The Year In Theater 2012: Births, Deaths, Triumphs, Tragedies

By Bill Hirschman

Theater in South Florida ebbed and flowed like the beach surf in 2012 with triumphs and tragedies encompassing the death of three theater companies and the birth of four others.

Familiar journeymen finally got the showcase roles they long deserved and some fresh faces claimed our attention for the future. Companies that we kept calling “fledgling” evolved into “established.” Troupes that shut down temporarily were reborn.

While there were copious revivals as some theaters ran for economic cover, other companies didn’t think outside the box, they shredded the box. Still others invigorated warhorses with zero-based thinking as if a fresh script had arrived in the mail.

The top headlines were draped in black bunting: Citing fund-raising fatigue among other reasons, Promethean Theatre in Davie closed in March while it was still producing fine work and remaining solvent. Deborah Sherman’s company ended its eight-year-run with one of its best productions, a tale of torture and totalitarianism, The Unseen.

The Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton struggled financially for years, even contemplating continuing under bankruptcy protection. But a receiver for the mortgage holder locked the doors mid-season in April and the theater formally shuttered when the bank took possession of the building in October. The painful irony was that while its traditional audience had been deserting, Artistic Director Clive Cholerton had been mounting increasingly fine work, notably The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, a biting satire set in the world of professional wrestling.

Ken Kay & Kim Cozort in Mosaic’s last show, The Birds / Photo by George Schiavone

The shock occurred this month when Richard Jay Simon announced he was resigning at the end of the season from the Mosaic Theatre that he had founded 12 years earlier. But even Simon was surprised when his board of directors rejected finishing the season or finding a permanent replacement. The Plantation theater was a particular favorite of mainstream audiences seeking thought-provoking productions of shows they had not heard of before.

On the credit side of the ledger, though, Florida Stage’s artistic director Lou Tyrrell resurfaced with the intimate Theatre at Arts Garage in Delray Beach, which mounted its first adventurous productions, the acerbic Cabaret Verboten and satirical Exit, Pursued By A Bear. Two more shows are slated for this season including a world premiere from Israel Horovitz.

Alan Jacobson’s Plaza Theatre opened in the old Florida Stage space in Manalapan. It bowed with generic revues but graduated to Driving Miss Daisy with Harriet Oser and John Archie and Luv with Avi Hoffman and Patti Gardner, all Equity actors.

Parade Productions, the brainchild of Candace Caplin and Kim St. Leon, rented space at The Studio at Mizner Park. The company started with Donald Margulies’ Brooklyn Boy starring Avi Hoffman, and this month opened The Santaland Diaries with Michael McKeever. It plans an evening of short McKeever plays in January.

Outré Theatre Company opened its inaugural season at Mizner Park with the ambitious cult musical The Wild Party, a production that stumbled because of sound problems. Its founders plan next year to stage a modern take on the classic epic An Iliad starring Hoffman, plus Jonathan Larson’s chamber musical tick…tick…BOOM! that triumphed last season in Outré’s staged reading.

In other good news, the Women’s Theatre Project, which had lost its space in Fort Lauderdale, transferred to Sugar Sand Park in Boca Raton. Similarly, the gay-centric Rising Action Theatre, which closed last season, was reborn this year as Island City Stage in Fort Lauderdale.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign was the number of companies that were once the new kids on the block such as Zoetic Stage, but who now have sunk roots as solidly as most theater companies can claim in this economy. Slow Burn Theatre Company, now in its fourth season, has steadily built audiences despite its location in far west Boca Raton. It chooses large scale musicals, cast with undeniably talented young performers who aren’t getting leading roles elsewhere. The result are solid productions such as its enthralling Into The Woods in April.

The Alliance Theatre Lab in Miami Lakes is more than a decade old, but its work over the past two seasons have made it seem like a new company. It has concentrated on new works written by its ensemble members and contemporary plays that speak directly to an audience under 40 years old.  Props are due Adalberto Acevedo, David Michael Sirois, Mark Della Ventura, Anne Chamberlain, Mcley Lafrance, Howard Ferre, LaVonne Canfield and Aubrey Shavonn Kessler.

The Playground Theatre isn’t new either with a track record for imaginatively staging theater for young audiences. But this year it expanded its mission to attract adult patrons with a new name, Miami Theater Center, and such offerings as its own reworking of Chekhov’s Three Sisters including the novelty of putting the audience on a rotating riser on the stage.

And some may not think of it as a creative entity but Empire Stage, in the trackside living-room space once occupied by Sol Theatre in Fort Lauderdale, not only hosts work by Infinite Abyss Productions, Thinking Cap Theatre, Island City Stage and Kutumba Theatre Project among others, but acts as co-producer for several offerings.

