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While it's doubtful that Broward and Palm Beach counties will ever seriously challenge Miami-Dade's art-gallery dominance, things are not nearly as dire as some skeptics claim. Yes, galleries come and go more often than they should. But there are also galleries that stay the course. One such veteran is New River Fine Art in the heart of the Las Olas business district in downtown Fort Lauderdale. New River has been around long enough to see the continuing transformation of the Las Olas neighborhood, but through it all, the gallery continues what it does best: providing a stimulating mix of old and new. New River embraces such contemporary talents as Luc Leestemaker, Karen Stene, and Pascal Chova, but it has also amassed an excellent track record when it comes to such big names as Picasso, Mir—, Chagall, and the Pissarro family. And last year, the gallery "rediscovered" Dali just before the art world as a whole began reassessing the still-controversial Spanish surrealist.
One of last year's most dramatic reaffirmations of the idea that less is more came in the form of "Reduced," a sort of nouveau minimalist exhibition at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood. With just a dozen works by only four artists, the show tweaked classic minimalism and conceptual art to come up with its own cheeky version of post-minimalism. Francis Trombly played optical tricks by creating objects made of substances other than what they seemed; Frank Wick explored some subtle if extreme possibilities of mixed media; and Tom Scicluna made oblique jokes about the center's former life as a funeral home. This small package of an exhibition was neatly tied up by the 1971 video I Am Making Art, a deadpan classic in which John Baldessari handily reduces everything to a statement of aesthetics.
Gordon McConnell was almost a one-man show of subtle exploration into the fleeting nature of fame in Mosaic Theatre's Match. As Tobi, the aging former Balanchine dancer and Julliard choreographer haunting a sad and lonely apartment at the northern edge of Manhattan, McConnell was quietly magnificent as the solitary egotist who kept his toenail clippings in a jar and desperately longed for the touch of another human being. Even when a duplicitous married couple came to his cloister to interrogate him about the past, it was clear that McConnell's Tobi had full control of the room. He was gregarious, menacing, authoritative, giving, pansexual, seductive, and lecherous, all at the same time. Remember the cloyingly gay character played by George Carlin (who otherwise has always been fabulous) in The Prince of Tides? Well, McConnell was exactly the opposite.
One of the best things about Claire Tyler's work in the past year, whether in The Pull of Negative Gravity and Match (both at Mosaic Theatre) or Educating Rita at Palm Beach Dramaworks, has been her expressively malleable face. Regardless of the play, Tyler throws her entire body into her game, a style that finally paid off with her role as the low-class Liverpudlian hairdresser yearning to join the high-brow literary establishment. If you want to know how difficult the role of Rita is, pick up a copy of the play and read through the nonstop banter as you follow Rita's evolution. Tyler fully lived up to the demands of Rita, both the sad yearning for education and the finally confident assumption of her place in life as brainy literature scholar. Tyler, clearly showing her stuff, gave you no choice but to love Rita no matter where she was in her evolution.
If you were to graph out geography versus number of theaters in South Florida, with north-south location on the y axis and numbers on the x axis, you'd get a pyramid. Miami's southern theaters form a wide base, Broward's occupy the narrower midsection, and Palm Beach Dramaworks sits pretty much alone at the graph's northern point. Regardless of its lonely place in WPB, though, PBD consistently offers a moving world inside 322 Banyan Blvd. that balances out the smarminess of Clematis a block away. Pulling off those productions has a lot to do with director Nanique Gheridian. In a period of just a few months this year, "Nanique of the North" wheeled out Hand of God and Educating Rita -- something new and something old. Both plays, with her nurtured stable of well-chosen actors, offered different worlds of deep contemplation that Gheridian seems to know, at heart, is a primary reason for going to the theater in the first place.
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.

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