Existential Kitty

An artist is always alone -- if he is an artist.

-- Henry Miller

At first glance, it would be easy to think the most recent production at the Miami Light Project is standard Mad Cat fare -- smart, glib 20- and 30-something actors playing smart, glib 20- and 30-somethings in a way that is both genuine and quirky.

The play, Cope, opens with Monty Jones (Paul Tei), boy wonder/star theater director in an unnamed but obviously cosmopolitan city, passed out facedown on his living room floor. He's dressed in a black shirt and pants; a woman (Ivonne Azurdia) dressed all in white with a black necktie sits nearby with a suitcase at her side. As she channel-surfs, random images, from The Smurfs to National Geographic, flicker across the 12-by-16-foot video screen behind her. In the next scene, Monty is center stage at a power lunch with his manager, Diane (Lorena Diaz), and his good-natured playwright, Charlie (Erik Fabregat). Through a series of tight scene shifts, we follow Monty through his day: an interview in a trendy hotel, dinner with his parents, and a runway show. We watch Monty being corralled by Diane, adored by fans, chased by women, and tolerated by everyone else. All the while, Monty's woman in white shadows him, suitcase in tow. Monty seems to be the only person who can see her.

It's easy to deduce two things about Monty. One, he's "all that" -- he's young, handsome, and successful. He gets laid when he wants to, makes money, and is the center attraction in whatever three-ring circus is going on at the moment. Two, Monty is an egomaniac. He's quick to yell "fuck you" or proclaim "I'm Monty Jones" to anyone who crosses his path. He's facetious, belligerent, and generally overbearing.

Alas, a storm's brewing in Monty's narcissistic oasis. His new play is set to open in a few days, and it's in a shambles. The show's starlet, Rose (Michaela Cronan), whose wealthy father is footing the bill for the production, is a "frigid bitch," according to Monty. Charlie tries to rewrite the script according to Monty's abstract musings on the mating patterns of various mammals, but to no avail: "You're going to argue with me that National Geographic is not theater?" Monty screams at Charlie. We are left to wonder: Is the bad boy of theater finally going to piss everyone off beyond redemption? Is he losing his theatrical verve? At the eleventh hour, Monty has a revelation and gives the cast and crew a "rewrite" that he is sure will save the play. The new script is a series of blank pages. Monty claims that "words have fucked everything up" and wants to put Svetlana, a voluptuous, blond model from Norvenia (an imaginary Eastern European country), played by Gretchen Zohn, center stage with no script or words. The cast objects vehemently. Monty resigns and vows to do his own play. Meanwhile, the cast forges ahead with the script Charlie originally penned.

For as much as it may resemble past productions such as Helluva Halloween and Here in My Car, Cope takes the Mad Catters on a new leg of their journey toward producing original work. The familiar themes of contemporary coupling and pop culture are not exactly swapped but rather expanded for a more solo journey that explores the artist's role in today's society. What makes this play an interesting continuation of Mad Cat's mission to make real theater about real people is the script, which delves into an existential journey without betraying the superficial, cutthroat, and materialistic nature of its dramatic context. Cope reflects the artist's search for meaning in the midst of ringing cell phones, contracts being signed, and glam South Beach kids clamoring for autographs. The script, by Tei, is so well-honed and multidimensional that it allows us to witness the contemporary artist's reckoning with his family, muse, society, and ultimately his own ego.

The scene in which Sin Jackson, a theater critic -- skillfully portrayed by Pete Rogan -- interviews Monty is a prime example. Monty, playing up to the role of precocious young genius, carries with him a jumbo-sized light bulb (for his ideas). Obviously an archenemy, Sin sarcastically implies that Monty is a poseur and his art is manufactured. In a rage, Monty tells Jackson, "You're two words on the page -- your name. I am the page!" The dialogue is a masterfully written duel between the pen of the creator and that of the critic.

Another strong point of the play is the addition of a multigenerational cast. Alas, these spiky-haired slacker genius types have actually been spawned by real human beings. Before winning numerous Cope Awards and getting bombarded by fans, little Monty had a childhood and family. Letting us in on this world vis-à-vis his parents carries the play much further dramatically than it would if we were just left with the reality of Monty's Palm Pilot schedule and id-driven temper tantrums. Pamela Roza and George Schiavone are hilarious and entirely genuine as Monty's mom and dad. They also fill in some important blanks that more self-conscious modern plays might try to do through placing Monty in drug rehab or on a therapist's couch.

Mad Cat scripts are highly dialogue-driven. What you hear is what you get, and what you hear is almost always fast-paced, agile, witty, 20- to 30-something speak. While the first and last scenes are largely silent and much more surreal and symbolic (the final scene has a crucial development that is subtly played out), the rest of the play is full-throttle debate, dialogue, discussion, and diatribe. This is a demanding script with numerous quick scene changes. Because the Mad Cat cast is so nimble and cohesive, the effect is riveting. They are a dynamic troupe -- each character is consistently on point, dynamic, and compelling.

Throughout the play, Azurdia appears as Monty's shadow. She is at times an alter ego, and in the program notes, she is aptly entitled "Muse." As she has cowritten three works for Mad Cat with Tei, this is a role that pushes their ongoing collaboration to new heights. Azurdia skillfully plays with and against Monty's whims, moods, fears, anxieties, and tantrums. Although always on his side, the Muse often appears wiser and stronger. Azurdia's work on-stage is consistently genuine and often very comical, and in Cope, she reveals an impressive capacity for human expression through her face, hands, and movement. This role never feels too mimelike, clever, or gratuitous. Without saying a word (save a small speaking bit at the end), Azurdia's stage presence is fluid, vibrant, and revelatory. There's something rightfully poetic and surreal about her presence (a little of Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire without appearing to be a knockoff), and dramaturgically speaking, this role also adds a considerable amount of depth to Monty's character.

By now, Travis Neff's lighting and set design and Nathan Rausch's sound design are trademarks of any Mad Cat production, and Cope is no exception. The rapid-fire scene and set changes are coherent and cohesive. Karelle Levy's costume design accentuates the trendy jet-set style of the characters. The use of video is the only element of the production that doesn't work 100 percent. Like the music, the video often plays an important role in the dramatic development of the play, especially at the beginning and end, but at times (i.e., the hotel and runway scenes), it resorts to being a mere backdrop, coming off as unnecessary and contrived.

It's hard to ignore that Cope is written and directed by and stars Paul Tei. Add to this the play's dramatic premise and the fact that Tei himself is quite the hip charismatic theater guy about town and you could have a recipe for failure. What makes Cope a success is that it hides none of these facts. It actually plunges headlong into such ironies. Cope manages to transcend the unholy trinity of director, actor, and writer and takes audiences on a worthwhile and often riotous journey through the world of theater.

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Mia Leonin