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Streets of Theater

A positive sign in South Florida's stage scene is the vitality of its fringe community, individual artists and tiny companies who create a range of intriguing, unique projects. But much of this flies under the radar of the major media and most theatergoers; searching out this kind of show takes some effort. The runs are short, there's no money for media buys, and the venues often are cramped and set in out-of-the-way corners -- studios, clubs, sometimes on the street itself.

One ongoing venue for offbeat theater is Drama 101, the former theatrical bookstore that now focuses on presenting events. Drama 101 sits on Miami's Biscayne Boulevard as part of a funky complex that houses artists' studios fashioned from former motel rooms. Several performance groups use the tiny theater space, which currently is occupied by the Juggerknot Theatre Company's Jazz Like a Drug.

Welcome to the Dirty Crawfish, a dark, smoky nightclub in Sugar Hill, Georgia, and have a seat at one of the pizza-size cocktail tables. On a teeny stage, a chanteuse croons some standards, while the harried club manager, Mr. Gusteau, anxiously awaits the arrival of his headliner, whose flight "direct from Las Vegas" has been delayed. When the star fails to show, Gusteau orders a tired waitress, Marla Hutchinson, to get up to sing a few songs. Marla protests but has no choice -- it's sing or lose her job.

With her wild mop of blond curls, runs in her stockings, and bruises on her arms, Marla is no glamour gal. And when she opens her mouth, she doesn't even seem blond: Abandoned as a baby and adopted by black parents, Marla talks and acts "black" and has been roundly rejected by both races. Marla tells the audience her tale of woe and abuse, interspersing it with an array of soulful tunes to music director Christopher Kurtz's piano accompaniment: "Respect," "Try a Little Tenderness," "God Bless the Child," "At Last," "Oh Happy Day." Although her life has been hard, Marla transcends it when she raises her voice in song.

Jazz Like a Drug, which runs under one hour, essentially is a monologue with a half-dozen songs mixed in. Written and performed by April Henry, it is, of course, a showcase for her performing talents, which are notable. Henry's acting is emotionally grounded, and she knows how to handle a crowd when she makes some improvised forays into the audience. She also is adept at the soul, blues, and gospel songs she delivers with power and emotion. The show itself is intriguing but feels unfinished. The backwater Georgia setting isn't given much attention -- save for Henry, no one bothers with any sort of credible regional accent. Henry's "white soul sista" concept seems rather farfetched and may come off as objectionable to some.

But give Henry credit for directly confronting issues about race. And she's on to something with regard to class and the American penchant for mistaking class warfare for simple racial prejudice. The chanteuse (a nice cameo by Elda Elisa Brouwer, the company's managing director), dressed in a slinky gown and a boa, sings "classy tunes" and is scheduled to appear at her late-night gig, singing at the local country club. Meanwhile, work-weary Marla, an anonymous nobody, slings drinks. When the belligerent club boss orders Marla to perform, she can't object, even when he angrily throws a glass of water in her face. Desperate to cling to her menial job, Marla has no power, no voice. Her racial identity may be confused, but her social station is very clear: When her singing earns her the respect and attention of the audience, she's yanked from the spotlight as soon as the scheduled star finally arrives. In that moment, all the joy and life seem to rush out of her, and she shuffles off the stage, back to her life of sorrow.

Henry hasn't sorted through the crosscurrents of race and class (who has?), but those currents make Jazz Like a Drug a show with significant potential. For now, though, Henry's soulful performance is well worth the trip into Marla's black and bluesy world.

What comes first, a quaint locale or artistic ferment? Hemingway used to claim that he went to live in Paris's Rive Gauche because it was cheap. But if that were all there was to it, he would have stayed in northern Michigan and the Oklahoma panhandle would be a hotbed of creativity. The truth is that while artists need cheap rent, food, and stimulants, they also are drawn to colorful areas. So it's not altogether odd that when the EDGE/Theatre decided to move its ongoing production, Couturier, back to South Beach, the company set up shop on Española Way (visually the artsiest street in greater Miami and the site of EDGE's former studio space before high rents drove it out).

Two blocks south of Lincoln Road -- a short but sweet block of cafés, live jazz and flamenco, galleries, and street artists -- Española Way is what Gapped-out, Pottery Barn-barded Lincoln Road should be but isn't. The narrow street, framed by two- and three-story buildings with balconies, looks (intentionally) like it just dropped in from Provence or Spain.

These nights, you'll find EDGE performing outdoors, specifically at the corner of Drexel Avenue. In the intersection. On the street. Amid the strolling flâneurs, a couple of plywood platforms sit on some four-by-four beams. A U-Haul truck backed up to this rickety stage serves as backstage, dressing room, and storage.

This evening, orange parking cones marked off the asphalt, but a tow-truck crew calmly removed some of them while en route to plucking a Mitsubishi Eclipse with Virginia plates from a no-parking zone. As the tow truck roared off, a stage manager set up some thrift-store-caliber wicker furniture on the stage. Another staffer set out a few plastic chairs, while a white, '62 Cadillac convertible with California plates roared up to claim the illicit parking spot.

The play was delayed for some reason, but never mind: There was theater in the street.

Perched on her luggage in the middle of the intersection, an architecturally impressive blond woman waited for a cab, seemingly oblivious to the attention she drew while chatting with a counterpart in black, her mini hiked up to the crack of dawn. A Rollerblader in a black tank top glided through the audience area while her leashed dachshund scurried to keep pace. As the stage furniture materialized and actors checked their props, local kids eyed the action from the sidewalk, leaning on cars like they always have, since before there were cars. This kind of theater goes further back than that -- back to when Molière and Shakespeare watched traveling street shows, even back to when they were kids, leaning against horses probably.

Finally, a solemn gong marked the start of the show, which is written, produced, and directed by Jim Tommaney, who also served as front-row gong-ringer. Based on the life and death of Gianni Versace, Couturier follows a famed designer as he readies his next collection. He dallies with several models, boys and girls, but never stays with any. To the couturier, love is a means for creative inspiration, but to his ex-lovers, it's a destructive force that ultimately is turned on him.

Tommaney, a prolific local writer/director/producer, has a poetic soul. There's a lot of heightened language here and a number of interesting ideas. Any show that references Caravaggio, the death squads in Rio, and 17th-century English poet Andrew Marvell gets my attention. But the script tends to linger overmuch on such flights of fancy and doesn't deliver enough dramatic action. Tommaney's direction is serviceable but lacks much boldness to match his heightened language. One would expect some color and flair in a show about a fashion designer, but save for the interstitial fashion-show sequences, Couturier steers clear of theatricality, though the street-theater setting seems to scream for it. The cast offers youth and energy, and some actors have the runway experience to enhance the fashion sequences. But none has the performance skills to carry off the emotional demands of Tommaney's operatic melodrama. Still, there is enough commitment and creative desire here to merit a look, if only for the street scene.

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Ronald Mangravite

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