Are you depressed? Is your desk job getting you down? Kids a huge pain? Husband lazing on the couch? Old lady burning your ass about a bunch of yard work? Are you existentially shaky after watching the True Detective finale? Well, you could beeline for the shrink and spill your guts on a couch, or you could pick up a shelf of prescription happy pills for an emotional U-turn. Or... you could raise your spirits in a more natural way. You could get a spanking. Researchers at the National Institute of Gluteal Abuse have determined that a spanking per week can spike your endorphin levels. If you choose such a treatment for your moody blues, the best hand, so to speak, in the game in South Florida belongs to Scary Mary Santa. For 14 years, the South Florida fetish scene has been dominated by Mary, an artist/musician/dominatrix/fetish enthusiast who thrashes away at paying customers in her Fort Lauderdale dungeon, Chamber 7. As we can, er, personally attest, one laser-guided swat from Mary while fastened onto her St. Andrew's cross domination rack is enough to clear the dark clouds out of your head. Go ahead: Get spanked.

Everybody loves a good locals-versus-developer matchup. In Fort Lauderdale over the past year, the heavyweight bout has been between flashy developer Asi Cymbal's 960-unit Marina Lofts project and a vocal opposition. The main issue: The project threatens to uproot the six-story-high, 100-year-old rain tree sitting smack in the middle of the development's proposed footprint. Despite promises to move the iconic tree, the plan still struck many as wrong-headed. Three people led the charge. Activist Cal Deal unloaded all of his rhetorical firepower against the project on his blog, Fort Lauderdale Observer. Jessica Kross rolled out a moveon.org petition asking the City Commission to save the tree, eventually notching more than 4,300 signatures. And Chris Brennan, first mate at the Water Taxi located near the site, filmed a YouTube video voicing his opposition. When Water Taxi — which leases its location from Cymbal — told Brennan to take down the clip or leave his job, he walked. Unfortunately, the Marina Lofts were greenlighted thanks to neutered politicians who get all jelly-legged around flashy blueprints. But Deal, Kross, and Brennan should still be congratulated for fighting the good fight.

If their pockets weren't stuffed with cash from fat cats, their paths not cleared by national political party machines, Rick Scott and Charlie Crist would be worried about Nan Rich. That's because the Weston Democrat is about the cleanest pol trying to make a grab for the governor's office, saddled with neither Scott's shitty record nor Crist's epic flip-flops. The longtime state senator isn't intimidated by the heavyweights she's stepped into the ring with. As a former head of the Senate's Dems as well as a past stint heading the National Council of Jewish Women, Rich is used to big tasks. But you'd have to be smoking a grow house's worth of Colorado-grade chronic to think Rich's run is anything but quixotic. In a less-experienced politician, you might write it off as a callow grab for name recognition. Rich isn't getting recognition at all. News outlets statewide aren't giving her much of a passing glance. Crist has skipped away from all her attempts at a debate before the primary. Regardless, she keeps dogging it out on the campaign trail, and for that, she deserves major kudos.

Maltz Jupiter Theater

The Maltz Jupiter Theatre's production of Dial M for Murder — a mothballed murder mystery that was made into an unlikely 3-D movie by Alfred Hitchcock — was impeccably handsome. But it was also hopelessly embalmed in another time, with many of the actors failing to transcend 1950s mannequins. But as the film's chief antagonist, who is also, devilishly, its chief audience identifier, Todd Allen Durkin never seemed hamstrung by the antiquities of the source material. His emotional connection to this mannered snake — a once-successful tennis player who blackmails a former school chum into murdering his philandering wife — was so strong, so entrenched in contradictory textures, that his character psychology seemed more in tune with today's morally ambiguous antiheroes than the one-note evildoers who received their destined comeuppances in '50s potboilers like this. One minute he's seething with a mix of righteous anger and quivering fragility as he relates his wife's history of extramarital conduct; the next, he's combining smug satisfaction with barely contained panic as his perfect murder plot slips away from him like a toppled box of marbles. There seemed to be four or five characters in this single, thinly drawn archetype, and we couldn't help but admire the bastard.

Kim Ehly's Fort Lauderdale-based Kutumba Theatre Project is just two productions into its existence, but it has established a niche brand as a voice for the lesbian-American experience. Theatergoers have already witnessed growth from its first production, the pulp throwback The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, to its second, Julie Johnson, about a young woman's sexual and intellectual awakenings. That growth largely stemmed from the superlative casting of Valentina Izarra, whose performance as Julie elevated the work of those around her, not all of whom had professional-theater bona fides. In the play's first few minutes, she was a rumple of clothes on the floor of her modest apartment, her face buried in her own despair. Izarra emerged from this state like a turtle finally exiting its shell and experiencing life for the first time. Her character began taking computer classes (cutting-edge for the show's setting, in 1980s New Jersey) and developing feelings for her longtime, female best friend, who, like her, was stuck in an increasingly loveless marriage. Izarra expressed these changes with a radiant positivity and joie de vivre that couldn't help but ripple outward to the audience. It would be reductive to say Julie Johnson is a feel-good play, but if you didn't feel good watching Izarra hilariously and sweetly stumble and fumble and awkwardly navigate these life-changing choices, then you may not be human.

