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Girl Gangs Rule

At first glance, you wouldn't think there's much in common between the ragtag Mad Cat Theatre Company in dirty downtown Miami and the stylish Dreamers Theatre in restaurant-infested Coral Gables. Mad Cat goes for in-your-face gonzo drama and aims for a pierced, punk crowd, while Dreamers opts for more elegant, refined material and decorous audiences. But a closer look reveals more than a few similarities. Both companies are new, both focus on world premieres, and both are led by skilled actors turned artistic directors, the Dreamers' Yolandi Hughes and Mad Cat's Paul Tei. Then there are some remarkable coincidences. Both have offered only two full productions this season. Both staged ghost stories in the fall and are now presenting plays about women committing murder, both of which premiered the day of the recent high school bloodbath in Germany.

Mad Cat's Shoot is a hyperrealistic tale of three disaffected high school girls whose anger at their parents, their teachers, and life in general rules their lives. All three are from poor, dysfunctional families and have adopted a spiky, dark, goth-grrrl look as a measure of self-identity. Blond Nikki lives in a ramshackle house nursing a secret crush on her pal Rachel, a tough-talking fury who has just knocked her drunken mother flat in yet another domestic dispute. Both girls channel their frustrations through the plight of their brainier pal Sondra. Sondra, who all hope will win a college scholarship and a ticket out of their dumpy Southern town, has just learned she received a B from their favorite teacher, Mr. Malcolm, thus effectively killing her chances, or so the girls think. Rachel is enraged that Malcolm, their sometime fellow pot smoker, would betray Sondra, and her ire is further stoked when Sondra reveals she has slept with him. Eager to please, Nikki offers a gun she found in her house, and soon the three wired sisters are caught up in a spur-of-the-moment plan to kill Malcolm in revenge.

The play was written by David Cirone, a veteran actor whose plays have cropped up at several area theaters. On the boards, he recently fared well as the obsessed stalker in GableStage's Boy Gets Girl, another ripped-from-the-headlines social drama that appears to have strongly influenced Shoot. Cirone sets up intense, vivid portraits of the three girls as well as their unwitting target, Malcolm (Joe Kimble), a hapless, weak-willed liberal whose empathy for Sondra turns into sexual desire. Cirone also brings a real affinity for class conflicts. These girls are trapped in a dead-end working-class world that's clearly falling apart around them. And the middle-class educators who are trying to teach them are tired, booze-swilling working stiffs well aware that the deck is stacked against the students they are supposed to inspire. This steely-eyed realism is what makes Shoot so scary. It isn't just teenage angst that's fueling these kids; it's a dawning recognition of the world's indifference combined with a self-serving willingness to blame that indifference for all their problems, a toxic combination that by intermission sends this story rocketing toward disaster.

As is its style, Mad Cat makes a lot out of little. Christopher Jahn's backyard setting is perfectly grungy, replete with a cat-clawed sofa and tattered bedspreads draped over a clothesline. A couple of neon bar signs, a table, and some beer bottles immediately evoke a gloomy bar. Paul Tei directs with his signature visceral style laced with plenty of humor. His actors deliver high-energy performances, to varying levels of effectiveness. Kimble plays regret well, and he's most effective in a short barroom drinking scene with company regular Ken Clement as a school guidance counselor. But Tei's decision to use young performers as the three teens has mixed results. Elaine Sanchez brings some emotional texture to Sondra, but otherwise there's a lot of energetic screaming going on, with little insight.

The same can be said of the production itself: This Shoot makes a bang but doesn't hit the bull's-eye. Cirone and Tei skillfully set up these characters. But without examining the crisis and its aftermath, Shoot is just part of a play, its implications strangely right wing, given its rough language and outré characters. The play's underlying point, intentional or de facto, is an indictment of liberal -- read: weak -- adult authority. These children/women have a total lack of parental supervision, and the chief adult authority figure is sexually compromised. So what is the point? The way to stop teen violence is for teachers to avoid sex with students? Perhaps more important, what happens to these people afterward, in the lifelong wake of momentary violence? The play doesn't say, and perhaps it doesn't want to find out. But if not, why not? Mad Cat has justly won kudos for presenting challenging works with next-to-no resources. But thought is free, and dramatic insight needs no grants to be envisioned. If this company seeks to present sensational subjects like teen violence, it has an obligation to deliver some insight or at least perspective -- something, anything, more than what can be seen any day on the local TV news.

