Michael McKeever is probably the South Florida theater community's MVP this year. He writes plays. He acts in plays. He designs sets. Oh, and the playbills you use to fan yourself? It's very likely he designed their covers. Hand of God, McKeever's new play about Catholic priests could, in theory, make you wince from the possibility of bringing out the clergy's dark secrets. But the play is really about introspection and the miracle of kindness in daily human interaction, which makes Hand of God almost feel warmly out of time, the same way that gentle chess-playing priests bantering in a sunlit rectory also seem to be from another time. This sense of slowing down, of deliberate thought, and of welcoming the unexpected in life, binds the play together. If you were from someplace frigid, like New England (or, for that matter, Palm Beach County), you could say that Hand of God feels like the first warm day of spring, when you can sit in the sun on the grass and talk with your friends after a long, cold winter inside.
Sisters of Swing, at Florida Stage, was a musical play about the Andrews Sisters -- LaVerne, Maxene, and Patty. But the sisters never existed in an all-female world. There were husbands, managers, and band leaders, and, of course, the thousands of soldiers for whom the girls came to symbolize every wife and girlfriend left behind as they fought in the trenches of World War II. Terrell Hardcastle and Tom Kenaston moved quickly through Sisters of Swing to play all of these boys and men, with the softness of homesick G.I.s and with scene-stealing hilarity as they crafted unforgettable impressions of Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye.
Who decides the line between lead actress and supporting actress? For some, Niki Fridh's star turn as an abused Army wife in And Then She Moved the Furniture could very well be considered a leading role. But the leading role in this graphic new play at the Public Theatre was not one of the actors but the spirit of violence and malevolence that filled the air. In the play, as her sniper husband evolved into a war-filled killer, both on the battlefield and at home, Fridh brilliantly responded to that evolution with real and moving expression of her growing fear and entrapment. It was a performance that made you want to see much, much more of Fridh in the future.
The Public Theatre sometimes seems more like a concept than a theater. Give it a room with rows of collapsible chairs and the Public Theatre will provide an evening of searching the darkest corners of American society that always keeps its audience on the edge of its seat. In the past year, Public Theatre's artistic director and father confessor, David Jay Bernstein, focused on the politics of disease and sexual identity (The Normal Heart), ethnic conflict and urban youth disenfranchisement (Barefoot Boy With Shoes On), and domestic abuse and the insanity of war (And Then She Moved the Furniture). Public Theatre does more with less than any company around, fully knowing that elaborate sets and fancy playbills have less to do with the theater of social conflict than do sharp plays with superior casts that include some of the most talented actors in South Florida, both well-known and up-and-coming.
One of the best parts of the Palm Beach Dramaworks experience is the anticipation, like a kid on Christmas morning, of the moment you enter the theater to find out just what it's come up with next for its stage design. The stage is almost as big as the audience space, which means that whatever the troupe does, you're right on top of it. Last year, during an intermission for Lips Together, Teeth Apart, with its Fire Island beach house deck, one excited theatergoer walked right up to wander around and then read a prop copy of the New York Times sitting on a patio table. When scenic designer Michael Amico and his construction crew of Andre Lancaster, Michael Schmidt, and Manny Tepper built a full-scale Victorian parlor to pull off the creepy world of That Championship Season, you could only say "Wow!" as you became fully immersed in the play's 1970s world in which four lost-boy former basketball heroes reunited with the coach who would always manipulate them.
Exits and Entrances, Athol Fugard's reflection on his early career as a rising playwright in South Africa, wasn't really a homegrown Broward or Palm Beach production. But neither was it a road show hopping into town for a couple of hyped nights of crazed theatergoing at the Broward or Kravis centers. Florida Stage's production was the play's East Coast premiere, with director Stephen Sachs' original cast from its debut at Los Angeles' Fountain Theatre in 2004. With Fugard-based playwright (William Dennis Hurley) and ham actor Andre (Morlan Higgins), Exits and Entrances mesmerized through talented actors who together won more than nine West Coast awards for their roles. But the play, because of its connection of on-stage fiction with the life and legacy of Fugard, was even more important to us than just insightful entertainment. It was a lens to explore the roots of one of the most important writers on the world stage since the mid-20th Century.
