The Clean House was a play about the importance of getting filthy, and no play in the last year or two has enjoyed a set that so perfectly captured its theme. Beginning as the oppressively clean domicile of a couple of doctors, by the end the stage is an irreparable mess — or so it would appear; since they had to repeat the process several times a week, the irreparability of the cast's wanton destruction was probably an illusion. At one point, the house gave way to a two-story beach bungalow hiding behind it: as one of the doctors and his paramour partied on the bungalow's balcony, they loosed both symbolic and actual detritus on the ever-filthier home below. Later, the house suffered the further indignity of having an uprooted yew tree dragged through the living room. The place was so sparklingly sterile at the beginning that its slow destruction was physically painful to watch, like seeing somebody get deflowered. But it was also liberating. Which was the point.

Georgia O'Keeffe is one of those artists we think we know oh so well and hence often take for granted. Gigantic close-ups of flowers? Check! Bleached-out cattle skulls? Check! And it was just such assumed familiarity that made the Norton's "Georgia O'Keeffe: Circling Around Abstraction" such a delightful surprise. Working from a deceptively simple common denominator — abstract works making use of more or less circular forms — curator Jonathan Stuhlman (formerly of the Norton) assembled a career overview that let us see O'Keeffe anew. The show, which originated at the Norton and moved on to the museum devoted to the artist in Santa Fe, partook freely from O'Keeffe's many subjects, including those ubiquitous flowers as well as landscapes and still lifes, with some especially inventive takes on the latter among the highlights. The exhibition gave us a well-rounded portrait of a major American artist who was consistently ahead of her time throughout a long, productive career that spanned the better part of a century.

As Father Brendan Flynn in John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning Doubt, Terrell Hardcastle had what looked like the time of his life screwing mercilessly with the heads of his audience. Doubt is a play about, well, "doubt" — specifically, the doubt of a nun considering what to do about a priest whom she suspects is molesting a pupil. She isn't quite sure, of course, and neither are you. There's the rub. But you think you're sure, over and over again: big bad Sister Aloysius comes out, makes her case against the priest, and you're totally sold. You're ready to pull the bastard's eyes out. Then he appears, full of love and light and seeming good sense, and within minutes you can't imagine he's anything but the kind, wise, virtuous man he says he is. Any good actor can make an audience believe in him. Doing this after an audience has already made up its mind not to believe in him — that's not talent, but greatness.

Doubt had the two trickiest supporting roles of the theater season, and in retrospect it's hard to imagine Pat Bowie's part going to anyone else. Bowie played Mrs. Muller, a black mother in the 1960s Bronx, whose young son may or may not have been molested by a parish priest. Bowie's sole scene came when she was summoned to the office of the school's headmistress, the very-stern Sister Aloysius. Aloysius voiced her suspicions, and Mrs. Muller, rather than being shocked or horrified, told the nun to mind her own business. Apparently, Mrs. Muller believed there were worse things than being diddled by a man of the cloth. Aloysius was horrified, and so was anybody who happened to be sitting in the audience. But in the 10 minutes that followed, Mrs. Muller became a genuinely sympathetic character — so convincing was Pat Bowie that you figured plenty of theatergoers must have come around to her side.

Palm Beach Dramaworks is a tiny company in a tiny space that, thanks to its Palm Beach subscription base, has production values to rival most theaters three times its size. And for serious drama, intimacy matters. Watching The Voice of the Prairie at PBD, you get the sense that you're in a cramped, dark studio watching a radio play produced live. When they did The Fourth Wall, you truly felt like you were hidden behind the fourth wall of somebody's living room. PBD often lays hands on some of the best actors in the region, and this closeness lets you see more of their work than is possible at any other venue: the subtle darting of Todd Allen Durkin's eyes; the twitch at the corner of Nanique Gheridian's nervous smile. These are small things, but they add a whole new layer to every good show PBD puts out there. Word is, the company is currently seeking a new home. Let's hope it's not too big.

South Florida has its bevy of tribute artists, but to be the best you can't just sound like the real deal. You can't just look like the fella either. You have to have that special something the artist doesn't have. In the case of Hot Rod, our own local Rod Stewart tributist, that special something comes out most prevalently after a few glasses of chardonnay. Anything can happen at a Hot Rod show: He might perform one-handed push-ups, do a little freestyle jazz fluting, or even flirt simultaneously with every woman in the room — you simply never know what to expect. Antics aside, Hot Rod has tapped into a musical treasure trove with Rod Stewart songs like "Maggie May," "Have I Told You Lately," and "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" — jukebox gems that are the perfect tunes to unite any crowd, anywhere.

