Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
Was there any political downfall as cruelly spectacular as Ben Carson's this year? Before running for president, the Detroit native turned Palm Beach County resident could not have been more respected in neuroscience. His story was an American fable: Born into extreme poverty, Carson grew up with a violent streak and once attempted to stab his friend in a fit of rage only to be stopped by a well-positioned belt buckle. After changing his ways, he went to Yale and got a medical degree from the University of Michigan before becoming one of the first men to separate twins conjoined at the head. His autobiography, Gifted Hands, stood as a shining example of how to lift oneself out of poverty. Cuba Gooding Jr. even played him in a made-for-TV version of the book. But once Carson decided to run for president, everything unraveled: Seemingly a man of science, he was nothing short of a fundamentalist Christian wackadoodle who looked as if he were asleep at all times. Reporters quickly tore apart his life story — the only thing he could run on — and suggested that he never really stabbed anyone at all. The real-life presidential candidate then stressed that he had, indeed, attempted to stab someone. He dropped out after winning just a single county in Alaska. Nowadays, most wouldn't trust him to cut into a bundt cake.
A show whose title conjures swingers clubs and hedonistic Craigslist searches had better be hot. And the Theatre at Arts Garage's production of Laura Eason's Sex With Strangers was indeed smokin', with enough sexual tension and torn-off clothing to turn its spectators into voyeurs. It was also a witty, sophisticated, and trenchant observation on the changing social mores and literary shifts of the 21st Century. Jacqueline Laggy starred as a 40-something novelist piecing together her sophomore book after a middling response to her debut, and Michael Uribe shone as a misogynistic millennial with a successful media empire centered on his playboy ethos. The actors smoldered and simmered and punched and counterpunched in equal measure, their pitch-perfect chemistry humanizing this pointed mystery through its boldly open conclusion. Arts Garage's entire theater season scratched at libidinous itches, but only Sex With Strangers had the performances to back it up.
Slow Burn's regional premiere of this Steven Sater/Duncan Sheik Tony winner offered the visceral thrills of a rock show within the tight structure of a Broadway musical. In the inspired hands of director Patrick Fitzwater, this tragic coming-of-age narrative about teenage sexuality flowering in an authoritative 19th-century Germany bristled with the sort of angst, frustration, retaliation, and liberation rarely heard (or seen) since Pink Floyd's The Wall. From the precarious chair choreography of "The Bitch of Living" to the ravishingly lit, cobalt dreamscape of "The Mirror Blue Night," Fitzwater's choreography reinvented wheels and kept them turning efficiently at the same time. Sean McClelland's set, with its subtle nooks and crannies, flawlessly balanced artistry and economy, while the actors conveyed oceans of feeling with single drops of expression, finding an aching tenderness among the adolescent cacophony. Whether or not you've seen the Broadway tours of Spring Awakening, it's hard to fathom a better production.
Michael Leeds' world premiere of Who Killed Joan Crawford? at Island City Stage was an amusing respite from a season dominated by works of political and social provocation. Predicated on the durable stereotype (or just flat-out reality) that gay men love Joan Crawford, Leeds' comedic murder mystery is built on an ingenious conceit: a birthday gathering of Crawford devotees who are required to show up dressed as a favorite Joan role. When one of the Joans is found in a closet, hung in more ways than one, it sets off a chain of mysterious deaths, forcing the others to suspect the obvious: One of these men, clad in the frocks of '40s femmes fatale and crazed, eyebrow-arching matriarchs, is a killer. Spiked with the inside-showbiz humor at which Leeds excels — on top of everything, it's the night of the Tony awards, whose importance is just as paramount for some of the Joans as fingering the serial killer in their midst — Who Killed Joan Crawford? proved equally adept at surprising us. And at a lean 75 minutes, it didn't overstay its campy welcome.
Dramaworks began its recent season with back-to-back Carbonell-winning gems late last year: William Inge's classically structured, voluminously populated Picnic, with its career-best performance from a virtuosic Margery Lowe; and Alan Bennett's coming-of-age drama The History Boys about, among other things, sexual misconduct in an English grammar school. Don't be surprised if the company accrues more statuettes for its stellar, benchmark-setting work in early 2016 as well. In an era when intermission-less 80-minute plays are the new standard, few companies would subject their audiences to the three-and-a-half-hour family exorcism that is Long Day's Journey Into Night. But Dramaworks' exemplary production forced us to wallow with Eugene O'Neill's demons, the final act representing the most artistically fertile discomfort imaginable. Its follow-up play, the sweet and teary Outside Mullingar, flawlessly exhibited the company's romantic side with a superbly acted, wondrously designed rendition of the John Patrick Shanley hit. These four works added up to a perfect synthesis of source material and production values.
Readers' choice: Broward Center for the Performing Arts
When she's not acting in musicals, Avery Sommers brings grace and elegance to her solo performances at cabaret venues around the country. But as the pioneering blues siren Bessie Smith in the Theatre at Arts Garage's The Devil's Music, she easily eschewed tact and niceties, embodying the brassy and boisterous legend through every lascivious hip movement and shrapnel-leaving F-bomb. From her mannerisms to her voice to her costuming, she could have passed for Smith's doppelgänger. Without ever leaving the stage and besotted by a bottomless selection of alcohol, Sommers' version of Bessie performed 15 numbers in a variety of styles — from a cappella gospel to swing to spartan blues — while sharing a life story rife with triumphs and tragedies. Though primarily a celebration of Smith's art, Sommers expressed plenty of subtle acting chops between the numbers, evident in the way her righteous anger segued naturally into knowing smiles or when she found the cracks of vulnerability in her character's towering persona.