There are even new performing spaces such as the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, which has hosted productions such as the Asolo Theatre’s Cuban-flavored Hamlet.

On the debit side, the future of the Hollywood Playhouse remains uncertain as the city commission contemplates legal action and the Caldwell remains empty because the requested rent is too steep.

Even murkier is the fate of Coconut Grove Playhouse. Within a month, it will be offered up for lease to colleges and state agencies. If they pass, it will be offered for sale to Miami-Dade County, which was poised to develop it with an eye toward  GableStage occupying a new structure built on the parking lot. But state officials say a statute requires them to sell the property at “fair market value.” Given the headaches attached to the property, that might be $1, but more likely it will top $5 million considering the interest of private developers waiting for the county to pass. That might be a prohibitive price tag for the county.

The year was also marked by trends such as the inclusion of world premieres in most companies’ season slates; Alliance devoted its entire season to them.

Just as welcome was the willingness of some companies to experiment with highly stylized and experimental approaches. This has long been the purview of Paul Tei and Ann Kelly’s Mad Cat Theatre, which mounted The Hamlet Dog and Pony Show. But unrestrained theatricality was embraced by others, most notably Adrienne Arsht Center Executive Vice President Scott Shiller who brought in the House Theatre of Chicago’s highly successful Death and Harry Houdini.

Another interesting trend was most visible at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre. Producing Artistic Director Andrew Kato certainly programmed for its tradition-bound audience with the brand names of Hello, Dolly! and The Music Man. But he allowed directors Marcia Milgrom Dodge and Mark Martino to treat these works as if they had never been done before. It’s not that the results were radical departures, but they felt absolutely fresh and vibrant rather than retreads designed to revive the audience’s 50-year-old memories. New Theatre did the same thing a few years ago when Ricky J. Martinez directed The Glass Menagerie as if it was new play with no baggage, pre-conceptions or expectations.

But the year in theater was more about people and performances than balance sheets and new names on marquees. What follows isn’t a best or worst list, just some of random experiences that came easily to mind.

Matthew William Chizever and Katherine Amadeo in Naked Stage’s The Turn of the Screw.

A scrapbook of exceptional shows: In no order and doubtless leaving off many:
Palm Beach Dramaworks’ A Delicate Balance
Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s The Music Man, Cabaret and Hello, Dolly!
GableStage’s Ruined and The Motherf**ker With The Hat.
Slow Burn Theatre Company’s Into The Woods
Naked Stage’s The Turn of the Screw
Promethean Theatre’s The Unseen
Caldwell Theatre’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity
Arsht Center’s Death and Harry Houdini
Mosaic Theatre’s A Measure of Cruelty (although I’m in the minority on this one)
Actors Playhouse’s Next To Normal

The Best Shows You Didn’t See: Last Call, Arts Garage’s Cabaret Verboten and Exit, Pursued By a Bear, and Showtime Performing Arts Theatre’s [title of show]

Surprises: Actors Playhouse’s summer musical with the unpromising title Real Men Sing Show Tunes… And Play With Puppets was downright entertaining. The same could be said of the road show of Love, Loss and What I Wore and City Theatre‘s Standing On Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays. Broward Stage Door, whose producers thought Jewish–themed shows were a vein that had been played out, found commercial and critical success with The Immigrant and A Shayna Maidel.

In The All-I-Need-Is-A-Break Department: Dues-paying performers we’ve been following for years finally got the roles that confirmed what everyone knew all along — these are solid talents. Among them:
—-Betsy Graver effortlessly and instantly switched between the seeming ditsy actress and the cultured European noblewoman in Gablestage’s Venus In Fur.
Ethan Henry had strong supporting roles in GableStage’s Race and The Motherf**ker With The Hat this season, but his best performance was the enraged title character in the little-seen King Hedley II at M Ensemble. Henry was simultaneously terrifying in his ferocity yet clearly contained the playwright’s plea for understanding of this flawed character. It was like watching lava pour out of Vesuvius. We can hardly wait to see his Walter Lee Younger later next year in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ A Raisin in the Sun.
—-Matthew William Chizever, after struggling in less than sterling shows, was superb as the writer/director in Venus In Fur, as the multiple characters in Broward Stage Door’s Little Shop of Horrors and amping up the eerie factor in Naked Stage’s The Turn of the Screw. Even when the roles allow for histrionics, Chizever is never showy for the sake of displaying his gifts; he invests quiet intelligence and technical imagination within the confines of each role. As a result, his work is so seamless and naturalistic (even when he’s playing an elderly female housekeeper) that he’s provides the solid foundation that an entire play rests upon – the consummate leading man with a character actors’ chops.
—-Lela Elam, who has operated just below the mass audience’s awareness for years, finally got what she deserved – the iconic Mother Courage role in GableStage’s Ruined. Earthy, passionate, no-nonsense, Elam brought all of these and more to the owner of a brothel in a war-torn African country. She bravely embraced a character at once vibrant yet controlled, uneducated yet street smart, selfish yet protective of her “family.”  Elam’s eyes conveyed wariness, defiance, anger, affection, even a flash of secret longing for another life.
–Also in Ruined, Robert Strain finally got a role worthy of his talent. He inhabited the role of the cultured poetic soul reduced to peddling wares through the war-ravaged region. Strain put across the essential element of a character who is at heart a good human being trying to negotiate an unexpected life of wheeling and dealing for survival. It was his basic decency, which stumbles in the middle of the play but rises again later, that gave the play its moral center.

