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Sympathy for the Devil

Heaven and hell have long been subjects for human speculation, but when it comes to fiction, let's face it: Perfection isn't very interesting, and hell wins hands down. Writers love going to hell; it's dramatic, dangerous, and sometimes funny. Witness the production at Fort Lauderdale's Sol Theatre of Hell on the Halfshell, which serves up a pair of one acts from George Bernard Shaw and David Mamet. The double bill offers an interesting variety of ideas, cultural assumptions, and theatrical styles while serving, not incidentally, as a showcase for the Sol's steadily improving resident acting ensemble.

Both plays use a simple set of a couch and a few other furniture pieces backed by fire-red walls with painted flames. This hell is a deliberately cheesy, bare-bones place. The Shaw piece, Don Juan in Hell, begins where the classic tale of Don Juan ends. In the original, the notorious rake seduces a young maid, Ana, and kills her father, who is honored after death with a statue of his likeness. Don Juan is later dragged into hell by the statue, which has come to life to stalk him. In Shaw's tale, Ana's dead father, called the Statue, has been sent to heaven but has found it so boring that he visits hell, where he and Don Juan become fast friends.

Then Ana, who has recently died as an old lady, finds herself in hell. She is outraged that she wasn't sent to heaven and that her father and ex-lover are now pals. The devil shows up to referee the confrontation, which turns into a wide-ranging debate over the nature of justice, the natural superiority of women over men, and other freethinking ideas. Shaw was a verbal bomb thrower who delighted in creating a fuss among his 19th-century audience. His ideas seem remarkably modern and fresh, and his language maintains plenty of zing: Consider the Statue's admission, "I was a hypocrite [in life]. Served me right to be sent to heaven." Or Don Juan's snipe, "Wherever ladies are is hell."

Don Juan is not a play exactly; rather, it is a sequence lifted from Shaw's larger work, Man and Superman. It's a supremely difficult piece to carry off, virtually devoid of action or drama, relying mostly on ideas and actors' charisma. The journeyman Sol cast is likable, but the proceedings bog down in the verbiage. Dressed all in black, with silver-tipped boots and rodeo buckle, company director Robert Hooker has a go as Don Juan, looking not a little like Waylon Jennings as he restlessly roams the stage. Hooker has presence but suffers the common fate of actors who direct themselves -- specificity is often lost without an objective director's suggestions for improvements. Jim Gibbons's turn as the Statue is a decided step up from his tentative Prospero in The Tempest; he seems more relaxed in this supporting role. Daivd Tarryn-Grae's lean and hungry looks are just right for the devil, though he tends to declaim too much. Rosalie Grant has the most difficult task as Ana. While her performance is clear, she and Hooker haven't solved the role's chief problem, which is to find some variety and surprise to all the outrage.

The company barely wrestles Shaw to a draw but scores better with Mamet's Bobby Gould in Hell, a scabrously funny tale of a damned mortal who's mercilessly grilled by a devilish interrogator and his assistant. Bobby is apparently the movie mogul of the same name from Mamet's play about Hollywood, Speed-the-Plow, but, it seems here, in name only. This Bobby is an ordinary guy who's desperate to get out of hell, but the nasty inspector won't allow it. To compound Bobby's torment, the inspector summons forth Bobby's bitter, jilted girlfriend, Glenna, as icing for the devil's cake. But Glenna turns out to be a hellish sort and refuses to leave when bidden. Despite all his attempts, the inspector can't get rid of Glenna, who eventually reduces him to tears. Mamet's raucous, skit-like play seems a better fit for the Sol's cheeky style. Sergio Campa turns in a very funny performance as the inspector, an over-the-top tour de force that recalls John Belushi's heyday on Saturday Night Live. He is given nice support from Ford D'Aprix as his sycophant assistant, a hipster who nicely complements his fire-and-brimstone boss. Company newcomer Michelle Dryer offers humor and strength as Glenna, a woman not to be messed with.

Sol's troupe still has a long way to go before it can match the difficult material the actors take on, but there's progress here.

South Florida is blessed with an active children's-theater scene, but you wouldn't know it from the scant media attention it receives. In hopes of making amends, this critic took in The Jungle Book, which is being colorfully produced at the Actors' Playhouse at Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables.

This is a musical adaptation of the famed story by Rudyard Kipling of an orphaned human child, Mowgli, who is raised by wolves and faces up to his nemesis, a fearsome tiger, Shere Kahn. Author Mark Alan Pence's version, which won the Playhouse's National Children's Theatre Festival Call to Competition, is full of bouncy songs and jokey modern references and seems modeled on any number of recent Disney projects. Director Earl Maulding's staging is energetic and remarkably complex for kids programming, and he's got a talented cast to work with, including Ryan Jacobs as a slinky, nasty Shere Kahn and Lucknor Bruno Jr. as a very funny singing elephant.

My companion and fellow critic, who is something shy of three years old, was also taken by the production, quickly identifying the tiger, in her bilingual way, as the malo of the show. Though my sidekick was not fazed by some of the darker elements, other age-challenged audience members were genuinely scared of the costumed, masked animal characters. This Jungle Book seems most appropriate for children over three or those, such as my companion, who have some familiarity with the theater.

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Ronald Mangravite

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