By Bill Hirschman
Paul Tei and Neil Simon. Two names few people expect to see in the same sentence.
Paul Tei, the confrontational champion of cutting-edge theater, and Neil Simon, the quintessential mainstream playwright of the 1960s.
But approaching its 15th anniversary, Tei’s Mad Cat Theatre Company kicks off its season this week with Simon’s nearly forgotten The Star Spangled Girl.
The licensing company won’t allow much tinkering with the specific words that Simon wrote in 1966. But within those strictures, Tei plans to excavate modern relevance from Simon’s farcical love triangle about two left-wing magazine writers clashing with a conservative young woman – as only Mad Cat can.
For instance, the play will be re-set in the year 2066 in a world where technology has begun to fail, thereby explaining the use of a rotary phone and a typewriter. The stage directions will be read aloud. And there will be live music by the Space Heaters.
There’s something appropriate about South Florida’s pre-eminent avant-garde company celebrating its unlikely survival by once again confounding expectations with its brand of stylistic theater in Miami Shores.
It’s cause for taking a step back to assess Mad Cat’s place in the local arts scene. Mad Cat may not have been the first company in South Florida to produce the thespian equivalent of rock n’ roll theater. But it was among the first and it remains the sole survivor of that vanguard other than the ever-evolving Area Stage Company.
Over those nearly 15 years, Mad Cat has favored intellectually-challenging, music-influenced, profane, sexually-frank and stimulating fare. It commissioned original works by Tei and other local playwrights like Ivonne Azurdia, Samara Siskind, Marco Ramirez and more recently Jessica Farr. It was also among the first to produce the more bracing work by nationally-known names as Adam Rapp, Noah Haidle, Neil Labute, even former young Turks like Christopher Durang and Sam Shepard.
Its risk-taking had been praised, at a distance, by more conservative artists, but Mad Cat leaders have been outspokenly dismissive of establishment theater. For instance, Tei and Anthony have long had a prickly relationship with the Carbonell Awards, which snubbed some of their best work, notably Animals and Plants in 2007 and Blow Me in 2013.
The Company Way
Mad Cat always has been the embodiment of its founder, the actor-director-playwright-teacher-designer. He’s visually hard to miss from quirky hairstyles (currently a clutch of hair gathered atop his head like a samurai) to unique clothing not found in GQ or a JC Penney’s catalog.
But Mad Cat is much more than Tei. It’s a Steppenwolf-like company-based collective with members making crucial contributions. For instance, backing Tei come hell or high water since 2008 has been the business acumen and tireless efforts of executive producer Ann Kelly Anthony who is partly responsible for its longevity. And in recent years, many of the company’s high-profile plays have been the work of actress-playwright Farr, who is also Tei’s girlfriend.
But Tei is the company’s public face and Mad Cat is an extension of his personality. While intimates know him as a sensitive, compassionate and fiercely loyal soul, he and Mad Cat exude a bad boy, even dangerous persona that combines a passionate devotion to artistic integrity and a gleefully uncensored contempt for the status quo and unnecessary compromise.
Tei underscored that before a rehearsal last week at its new base inside Miami Theater Center’s Sandbox space in Miami Shores. “I just think there’s a lot of theater companies… run as a business first and an arts organization second. And we are an arts organization first and a business second. And I don’t apologize for that, because if I was concerned with doing plays that I thought other people were gonna like and I don’t have a connection to it, I can’t. I’m not that guy.”
That has resulted in such quirky shows as Broadsword (a washed-up metal band trying to resurrect their leader from damnation after he sold his soul), The Hamlet Dog and Pony Show (a 21st Century multi-media mashup), and Viva Bourgeois (Moliere’s satire set in 1971 Graceland with Elvis as the buffoon chasing genteel respectability with a bulldozer).
Some have been acclaimed triumphs. Some critics have termed the results self-indulgent and undisciplined. Even Tei and his colleagues acknowledge that not every show has been as unassailable as they had hoped. But they are proud of them nonetheless.
“I look at every production we’ve done, every single one and I know why we chose to do that show,” Tei said. “Some may have needed a little more time, some may have needed a little more money, some may have needed a different cast, some may have needed a different director, some may have needed to be left for another time, but they were all done for the right reasons at the right time and the right choice. So I don’t have any regrets about that at all.”
At the same time, unabashed supporters have flocked to the company since 2000. Many appreciate that Mad Cat was the primary standard bearer for edgy, innovative work for nearly a decade before Infinite Abyss and Thinking Cap Theatre emerged in Fort Lauderdale in the late 2000s.
“I have been following Mad Cat since their inception 15 years ago — and I have attended almost every one of their productions,” Joe Adler, producing artistic director of GableStage, wrote. “….they have carved out a niche that is uniquely their own. The quality of their original plays has been outstanding — and their take on existing plays has always been provocative. This is certainly due to the fact that Paul Tei is not only a great talent — but a true iconoclast!”