When you're cast to play a public figure as widely videotaped, personified, and parodied as Richard Nixon, it's a challenge to forge your own path. The precedents are voluminous: Anthony Hopkins' pudgy-faced, occasionally British version from Oliver Stone's Nixon; Frank Langella's stentorian, deep-throated take in Frost/Nixon's Broadway and cinematic incarnations; the real-life perspirer from those black-and-white debates with JFK; and the wattled paranoiac of his waning political career. Jellison, in his fresh, charismatic perspective in Maltz Jupiter Theatre's version of Frost/Nixon, traversed a 40-year history of mimicry and caricature and emerged with something that looked and felt as authentic as the Nixon Tapes sounded. His hunched shoulders, stooped gait, and birdlike movements embodied the disgraced leader in exile; likewise his studiedly unpolished delivery, full of meandering ellipses. An ornery charmer for most of the production, Jellison also proved adept at channeling Nixon's potty-mouthed id, as evidenced by one of the play's key scenes, a bravura drunk dial to David Frost's hotel room. He almost — and this is a major compliment — made us feel sorry for the bastard.
When it comes to conquering roles, looking great is sometimes half the battle. And certainly the lavish 19th-century Viennese gowns that costume designer Rick Pena created for Laura Hodos in the first act of Slow Burn's Romance/Romance contributed to the intimidating nobility of her character, which is central to her motives. But she also lived the part and more, embodying both the statuesque regality and the yearning to break free from the strictures of upper-class privilege. In the first act of Keith Herrmann's musical, in which she and Matthew Korinko hid their aristocratic trappings and began "dating" in the guise of penniless working-class denizens, she brought an infectious effervescence to the role, her every song evoking the pop of a champagne bottle. Act Two is set in the humdrum, plainclothes Hamptons of the 1980s, but even with less-exciting material on which to build, Hodos remained irrepressible. This was a year of sensational performances from Hodos, who can make the most difficult passages seem effortless.
Johnston is a dashing attractor of spotlights who has played Hollywood gigolos and populist presidents. He has the brooding charisma to embody James Dean, should the opportunity arise. But in the world premiere of Charles Gluck's Unlikely Heroes at Mizner Park Studio Theatre, he had to meet the challenge of blending into a dysfunctional family ensemble. As the youngest character onstage — a detached video gamer symbiotically attached to his game controller — Johnston was almost too old for the role, but with acting this first rate, almost will do just fine. For much of the play, as his uncle's uncomfortable request for a transplanted organ reopens old filial wounds and cuts new ones, he escaped the explosions in the family living room by creating virtual ones on his console. By the end, however, when his character finally came to grips with the play's game-changing revelations, the eternal adolescent grew up before our eyes, processing the news with a volatility we didn't know raged within him. He added new dimensions to his character with decisions both loud and subtle so that his unlikely heroism seemed like an inevitable coming-of-age transition.
There are plenty of directors who simply do the work that’s on the page, in clean and invisible reverence to the source material as it was written. Stodard is not one of those directors. Her scrappy, inexhaustible work for Thinking Cap Theatre over the past year consisted of deconstructing scripts and rebuilding them to suit her uncompromising vision for each piece. Her harrowing, perplexing A Map of Virtue employed minimal resources, unsettling sound and scenic design, and original music to transform a serendipitous romance into a backwoods abduction thriller. Her remix of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest re-imagined the classic comedy of manners in ’70s-era America, complete with ostentatious costumes, disco lighting, roller skating, and occasionally sung dialogue. And Or, her interpretation of a Restoration comedy, celebrated sexual and gender liberation with an impeccable cast of three exerting the deftness and energy of six. Her selection of plays was so esoteric that sometimes the actors onstage nearly outnumbered butts in the seats, but so be it. Groundbreaking art isn’t for everyone.
Look hard enough and most scenic designs betray their transience: the way the entire flimsy structure shakes at the slamming of a door, or the way the tops of buildings rooflessly taper off just before the lighting grid. Stage artifice inevitably exists somewhere, which is why realistic set designs are harder to perfect than conceptual ones. But I'll be damned if Amico's two Midwestern houses and shared backyard of Picnic (at Palm Beach Dramaworks) didn't look positively air-lifted from the play's 1950s setting, with nary a theatrical cog or plank or beam in sight. No facet of the set was stunning for its own sake; Amico's contributions generously complemented the production's other designers. Each element, from the disconnected shed where characters escaped the hot-blooded throngs to the functional (!) water pump, proved significant to director William Hayes' naturalistic evocation of everyday life. Trees towered behind the impressive midcentury wood structures, littering the roofs with leaves and allowing lighting designer Donald Edmund Thomas to refract sunlight across the sweltering exterior. Kansas, you never looked so good.
The "Up" in "ArtsUP" stems from the fact that when you walk into the gallery, which just opened in April, your eyes are uncontrollably drawn toward the ceiling. The space inside is massive — 5,000 square feet — and the art hangs (or floats, or soars) from the ceiling. The effect is awe inspiring: In artist Jamey Grimes' recent installation, called "Wash," neon, coral-like ripples glide high above the viewer, appearing to bob up and down on the air. It's dreamlike, and unlike any other gallery in South Florida. The setup also has a bonus feature: Since there's rarely anything on the ground, the space can be used for events.
Readers' choice: Gallery of Amazing Things