A Wake-Up Curtain Call

[Exit, pursued by a bear]
-- The Winter's Tale, William Shakespeare

Being a theater critic is one of the best jobs ever invented, so it is with mixed emotions that I'm leaving behind my duties at New Times to pursue new adventures in Washington, D.C. With apologies to dance fans, I believe that theater offers more intimacy and immediacy of human experience than any other performance medium, reaching further than the movie screen or the TV tube in drawing the audience in and bringing us jowl to jowl with raw emotion. You can look away from the suffering or ecstasy you see on film or video: It's almost always impossible to ignore a live person in the same room.

In the past two years, I've watched performances so wonderful that I'll remember them for the rest of my life -- and some so awful that I purged them from my mind the second I stepped out of the theater. As a template for theater, South Florida is a fascinating mix of profound talent and missed potential, good ideas and bad executions. A friend once commented, "There's so much to work with here," implying -- correctly -- that the potential is too often not realized. Sometimes compelling stories do meet up with inventive production values, however, and that's what I hoped for every week as the lights went down and the curtain came up.

If there's no true genius such as Derek Walcott or Robert Wilson or JoAnne Akalaitis working in South Florida theaters, at least we have Joe Adler, whose GableStage is striving to bring fresh works here, sometimes just months after they've closed in New York. Not to mention Louis Tyrrell, of Florida Stage, and Michael Hall, of the Caldwell Theatre Company, who consistently produce provocative plays, often with astonishing production value and great casts. (And I'm sorry to miss the return of Juan Cejas, whose new theater company, Energy in Motion, sounds as promising as his achievements at the old Florida Shakespeare Company.) If there's no South Florida equivalent of Uta Hagen or Maggie Smith, well, the performances that New Theatre artistic director Rafael de Acha gets out of many of his actors, for example, are consistently top-drawer.

In fact, week after week I found the acting to be the most compelling reason to go to the theater -- something I could be excited about despite the dearth of directorial vision or the frequently mind-numbing texts chosen for production. I would happily trot off to any show featuring Peter Haig, Jen Ryan, Viki Boyle, Pat Nesbit, Sheryl McCallum, Dan Leonard, Lisa Morgan, Kim Ostrenko, David Kwiat, Bill Yule, David Alt, John Fionte, Marcia Mahon, Bob Rogerson, Pamela Roza, Paul Tei, Judith Delgado, Kim Cozort, David Forsyth, William Metzo, Elizabeth Dimon, Barbara Bradshaw, or Michael McKeever. I'm sure there are other fine South Florida troupers I didn't get a chance to know.

But acting alone can't sustain the rialto, and for reasons that I can't entirely understand, South Florida is not particularly conducive to a thriving theater scene. Foremost, the choice of material artistic directors pick is often beyond dull, too often banking on star power to bolster weak scripts or hits from earlier eras to draw audiences in. It's not enough merely to entertain. In a perfect world Penn and Teller and George C. Wolfe would raucously coexist with, oh, Tony Kushner and Eric Bogosian. There will always be a place for a magnificent revival such as the Finian's Rainbow mounted last fall by the Coconut Grove Playhouse or the snazzy productions of standards by the Broward Stage Door. But in a landscape in which artistic directors don't take many chances, looking to Broadway's past is not a particularly inspiring way to forge theater's future. (I'd even trade each and every Broadway show that passes through the area for a decent local Shakespeare company.)

South Florida theaters are not alone in juggling the need to present familiar fare in order to sustain subscription audiences with the need to challenge those ticket holders with new works. Theater is supposed to be exciting, terrifying even, not the all-too-comfortable middlebrow fare that shows up in the glut of theaters here. Yet few artistic directors seem to trust their audience enough to thrust something unfamiliar in front of them. How ironic that Miami, where Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot had its world premiere in 1956 -- and which is now a city-state influencing trends and cultural patterns around the world -- is the last place to see avant-garde drama. Major living dramatists from David Hare to August Wilson have rarely had their works performed in South Florida.

What's more, politics mixes uncomfortably with art as it does with so much of life in South Florida. The fact that Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz can't get a production of his exceptional works south of the Palm Beach County line is an outrage. (His most recent play, at the Florida Stage in January, is about the fate of rafters who leave Cuba for our shores and certainly of great interest to audiences in Broward and Miami-Dade.) Cruz's dilemma serves to bring an even larger issue into relief: Very little of the theater presented here is created by South Floridians or comments on the experience of living here and now.

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Robin Dougherty