A lack of ideas is certainly not a problem with the Dreamers Theatre production of The Just Assassins, a new adaptation by Manuel Martinez and Yolandi Hughes of Albert Camus's play Les Justes. Camus, the noted existential philosopher, has fallen from public notice in the past few decades, but his writings remain challenging and relevant, especially in this postmillennium terrorist environment. Camus's experience as a French resistance fighter in World War II and his observations of the guerrilla war in Algeria afterward are directly funneled into many of his novels and plays, including this one.

Martinez, the company's executive director, and Hughes, its artistic director, have updated Camus's tale, setting it in 2030 in a country torn by ethnic strife. A civil war has broken out between rival factions, including an Islamic force in the southern part of the country that seeks to secede. When an exiled Catholic king returns to reunite the nation, the separatists plan to assassinate him. A cell of all-female assassins holes up in an apartment waiting for the right moment to kill the king. Ringleader Anna (Evelyn Perez) harangues her subordinates with radical rhetoric, but the chosen bomb thrower, Ynez (Deborah L. Sherman), wavers at the last moment, and the opportunity passes.

The crisis raises unexpected problems for the group -- when is assassination justified and when is it not? Can the extraneous killing of bystanders be justified? Does the wished-for end always justify the means? These and many more vital issues are argued at length in this drama, which bears a close and intentional resemblance to the current news from the Middle East, as a new trend of female suicide bombers seeks to promote the Palestinian cause. The parallel is close but not very deep. These women are identified with an Islamic cause, and the production design pegs them as Muslims of some kind. But little else in the play references Islam in any meaningful way, and the Islamic identification ends up little more than a sensationalist cheap shot.

Hughes directs in a careful, conservative manner, presenting well-balanced stage pictures, and opts for an austere, declamatory performance style that echoes Greek tragedy. She also appears to be playing with mythic symbolism, notably that of the Handless Maiden, an archetype of female disempowerment: She's got all her women acting without hand movements, an echo of the wounds Ynez suffers in the story. But these ideas and images aren't matched with enough theatrical invention to compensate for the play's lack of suspense or surprise. The result is a thoughtful but airless production that's earnest but not very entertaining.

The performances range widely in effectiveness, from flat caricature to the more nuanced work of Claudia Latorre as novice terrorist Dora and Aubrey Zappolo as another comrade, Veka. Much of the cast settles for playing generalities when extreme specificity is called for. There are some effective moments, however, notably an interesting seduction scene between Ynez and Dora, whose wandering hands offer an intriguing contrast to her high-toned dialogue. Another highlight is a prison scene in which badly injured Ynez encounters another prisoner, Foka, who is not only the custodian but her executioner. Foka, played with gusto by Laverne Lewis, is a Shakespearean character, a wry, lowlife commentator who's a welcome relief to the relentlessly grim situation.

As was the case with the Dreamers' premiere production, Beautiful Dreamer, A Tale of Cassadaga, the company's production quality is very high, thanks to set designer Michael Essad. With its curving arches and earth-colored, stone-like surfaces, the setting evokes a timeless, Arab-influenced environment. Ellis Tillman's graceful costuming, with Islamic-style tunics and head scarves in muted gray tones, is very effective. I could have done without Ozzie Quintana's annoying techno music tracks, which, combined with the stylish costuming and the willowy cast, threatened to turn the production into a terrorist fashion show.

Still, there's a lot to admire in The Just Assassins. It secures the Dreamers Theatre's identity as a creator of well-wrought productions of new works. To this, Dreamers makes a statement about courageous programming and adds a bracing, welcome dose of intellectual rigor. Ideas in South Florida! Who wudda thunk it?

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Ronald Mangravite

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