Let's face it, South Florida does not have a great stand-up scene. It's not that people here don't want to laugh — have you seen the Dolphins recently? (Bu-dum-bum!) But seriously, folks... even comic aficionados are hard-pressed to name a great, nationally-known comedian who cut his or her teeth on the South Florida circuit. Still, we do not reside in a comedic wasteland; anyone who reads the New Times calendar section will see a fair share of recognizable names. And although the Improv isn't the World Famous Comedy Store, Dangerfield's, Caroline's, or even the original Improv in New York, it's the best we've got. Over time you'll see most of the Comedy Central regulars there along with solid mid-level professionals and some entertaining up-and-comers. And if you feel like it's time this area had a hometown hero make it big, Improv offers classes that will give you all the basics of being funny on stage. Bu-dum-bum jokes are not included.

With an artist whose community connections are as far-ranging as those of Francie Bishop Good, the instructive question to ask is not "What is she involved with?" but rather "What is she not involved with?" Good, who holds a master's in art from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, is about as plugged-in as you can be and not be a household appliance. We'll touch on just a few things. She has served on the boards of the Museum of Art/Fort Lauderdale, Young at Art Children's Museum, and North Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art, where she's currently a member of the executive committee and where one of the galleries is named after her. In 1993 she was chosen to provide a work for Broward County's Public Art and Design Program and came back with a nine-panel mixed-media piece that was installed in the lobby of the South Regional Family Success Center. In 2000 she was one of a handful of artists to receive a fellowship from the South Florida Cultural Consortium of Visual and Media Artists. In 2003 she co-founded Funding Arts Broward, an organization she's still affiliated with, and a year later was the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the county's Arts for the Future initiative. Just last year she launched Girls' Club, an alternative gallery space in Fort Lauderdale where she curates shows and displays her own work. Yes, this tireless arts advocate (and, with husband David Horvitz, major art collector) continues to create, most recently providing the inaugural exhibition for the City of Hollywood's Visual Arts Pavilion at ArtsPark, a small mixed-media show that included some of her strongest work in years. Where does she find the time?

You can see Santiago Rubino's work on the hot, muggy streets of Miami or in an air-conditioned gallery. A native of Argentina, self-taught, he honed his craft under threat of arrest. He depicts melancholy waifs in attitudes stately and prim, their clothing often of the Renaissance era. Others are sultry, voluptuous, and sexual. All have raven hair coiffed in impossible geometric rigor. Anyone who has ever seen a Tim Burton film will notice the surrealist influence. It was Burton's dark dreamscapes that fueled Rubino's imagination, along with the works of Salvador Dali and, to some extent, H.R. Geiger, whose grotesquely beautiful horrors led to the design of the creature in the Alien movies. Another source of inspiration for Rubino: the highly stylized films of Quentin Tarantino, himself shaped by B movies.

NT: Which Tim Burton movies inspired you and how?

Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Nightmare Before Christmas, even the Batmans. I had never seen anything like it. Those are just inspirations. When I try to make art... I guess when I see it... Let me see how I can explain... The emotional impact, the way I see it in my mind... I see it as if it was another world.

Are there other films and directors in whose movies you see artistic merit?

Terror Planet. I'm sure its main inspiration was from B movies. It's supposed to be cheesy terror, horror, but it's almost funny at the same time.(Rubino turns on a clip of Tarantino's Terror Planet. It's the opening, where Rose McGowan's character is writhing on a pole in a strip club lit in all manner of gauche discothèque colors.)

Any crappy B movies from the '80s you recall?

Killer Klowns From Outer Space.

Could an artist draw any kind of inspiration from schlock like that?

Subliminally, yeah. When I'm drawing, a lot of ideas pop into my head. If I was going to draw something with ruffles, I'd think of the clowns.

What's most compelling about this year's landmark 25th incarnation of the Miami Book Fair International?

Maybe the reading by renowned theoretical physicist Dr. Bryan Greene from his book Icarus, which describes the winged punk's dicey approach to a Black Hole. "It's going to be a sleeper," suggests Mitchell Kaplan, the tall and wiry owner of literary mecca Books & Books and the event's co-creator. "But it will be amazing."

He's also looking forward to Tavis Smiley and Cornel West's evening — as well as a gathering of poet laureates Billy Collins, Robert Hass, and Mark Strand.

Oh yeah. How about Salman Rushdie? Or former Miami Herald reporter and Iraq war correspondent Dexter Filkins? Or the legendary Derek Walcott? When Kaplan declares that the nation's largest, most prestigious, most consistently amazing literary festival, which starts next week, will have "an incredible year," he isn't blowing smoke.

One theme this year is an oft-overlooked art form — comic books with both literal and figurative spines. "The graphic novel is something that got so much growth in the marketplace," says Kaplan. "So many different things are happening in that genre. It was time for us to celebrate it."

