forgotten '50s honky-tonks. They're all a far cry from the traditional Broadway vocal arrangements Olson has conquered for Slow Burn Theatre, yet they seemed as comfortable leaving Olson's lips as church hymns to a reverend. If there were ever a local production that deserved its own cast album, it's this one.
There's something to be said for chewing the scenery, for playing the loudest notes so powerfully and incessantly that everything, for a brief time, disappears, until that one performance is all that remains. In her opening scene as Margaret White, Carrie's fundamentalist wacko mom in Slow Burn's Carrie: The Musical, Keelor consumed everything — the set, the music, the title character — with her unquenchable hysteria. You hated her character as much as you'd ever hated anyone on a stage in that moment, but you were transfixed. You couldn't help but marvel at her acidic delivery of every biblical condemnation aimed at her newly menstruating offspring, every physically abusive overreaction. She was — and there's no better word for it — possessed. Act II was something else, however; unlike Piper Laurie's one-note, batshit performance in the 1976 movie adaptation, Keelor's Margaret earned your pity and sympathy with the most moving number in the show, bringing the emotional house down just before Carrie's oppressors showered it in blood.
The year's winner for this category comes with some bittersweet sentiment. Just as the Theatre at Arts Garage's final show of the season, Uncertain Terms, was about to take its first bow, artistic director Lou Tyrrell announced that he would be leaving the company at the end of it. At least he followed an old show-biz manta: Leave 'em wanting more. Though it consisted of just three plays, Arts Garage's 2014-15 theater season was arguably its most accomplished and satisfying slate of plays yet, all written by female playwrights. The How and the Why, selected by Tyrrell but directed by consummate freelancer Margaret Ledford, explored issues of evolutionary biology in a brainy and demanding production; I and You tackled teenage angst and the timeless poetry of Walt Whitman while packing a metaphysical punch; and Uncertain Terms featured a quintet of South Florida's finest actors translating a challenging new work with aplomb. Each of these plays was drastically underattended, so it's no surprise Tyrrell would want to flee to a more hospitable venue. Whatever his future holds, his final season at Arts Garage will be a tough act to follow.
Jane Hart brings more than 20 years of solid expertise in the contemporary art world to her role, having worked at galleries in London, Los Angeles, NYC, and Miami. But more important, she brings with her a dash of sophistication, edginess, and fun. While other museums put on yet another Warhol retrospective or a survey of 17th-century judeo-pan-pacific pottery (zzzzzzz), she's throwing down a killer reception, hosting an interactive installation, or filling her rooms with weird and wondrous treasures. Last year, for instance, she featured an exhibit exploring the imagery on tarot cards; this summer, there's a show inspired by the hallucinogen LSD. Sri Prabha's work inspired by space and biology pushed brains to the limit; Agustina Woodgate's rugs made of stuffed animal skins gave everyone the feels. Lowbrow or highbrow, nearly every exhibition that Hart curates boasts a vision that's avant-garde and fantastic. That the spunky tastemaker is warm and mom-like is a bonus: If she believes in an emerging artist's work, she will help foster a budding career.