That was echoed by Miami Theater Center’s founder and artistic director Stephanie Ansin who has a similar imagistic, if more disciplined aesthetic imbued in her children’s theater and more recent adult fare. She wrote, “The company’s irreverent, inventive, and intelligent brand of theater is unique to South Florida and important for our artistic ecosystem.”
But even establishment figures admire their work. Michael Spring, whose Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs has provided funding, wrote, “Mad Cat is just the kind of intrepid theater company that provides an exciting sense of the depth, quality, and promise for the future of theater in South Florida. The fearlessness and sheer fun generated by Paul Tei and company are helping to build audiences who seek quirky, daring and superb theater.”
Like the Steppenwolf company in Chicago, the roster of active members ebbs and flow. But like the Mafia, no one seems to leave technically. The exposure that Mad Cat gave members, and the encouragement they received from Tei, gave early breaks to many young actors, directors, playwrights and designers. They include Ken Clement, Erin Joy Schmidt, Todd Allen Durkin, Joe Kimble, Deborah Sherman, Gregg Weiner, Betsy Graver and sound designer Matt Corey.
Schmidt, who starred in Blow Me about fashionista Isabella Blow, said, “I owe so much of my career to Paul…. That’s where Joe (Adler of GableStage) and Lou (Tyrrell of Florida Stage) saw me” and then cast her in their high-profile successes. As a result, she has continued participating in Mad Cat productions even as assistant director or just giving feedback.
Once in the inner circle, she said, Tei’s loyalty to members is a “pretty awesome thing to watch…. When he puts on a show, he looks for things that are right for company members. Where else would I have worked when I was eight months pregnant” in Macbeth and the Monster?
Only Tei, stage manager Veronica Sierra-Soderman and costume designer Karelle Levy have been there since the beginning, but many members have done several shows, disappeared for a while and come back. Erik Fabregat, notable as Elvis in Viva Bourgeois and a rock star in BroadSword, hasn’t been on stage in a couple of years, but he was represented in videos and music in recent shows.
Tei said, “You sort of become like this old f—ing classic rock band that’s on tour. You go like, how many original members are there — and they’re all there.”
Tei wasn’t a born theater geek. In high school and even as an undergraduate at Barry University, the Florida native was just as interested in soccer. But his interest grew working at Area Stage Company for mentors John and Maria Rodaz.
“I learned a lot about integrity there and what it meant to be a company as opposed to as being a gun for hire, and the loneliness that (Joe) Adler would talk about when he didn’t have a theater company and he was just a gun for hire.”
So while studying directing at DePaul University in Chicago, he was intrigued by the Steppenwolf model. He returned home and worked in a small scrappy companies like Acropolis, Third Street Black Box and finally starting Juggerknot with then girlfriend Tanya Bravo.
When the couple broke up, he gathered friends to start Mad Cat. “I wanted to start a company, like a band. I always felt comfortable in a band and a team.”
At that moment, Beth Boone, a former colleague from Area Stage, was creating a performing space on the first floor of an office building at 3000 Biscayne Boulevard in Miami. She said Mad Cat could use the newly-christened Miami Light Box for free to begin with. And, after all, it was four blocks from his apartment.
Mad Cat “was built as a socialist theater company,” he recalled. “Everybody gets a percentage and that’s how we roll, and so whatever the box office makes, we make, and that kept morale high because it also encouraged people to promote the work they were in.”
Mad Cat’s first show in October 2000 was Helluva Halloween (whose cast included future indie movie star Oscar Isaac), the first of several surrealistic and scatological scripts written by Tei with his then girlfriend Ivonne Azurdia.
The Light Box was a quirky space with a pole in the center that had to be designed, directed and acted around. Plus, “You have homeless people outside and they’re yelling during the shows, so you gotta go out and bargain with them. We used them sometimes to load in sets…. I really loved that space… and we learned a lot about being in someone’s favor and then not being in someone’s favor and being little darlings and then being, you know, it’s like it’s time for you to grow up.”
Mad Cat has produced two to three shows every year since on no particular schedule. The output continued even when Tei earned parts on national television shows filmed locally like Burn Notice. That success prompted him to try his luck in Los Angeles, returning home intermittently to write and direct Mad Cat plays. During that period, Mad Cat left the Light Box around 2009.
“It was kind of really good timing because Biscayne Boulevard got ripped up for (construction for) like two years, and killed everything in that area,” he said.
But that left Mad Cat homeless for two years, said Anthony, whose day job is with Skymar Capital Corporation. For a while, they mounted shows on an ad hoc basis at the Arsht Center’s Carnival Black Box under the aegis of executive vice president Scott Shiller. They truly appreciated the generous financial support and modern resources, but the nontraditional Mad Cat was never a good fit with the corporate-style Arsht. They also produced some works at the South Beach Comedy Festival, “But we were a band on the run,” Tei said.