So he and his co-conspirators created Comix Galaxy, the fair's extensive graphic novel program. It will make up a big part of the street fair on November 15 and 16, and will include programs and appearances by genre superstars like Travis Nichols, Chip Kidd, Jessica Abel, Frank Beddor, and David Hadju, whose new work Ten Cent Plague chronicles the controversial early rise of comic books in the '50s.

David Heatley, the 33-year-old artist whose debut book, My Brain is Hanging Upside Down, takes a, shall we say, creative approach to the concept of memoir. This book's first section is "Sex History," in which Heatley draws in painstaking detail his every carnal encounter before marriage. In the next section, "Black History," the white author describes every significant encounter he's had with a black person, not shying away from his stubborn subconscious racism. It doesn't get much more original, or honest.

Art Spiegelman, one of the founding fathers of the literary comic, will tout two new releases. The author of the Maus series, Pulitzer winner, and former New Yorker top gun has re-released Breakdowns, a comic collection he first published in 1978, adding a comic introduction and a new subtitle: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@?*!".

"Whenever I have a new book out, I feel like Willy Loman, packing all my wares into a leather suitcase and going out on the road," Spiegelman said last week by phone. "But I should be grateful: When Breakdowns first came out, I couldn't get a wino to read it if I bribed him with a bottle of brandy."

That volume's cover is branded with the disclaimer "Adults Only," and the often-surreal collection includes carefully sketched re-creations of two-guys-on-one-girl porno. Spiegelman's other new comic book, Jack and the Box, is directed toward another demographic: 3-year-olds. Its main character is initially terrified (but irresistibly intrigued), by a new, strangely creepy toy his parents give him. "It's trying to resurrect a literary category that's been totally neglected: the early-reader books," says Spiegelman. "It's meant to rescue kids from 'See Dick run. Run, Dick, run,' and bad retellings of Cinderella."

Like Spiegelman, Pulitzer winner and Miami Herald cartoonist Jim Morin tackles timely issues. When he first began drawing George W. Bush as a cowboy more than eight years ago, he had no idea how accurate his depiction would become. Now, as Dubya's presidency comes to a close, Morin has documented his legacy in Ambushed! A Cartoon History of the Bush Administration. In a departure from his past collections, Morin enlisted Harvard political scientist Walter C. Clemens to write fact-based accounts to run alongside the cartoons.

Playing against Clemens' prose, Morin simplifies the cartoons, returning the focus to the images. The result tracks Bush's transformation from a moderate to "dividing this country way worse than I've ever seen it since the '60s," Morin says. His work poignantly makes that point: "What makes [political cartooning] special is the marriage between art and communication," he says. "You see that image and it sticks with you."

Another Herald alumna to read is the signature queen of the thriller, Edna Buchanan. "To me the Miami Book Fair is like Christmas, my birthday, and New Year's Eve all in one," says Buchanan after pulling off a bathing cap and postponing a morning swim with her dog. "It's a very lonely business, writing novels. I write at home alone with my dog every day, so it's incredibly exciting to be plunged in with so many fantastic authors at once," Buchanan says. "It's the biggest event of my year."

Virtually all of Florida International University's writing faculty will be at the biggest event. Les Standiford, director of the creative writing program, presents his newest non-fiction work, The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits. Professors Jim Hall (Hell's Bay), John Dufresne (Requiem, Mass.), Denise Duhamel (Afortunada de mí/Lucky Me), and Campbell McGrath (Seven Notebooks) will also be speaking.

Their star pupil, Mystic River author Dennis Lehane, will rekindle his own South Florida connection. "I've known Mitchell [Kaplan] from Books & Books forever," Lehane recalls. "He got me on a panel at the Book Fair when my first book came out. I think like four people showed up, but it meant a lot to me."

It's a safe bet the crowd will be larger this time around. Critics have lauded Lehane's newest novel, The Given Day, a departure from his grimy Patrick Kenze thrillers in its re-creation of a riotous 1919 Boston police strike. And Lehane's audience has exploded since movies made from his novels Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River, directed by Ben Affleck and Clint Eastwood, respectively, garnered several Oscar nods and a win for Best Picture. "I keep saying this, but there's no connection whatsoever between the films and my writing. I never give it a thought, not even a fleeting thought," Lehane says. "When I'm writing, it's between me and one reader. My job is to connect with this imaginary reader, seduce them almost into listening to what I'm trying to tell them."

The writer can't quite believe how well Hollywood has treated his work. Martin Scorsese is now directing another of Lehane's books, Shutter Island, and is said to have Leonardo DiCaprio lined up for the starring role. "I didn't tell anyone about Scorsese," he says. "When the announcement came out, one of the first emails I got was from a good buddy of mine, another writer who's going through the whole Hollywood thing. I opened it and all it said was: FUCK YOU. I mean, what else do you say when the reality is this amazing?"

Gus Garcia-Roberts, P. Scott Cunningham, and Tim Elfrink contributed to this report.

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