The Women's Theatre Project is all about ensemble acting, and it seems that a key criterion for their choice of plays is that they include groups of women inwardly focused, clarifying the differences and similarities of those in the genetically XX community. Even as the company's regular ensemble productions routinely succeed, like last fall's If We Are Women, the girls of Bold Girls offered extra synergy. The Northern Ireland of the early 1990s was a dangerous place, where the husbands of characters played by Deanna Henson, Kathy Ryan, and Tania Tesh were either dead or in jail, which meant these women had to stick together even more. Jennifer Gomez, as a mysterious interloper into the trio's stronghold, further exemplified the rich companionship of the others. Just like on Sesame Street, one of these four people didn't belong, and with Gomez smartly the outsider, the overall result was that the union of Henson, Ryan, and Tesh was even more strongly clarified.
Someone get this place a sense of humor before it's too late. Buzzi, executive director of the Broward Art Guild, was already broiling under hot spotlights over "Controversy," a show that featured images of Pope Benedict adorned with swastikas and George W. Bush getting butt-fucked over an oil barrel by an angry Muslim. Then, just as the brouhaha was brewing at a full-tilt boogie, she appeared on Comedy Central's flagship late-night comedy program The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, playing right into the straight-man stylings of faux reporter Ed Helms. The segment, which aired in mid-July, was so memorable and funny and brought the guild so much free publicity that the only thing to do, of course, was to thank Buzzi by handing her her walking papers. With the art community on life support and culture a rare commodity, Buzzi -- whose decade-plus commitment to the local scene naturally came with ups and downs -- was stunned by her sudden axing, which happened following a secret board meeting. "I think I'm going to pass out," she told reporters, her moment of Zen flashing before our eyes. In a town that thinks a Princess Diana exhibit is cutting-edge, Buzzi's unique and risky vision will be missed.
Courtesy of Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens
Now that Edward Said is dead and buried, we can go back to enjoying good, old-fashioned Orientalism again. Because who doesn't love sushi, rock gardens, and the occasional geisha? The Morikami Museum serves all these up in dainty abundance on its 200 acres in Delray Beach that's dedicated to South Florida's unlikely but enduring obsession with Japanese culture. Opened in 1977 to celebrate the heritage of a small colony of Japanese immigrants imported at the turn of the century to grow pineapples, the Morikami now boasts several museum buildings, a 5,000-piece collection of historical objects, a tea ceremony gallery, and a series of gardens that reflect Japan's history. No other area museum comes close to offering its total immersion experience, where you are lulled into a delicious food coma by the museum café's fantastic bento box meal while pondering the sight of coifed Boca Raton den mothers traipsing through the manicured grounds shaded by Japanese paper umbrellas. Hiroshima? The rape of Nanking? Please, leave your historical downers at the door and enjoy the Morikami's gentle survey of the high points of ancient Japanese history, take in the tea ceremony, and buy a paper lantern on the way out -- because wallowing in the sanitized aspects of another culture is a mighty fine way to spend a sunny afternoon.
This place is proof that, every now and then, Fort Lauderdale can look and act like a real city. It's not a standup club, full of aspiring comedians. It's a real-live troupe, full of creative men and women who create hilarious cultural and political musical satire. Some of the material is local, like the bits on I-95 driving and hurricanes; some of it is national, like the Bush bits; and some of it is flat-out universal, like the smoking and cosmetic surgery pieces. Be prepared to drop some cash while you're there: Dinner and seating alone runs you $50 on Friday or Saturday nights (it's five bucks cheaper on Wednesday and Thursday). With drinks, tips, and dessert, expect to drop at least $90. Don't worry, though, it's more than worth it, and it's one classy date. The food is delicious (some of the best sea bass you're likely to find, for example) and the service is, well, extraordinary. Be prepared to tip your servers well. They're going to surprise -- and entertain -- the hell out of you.

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