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Tumbling Dice

When you go to a Mad Cat show, ya rolls yer dice and ya takes yer chances. The risk-taking theater ensemble in downtown Miami makes sure that the audience takes some risk just to get in the door. Company policy establishes a "$12 plus the roll of one die" policy for ticket prices, so you can pay anywhere from $13-18 a pop. Uncertainty is part of the fun -- you never know what you're going to pay for Mad Cat. You also never know what you're going to get for your money.

Case in point is Mad Cat's current offering, Seventy Scenes of Halloween, a weird, spooky show written by Jeffrey M. Jones that is nothing if not ambitious. Taking its cue from James Joyce's Ulysses, Seventy Scenes' narrative centers on an ordinary man, Jeff, and his life, thoughts, and feelings during the course of one Halloween night. In the ghostly light of their television set, a married couple sit in their living room, waiting out the endless stream of trick-or-treaters who ring the doorbell. Edgy, crabby Jeff (Paul Tei) bickers with his complacent wife, Joan (Ivonne Azurdia), while thinking back with regret on his ex-lover. Jeff and Joan are haunted by fears and impulses in the form of a masked Beast (Michael Vines) and a Witch (Samara Suskind), who first loom outside the living-room window, then haunt the house itself.

Jones' point, such as it is, appears to be that the frightening depths of the human psyche make ordinary life a real spook show, far more disturbing than Halloween conventions admit. He also appears to be hunting after theatrical conventions. In a throwback to the 1950s heyday of absurdist theater, Jones has written an "antiplay," deliberately thumbing his nose at the assumptions and conventions of modern drama. His "seventy scenes" begin with a stage manager announcing each by number over a bull horn, each in succession. But the numerical order soon gets jumbled, with scenes skipped or repeated with variations. The Beast and the Witch begin to take on the roles of Jeff and Joan at times. Scenes are played out of order or in the conditional tense, depicting what could happen but hasn't (or won't). The intermission is called a scene, with the stage lights turned on the audience. The finale is deliberately nondramatic.

Trying to make sense of this is a challenge for an audience; that challenge, together with its Halloween subject, are undoubtedly what attracted Mad Cat to this piece, its third Halloween show is as many years. But it's a decided departure from past shows. Besides the antiplay structure, Seventy Scenes is the first Mad Cat production taken from a writer outside the company ensemble. But Jones' script doesn't go far or deep in depicting these characters; what revelations there are remain banal indeed. And while I have no complaint with Jones' appropriation of ideas from Joyce, Ionesco, Bruno Bettleheim, and maybe Bruce Springsteen's song Tunnel of Love, he fails to create something new out of them.

As per usual, the Mad Cat crew does solid work. Paul Tei directs in his usual clean, spare style and plays Jeff as usual too -- Tei's wired, hostile, gel-headed slacker has turned up in several productions recently. It's becoming his signature stage identity. Azurdia is sweet but rather bland as sweet, bland Joan, but in truth, her character has next to no dimension to work with.

Conventional playgoers will probably be bewildered by this Mad Cat gamble, but I am not so sure that means Seventy Scenes is a failure. Since last season's guns-in-schools drama Shoot, Mad Cat has been drawing from a most unlikely audience pool: teenagers. This is due in part to Tei's affiliation with Miami's New World School of the Arts, from which he drew some of the Shoot cast. Word of mouth about Mad Cat appears to have spread, and Tei himself seems to be a budding cult figure among the high schoolers. Whatever the reasons, Mad Cat's audiences appear to be getting younger each season, and it may well work in the company's favor to keep presenting whacked-out, edgy material, even if (or perhaps because) such choices do not satisfy conventional expectations.

It must be noted that though the sold-out audience I was part of seemed flummoxed by Seventy Scenes, not one person walked out at intermission, and many were overheard to be enjoying struggling with their response to the show. Compare this with the stampede over at Actors Playhouse at the intermission for the challenging Comic Potential: If you aren't nimble, you could be trampled to death by the rush of patrons fleeing up the aisle. Viewed in this context, the Mad Catters may be in the enviable position of developing an audience that's willing to go anywhere with them, and "success" or "failure" will be judged by artistic progress rather than by commercial product. If so, that's a heartening development.

Still, Mad Cat serves up only two productions a year, and it's a long time between them. Seventy Scenes of Halloween may merit a shot as a roll of the dice, but as a full 50 percent of a season, it's no wonder some may grumble. Which brings us to the real question: What next for Mad Cat? Having quickly established its reputation for daring, well-produced plays, will this company keep on as it is, a loose, informal group that puts up challenging shows in between paying gigs? Or will it take on the formidable challenge of establishing an institutional presence, with an expanded slate of shows and -- gulp! -- a business organization? Budgets and payrolls and taxes, oh my! Now there's a scary thought.

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Ronald Mangravite

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