Boone’s company reestablished itself in the Wynwood arts/warehouse district in a refurbished remodeled warehouse in 2011. Mad Cat moved in to the 150-seat house that they never quite filled. The scruffy neighborhood did not attract Mad Cat’s patrons in the numbers that anyone hoped.
It also had the wrong vibe, Tei said. “Wynwood quickly became a place where it’s bars, it’s hipsterville. It’s not arts people and the parking is bad. And if you live in Broward or Palm Beach, it’s a pain to get to that area.”
But then Anthony visited the annual New World School of the Arts showcase in 2013 on a regular foray to spot promising talent. Ansin and Elaiza Irizarry, MTC’s executive director, were there. They described how Ansin was transitioning her PlayGround children’s theater into a destination theater center that would serve many audiences. Each operation seemed in tune with the other.
The company was energized. Tei said, “If I was going to erect a statue to Ann at some point, this would be the main reason: She got us here.” The Star Spangled Girl marks the fourth production at MTC in what seems to be a mutually supportive open-ended relationship since Blow Me opened there in August 2013.
Over time, Mad Cat’s aesthetic has changed a bit as Tei, Anthony and their colleagues have gotten older. Anthony quips, “We’ve grown up together.”
Tei, who turns 46 this month, added, “Your filter has changed. Your friends’ parents are dying and your other friends are getting married. Some of your friends are having kids….When you’re in your thirties, when I started the company, it’s like you have blinders on…. You’re like a horse that has no idea that there are other horses around because they have blinkers on….And then you get to 40 like I did and it was like all of a sudden they come off and you can’t put them on again. You’re so hyper hyper aware of everything that’s coming at you.”
Insiders including Tei credit Anthony with stabilizing the company financially, a source of humor to the partners. Tei wrly recalled, “For someone who is borderline learning disabled in math, I did know how to budget things really well and I did learn you don’t spend what you don’t have. So that worked for a while before Ann came in and said, ‘So, let’s get a checkbook. Let’s start there.’ Well, we had a checkbook….”
Anthony cut in, “I meant a balanced checkbook.”
Schmidt spelled out Anthony’s linchpin role: “Honestly and truthfully, this woman has held Mad Cat on her back…. It would not exist financially if not for all the work she does, the grant writing, what she has put in of her own money.”
There is a clear division of labor: She handles the business side. Tei handles everything on the artistic side. While he asks her advice, Anthony avoids watching full rehearsals until the final stages so that she can experience it cold.
She said, “I’ll know what’s happening, but I’m not actually going to see the play (until then) and I think that’s the magic, to see everything kind of come together, and why I’ve stuck around as long as I have.”
Trust is key, especially since Tei isn’t always sure until he’s in rehearsal precisely why he chose the property.
All that is certain is “that show is going to be extremely representative of what is happening in the world right now. I’m not holding a mirror up that’s a clean mirror; I’m holding a fractured mirror. It may be distorted.…. So it’s kind of how we get to a play like Star Spangled Girl.”
What should an audience’s expectations be of a Mad Cat take on Neil Simon? Tei said, “Their expectations should be that they have no idea what they are in store for, and that’s kind of what we try to do with everything…. There’s been some criticism like, ‘You’re doing a play that your audience doesn’t come to see’ and I would say I don’t think our audience has any idea what they are coming to see when we’re doing anything…. There shouldn’t be any kind of expectation other than to just enjoy the ride”
Back To The Future
Some observers may be surprised that Mad Cat is still purring 15 years on, but not Tei. “I never thought of it as a short term endeavor,” Tei said. “I always thought… whatever else I do with my life and career, that I knew I want to have a theater company. So, you know, even when I went to LA for those four years, we were still active and … even if I were to move again, the company would go on.”
Asked what Mad Cat can be proud of, no matter what, Tei answered instantly, “We’re not cowards and that’s a word that means a lot to me because when someone calls you a coward, it means that they can see your fear and they know you’ve made weak choices because you’re weak and I don’t like to be weak.”
He barreled on: “And I think that takes some kind of courage because, you know, people may say when I’m dead and gone, ‘That guy couldn’t keep a dollar in his pocket past sunset, but he did what he wanted to do.’ ”
That goes for the theater as well. “We don’t necessarily know where we’re gonna end up, but it’s taking that fearless route and road and going down it… I think the best is yet to come.”
The Star Spangled Girl from Mad Cat Theatre Company runs Jan. 8-25 at the Miami Theater Center, 9816 NE 2nd Avenue, Miami Shores. Shows 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Tickets $30 general admission, $15 students with ID. Contact www.madcattheatre.org or /web.ovationtix.com or call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111.