The “Who Was That And Where Have They Been” Department: It’s always mildly insulting to express astonishment that a theater artist has finally landed on your radar, especially if they’ve been working hard for several years. But just as when we “discovered” Elvire Emanuelle in Women Theatre Project’s Eclipsed, a season or so ago, we’ll be looking for these folks in the future:
—-Makeba Pace erupted into our consciousness with her portrayal of the long-suffering wife in M Ensemble’s King Hedley II. Pace stunned audiences with her long invective aria outlining why she wants to have an abortion, including her self-disgust that she will lose another child to the vicissitudes of the world just as she did her first daughter.
—-Mary Sansone was the reason not to miss Broward Stage Door’s A Shayna Maidel. As a shattered Holocaust survivor, Sansone’s soulful eyes spoke not simply of the horrors she had seen outside herself, but of interior guilt. Her character seemed so fettered by an emotional straightjacket and spoke in such halting, faltering English, you suspected she had no emotions that had not been cauterized. And yet when she spoke to her ghosts, Sansone revealed a woman still alive inside, equipped with a quick smile, wit, anger, sorrow and even playfulness.
—- Cindy Pearce, who apparently has spent much of her time in children’s theater, nearly stole Slow Burn’s Urinetown as Penelope Pennywise. A short and stout dynamo with a clarion Merman-like singing voice and a Mae West swagger, the way Pearce snapped out the hero’s name, Bobby (Bahb-bay), at every opportunity with an exaggerated topspin was hilarious in and of itself.

No Longer A Newcomer: One crop of artists reminded us that a new wave of solid performers continues to stake out turf in the region (at least temporarily):  Clay Cartland ([title of show], The Twentieth Century Way, Deathtrap), Renata Eastlick (Ruined), Anne Chamberlain (Into The Woods and Becky’s New Car), Lindsey Forgey (Xanadu, Urinetown, Baby GirL and Exit, Pursued By A Bear) and Scott Douglas Wilson (Happy, Winter and The Drawer Boy).

Other Outstanding Performances To Add To The List:
This roster could run pages, but here is a subjective and woefully incomplete list in no order:

Vicki Lewis / Photo by Alicia Donelan

—-Matt Loehr joyously tripping the light fantastic as Harold Hill in the Maltz’s The Music Man.
—-Vicki Lewis finding the emotional truth in the title character in the Maltz’s Hello, Dolly!. Carol who?
—-Walking kaleidoscope Tom Wahl as 196 characters in Zoetic Stage’s I Am My Own Wife.
–Jodie Langel as the standout in an outstanding cast in Actors Playhouse’s Next To Normal.
–Katherine Amadeo and Matthew William Chizever as the haunted duo in Naked Stage’s The Turn of the Screw.
—-Janet Dacal blowing out the house in Actors Playhouse’s The Last Five Years, exhibiting a power and level of honed skill you don’t see often in regional theater.
—-Dennis Creaghan as the increasingly embattled patrician in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ A Delicate Balance, just one member of a solid sextet of actors. His work in the first two-thirds of the show was so skillful that it was invisible.
—-Kate Shindle, simply for nailing the title song for Cabaret at the Maltz as it has never been nailed before. Never.
—-Laura Turnbull, who we’ve never seen give a bad performance, illustrating her range in Becky’s New Car and The Effect of Gamma Rays….
–Andy Quiroga scorching the tiny Pelican Theater as the bitter, angry brother in Naked Stage’s A Man Puts On A Play.
–Terri Girvin as the multi-tasking bartender in Last Call
—-Ken Clement had one of his busiest years with such bravura turns as the title character in Mosaic’s Diary of a Madman, but his best work may have been the understated portrayal of the cuckolded husband in Becky’s New Car.

Acting Endurance Award: For 90 uninterrupted minutes, Todd Allen Durkin and Gregg Weiner invested every atom in their being into two morally corrupted cops’ spiral into Hell in GableStage’s A Steady Rain.