If you're a dog person — and if you're not, you should be — the most affecting character in Palm Beach Dramaworks' Of Mice and Men was not Brendan Titley's Lennie Small, the mentally challenged migrant worker, nor John Leonard Thompson's George Milton, his long-suffering partner. It was Dennis Creaghan's Candy, an aging handyman on a roiling ranch whose mangled hand has prompted him to question his future utility. The one thing he seems to live for is his big blind dog, dismissed by the other laborers as old, stinky, and crippled, a creature for whom a mercy killing would do the entire ranch a favor. The dog, "played" by a retired service animal, provided Dramaworks with a lot of attention from the local media, but it was Creaghan's heartbreaking love for the animal that made us care so much for it. When the dog was promptly dispatched (offstage, of course), Creaghan accepted its fate with inevitable, nuanced resignation, seeming to glimpse his own bleak and pitiless future through his beloved pet's. There were few moments in any play that were harder to watch than this one.

The dysfunctional family, an overdone theater chestnut if ever there was one, received a refreshingly offbeat treatment from playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer and the team at Boca-based Parade Productions this year. The Last Schwartz chronicled a tumultuous weekend in the ancestral home of the Schwartz siblings, who gathered to honor the first anniversary of their patriarch's passing but instead reopened old filial wounds. The result was a lot funnier than this description sounds, thanks in large part to the yin and yang of Ostrenko and Graver, who portrayed a wife and girlfriend, respectively, of two of the Schwartz siblings. Graver proved once again that she could play an airhead better than anyone around. Her low-information fashion model invariably consumed the gravitational pull of any given conversation, with hilariously tactless results. Operating on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, Ostrenko provided the show's heartbreaking core. As she was forced to confront her history of miscarriages and a repressed family secret, we watched her veneer of marital normalcy chip away, resulting in a vulnerable and sometimes devastating performance.

Parade, Jason Robert Brown's fact-based 1998 show about the wrongful rape and murder conviction of a Jewish factory owner in the anti-Semitic Atlanta of 1913, received a landmark production from the company that has become South Florida's edgiest purveyor of musical theater. On a set that resembled a rural, rickety hall of (in)justice, director Patrick Fitzwater turned Brown's song-heavy, operatic book into a reflection of today's high-profile courtroom circuses — a critique of our collective, eye-for-an-eye blood lust, rational thought be damned. The impossibly perfect cast extended from the shattering lead performances to the moving ensemble, all of whom delivered some of the best work of their careers. Matthew Korinko's bigoted, ice-veined prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey, was so exceptionally evil that you wondered how the actor managed to shake off the demons and sleep at night. And in building the relationship between Tom Anello's Leo Frank and Ann Marie Olsen's Lucille Frank, Fitzwater and his actors created one of the most realistic and uninhibited expressions of true love I've seen onstage anywhere. By the time the story succumbed to its brutal finale, I was so attached to the plight of this tragic martyr that I could barely look at the horrible deed. It will remain forever unshakable.

The "wow" factor of many set designs lies in their enviable resplendency — their evocation of worlds in which most of us wouldn't mind spending the rest of our days. The Maltz Jupiter Theatre's Annie and Other Desert Cities come to mind, with their lush and livable milieus of money well-spent. Others, like our winner, reside on the opposite extreme, reminding us of places we hope to never see or, since it's a historically grounded piece, to never see again. The Timekeepers is set in a labor camp, and with his design for Island City Stage's production, Michael McClain took the bold gamble of fencing in his set with row after row of barbed wire. Inside the richly detailed, modified chicken coop were wonderfully curated objects, from the makeshift toilet — AKA, a metal bucket — to the vintage Victrola to, most important, the box of broken watches we understood to have been removed from the remains of Holocaust victims and whose existence is the only thing keeping the play's two central characters alive. Those obtrusive wires were a constant reminder of the characters' hopelessness, but at the same time, when the drama heated up inside the camp, you forgot they were there. This set might not have worked on a larger stage, but with its already inherent sense of confinement, Empire Stage provided an ideal environment; it was the best set we've ever seen in that room.

Over the past year, Slow Burn Theatre Company has proved that sometimes the best theater can originate from the unlikeliest places: in this case, a high school in the boondocks of West Boca Raton, an area so remote that you're likely to pass tumbleweeds on your way to the parking lot. But once you get inside, you're transported to worlds that are complex, moving, frightening, and unique. Founders Patrick Fitzwater and Matthew Korinko, who launched Slow Burn five years ago, are never content to restage the same old theatrical warhorses, preferring to challenge their audiences with plays they've never seen before — and sometimes improving on the source material in the process. This past year saw the theater fully emerge from its shell; for the first time, it became eligible for Carbonell Awards, and its first show of the season, Next to Normal, promptly received more nominations than any other production in South Florida (Fitzwater won for Best Director of a Musical). Slow Burn presented this rock musical about a bipolar housewife with remarkable depth and humanity, bolstered by six dynamic voices and a beguiling set design inspired by M.C. Escher. The company followed it with Parade, another high-water mark (see our Best Musical winner). Its next show, Chess, couldn't match the previous two in emotional connection, but its breathtaking lead performances continued to shatter boundaries.

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