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.

It was just the second production from Fort Lauderdale company Island City Stage, but The Timekeepers became the year's underdog success story when it won all six of its nominated categories, including Best Production of a Play, at the Carbonell Awards. Why? First, it's a brilliantly written play, by Dan Clancy, that touches important subject matter — homophobia, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust — without being depressing or messagey. It's set in a Nazi labor camp, where a flamboyant gay man and a retiring Jewish man are forced to spend their days repairing timepieces. But they need to get over their own prejudices against each other before they can turn their abysmal situation into a shared life that's worthwhile, even if that life has a limit at the bottom of a box of watches. The play's tone is not an easy one to strike, but Michael Leeds' direction for Island City Stage was deliberate yet transfixing, and the interactions of his cast felt heart-stoppingly authentic. Michael McKeever, an accomplished playwright and comic actor, showed us an entirely new persona onstage, tapping dramatic reservoirs of which I didn't know he was capable. The Carbonell-winning sound design, with its crackle of vinyl records, blankets of gunfire, and metronomic tick of pocket watches, helped bring the stunning scenic design to bracing life.

When South Florida's theater critics attended Slow Burn Theatre's Next to Normal in October, most of them had seen the same show a year and a half earlier at Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables, in a production that was nominated for some of the highest honors in the community. But they hadn't seen anything quite like Fitzwater's take on this masterful musical. Bold flashes of color and potent, uncomplicated choreography told the story of a wife and mother's struggle with bipolar disorder with great efficiency. But what really made this production resonate was that, like Slow Burn's best work, it uncovered new territory within a familiar text, finding unforeseen avenues to explore. A more straightforward reading of Next to Normal would laser the attention largely on Diana, the direct sufferer of the debilitating condition, but Fitzwater's genius lay in shifting the central focus to the family members, like daughter Natalie (Anne Chamberlain) and husband Dan (Matthew Korinko), both of whom were justifiably nominated for Carbonell Awards. They became the emotional shrapnel of Diana's erratic, delusional behavior; the tragedy of her reality hit home the hardest through Korinko's tear-stained Dan, which probably ranks as his finest performance.

Arts Garage

When it comes to writing concept albums, John Darnielle of indie-rock cult heroes the Mountain Goats once said, "I write songs, and they begin to sort of hang together, sort of like a crowd gathering in a public space." That's basically what happened with The Longing and the Short of It, a collection of older and newer songs from emerging composer-lyricist Daniel Mate. He realized that beyond their specifics — a man waits, frustrated, in an endless Starbucks queue; a boy feels he can never live up to his more talented brother; a woman runs into her ex in a public venue — the songs all dealt with longing, with an emotional or physical lack that needed to be filled. The world-premiere, cabaret-style production of these songs at Theatre at Arts Garage was simplicity personified, with the refreshingly Spartan musical direction (just an onstage piano) and set design putting our focus fully on the six actor/singers, who felt born to translate Mate's funny, knotty, and touching lyrics. If there was one showstopper among them, it was Elizabeth Dimon's uproarious "Starting Shit With You," which contained such brilliant lines as "Like a melted GI Joe, I'm sticking to my guns."

Earlier this year, Fort Lauderdale got aesthetically lucky when artist and Florida Atlantic University assistant professor of architecture Henning Haupt took his class outside to get to work. There, he and his crew used paint rollers to beautify "the tunnel" inside the city parking garage located between First and Second avenues just north of Las Olas in Fort Lauderdale. With paint rollers in hand, they transformed the space from ceiling to floor into a psychedelic gem boasting six layers of red, yellow, and blue tones. The result adds a little culture to your morning commute.

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