In the Nuts And Bolts Department:
          —-Antonio Amadeo is best known as an actor. But with a set design budget smaller than what Equity actors get paid, he produced an amazingly brooding environment for The Turn of the Screw at his Naked Stage. He took some molding, empty picture frames, an armchair and a staircase that leads nowhere to create a fully-realized world of foreboding. Furniture and stairs melted into the walls and floor. The icing was the eerie lighting design by director Margaret M. Ledford who said she hadn’t designed lighting before.
—-Matt Corey is one of the busiest sound designers in the region and his name was in who knows how many programs this year. But the one most people will remember is his unnerving soundscape of avian terror for Mosaic’s final show, The Birds
—-Last Call,
the tiny show about the life of a New York City bartender Terri Girvin, featured a stunning array of hundreds of precisely-timed sound and light cues by Phil Pallazzolo, David Hart, Jamie Cooper under Michael Leeds’ direction of Girvin’s concept and script.
—-Michael Amico, who inexplicably has yet to win a Carbonell, led a creative team that does such consistently excellent work at Palm Beach Dramaworks that perhaps people take it for granted. But his exquisitely dilapidated boathouse in Talley’s Folly, beautifully lit by Ron Burns, was a masterpiece.

Directing More Than Traffic: There were a dozen dazzling examples of first-rate direction this year, especially at the Maltz musicals. Many of the best directors like J. Barry Lewis, Joseph Adler and David Arisco were so subtle that they made their work undetectable. But one project stood out: To make audiences feel the hair stand up on the back of their necks in a legit theater rather than a movie house in the 21st Century is a feat. So kudos are due Margaret M. Ledford for setting the tone of encroaching psychological dread in The Turn of the Screw.

Disappointment Department:  Some shows weren’t terrible so much as fell short of what they could have been. Top of the list here was the Maltz’s Amadeus, which had a lackluster Salieri and cripplingly misconceived lighting and sound. Also falling far short of the mark were Broward Stage Door’s My Fair Lady and Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, plus New Theatre’s Educating Rita and Keeping A-Breast. This list, too, could stretch longer. We won’t embarrass the company, but another musical we saw last spring was notable for no more than a couple of people in a very large cast being able to sing a whit.

The “WTF” Department: The alleged pre-Broadway tryout of Soul Doctor in Miami Beach.

Best “Debut:” Kim Ehly has been a mainstay of the local acting corps for years, but she surprised some people as a fledgling playwright with her semi-autobiographical comedy-drama, Baby GirL. The story of a young lesbian discovering her sexuality and searching for her birth mother was an infectiously endearing tale of how we make our own families. It may not have been a perfect work (what first full-length play is?) but it was a winning, endearing and affecting evening that was so popular that the tiny Empire Stage had to extend the run. If you missed it, the play has been penciled in for late this season at a theater that has not formally announced the engagement.

Stephanie Chisholm in The Donkey Show / Photo by Justin Namon

Weirdest Production:  Not even Mad Cat’s intentionally off-the-wall The Hamlet Dog and Pony Show or Infinite Abyss’ Snow White Trash could compete with the serious strangeness of the Arsht Center’s The Donkey Show, which had a high six-figure budget to play with. This loose, very loose, retelling of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was staged as if the Arsht stage was Studio 54 at the height of the disco era. The Donkey Show featured a nearly naked aerialist spinning above your head from a net before miming sex with a jackass, plus guest appearances from Harry Wayne Casey whose KC and the Sunshine Band apparently had no county fair gigs that month.

Worst Trend: Abysmal sound. Over and over and over, shows were sunk in their opening weekends by bands and sound effects drowning out singers and actors, microphones cutting in and out, sound board techs turning on microphones after an actor started speaking, etc. etc. Such problems crippled The Wild Party, The Hamlet Dog and Pony Show, and Amadeus, just to name a few—and there were many others. One positive note: Actors Playhouse had a serious sound problem with Hairspray last year but Alexander Herrin and company have made noticeable strides correcting the problems.

It’s likely 2013 will be much the same unless the Mayans are right. The economy will still be a serious challenge even if the country doesn’t topple over the fiscal cliff. The arts aren’t at the top of government and philanthropists’ list of recipients, and theater languishes somewhere near the bottom.  Judging from audience turnout, a few theaters must be hanging on by their cuticles.

But as we wrote in our series last fall, “South Florida’s artists and audiences have proven over and over that they do not just survive, they prevail armed with little more than sheer vision, imagination and drive. More than anything else, South Florida theater partisans must take inspiration from how far it’s come already, to strengthen the resolve that it can go even farther.”

Happy holidays and a theatrically rewarding new year to everyone.

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