By Bill Hirschman
CORRECTED 9:42 A.M.
When you first come into the theater to see A Man Puts On A Play, you might wonder if you came a week too early. The unoccupied stage and the first rows of seats are covered with the chaotic flotsam and jetsam of theater-making: skeletal pieces of set lying on the floor, power tools, plywood, extension cords, stepladders strewn everywhere, all lit with harsh unromantic work lights.
Then Naked Stage co-founder Antonio Amadeo strides in from the back, surveys the quiet scene. He calls his real-life wife, Katie, who we can hear over the cell phone arguing that he needs to come home and be a husband and father to their two children.
A stage crew of unruly college students suddenly pours into the auditorium. Under Amadeo’s supervision, they horse around, tease each other, but in 50-plus minutes of real time, they erect, light and dress a full-fledged set before the audience’s eyes like an Amish barn-raising. They clothe the bare stage with the walls of a plywood-covered attic jammed with as eclectic a collection of junk as you’d find in Arthur Miller’s The Price. As a photographer shoots production photos, the crew bangs away while Amadeo rehearses a last-minute tweak with two actors.
Once the set is finished and just before intermission, Amadeo gets another call from his wife, puts it on speaker, and we hear Katie threatening Amadeo with consequences if he does not come home. Since many audience members know this is his real wife, there are a few moments when the verisimilitude becomes just a shade uncomfortable.
This hour of meta-theater, which will fascinate civilians and amuse veterans, is the delightful curtain raiser to the more traditional scripted second act of A Man Puts On A Play, an engaging and intriguing world premiere written, produced, designed, directed and co-starring Amadeo in a feat reminiscent of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater productions on stage and in film.
A Man Puts On A Play is the theatrical equivalent of cinema verité in which the real pretends to be fake in the first act and the fake pretends to be real in the second act.
The second act itself is a traditional naturalistic play centering on the time-tested theme of a dysfunctional family dealing with its baggage. It’s a solid piece of work that obviously springs from Amadeo’s guts, but it breaks no new ground. It’s an admirable offering from a first-time playwright, but you can see the bones of the well-made play structure sticking through the skin and Amadeo can’t quite cover the unvarnished delivery of pure exposition needed to keep the audience clued in. It’s pretty straight-ahead drama with characters saying exactly what they mean, although they are often harboring secrets that will change expectations and assumptions.
The facet that catapults the evening into the go-out-of-your-way-to-see-it category (although the set building qualifies it) is the visceral scorching turn by Andy Quiroga as a brother who feels he was betrayed and abandoned by his other brother played by Amadeo (who does a superb job acting as well).
One of the joys of regular theatergoing is seeing an actor you’ve watched for years finally get a meaty part that he really syncs with, displaying the thespian skills and artistic depth that he has harbored all along. Quiroga here is on fire in his frustration-fueled rage, in his quietly wounded soul and above all, in his ability to inhabit a character with such realism that you believe every moment, regardless how extreme his emotions. Quiroga’s electric creation under Amadeo’s direction exudes a knife-sharp fury that seems barely kept in check.
He has a lot to be angry about. The second act play posits that the prodigal black sheep Tony (Amadeo) has apperated back home after years away in a kind of exile. The amiable Tony has returned ostensibly to go through boxes of belongings he has stored in the attic of his brother Joe (Quiroga), a deeply intense businessman whose company collapsed when Tony bankrupted the family restaurant and disappeared years ago after draining the company of Joe’s money. Joe’s 17-year-old daughter Georgia (Kathleen Robiou) tries to make peace between them, but the fissures between them and the secrets each harbors create abysses that seem impossible to bridge. Over the hour-long verbal and physical brawl in the attic, the brothers strive to connect, resist, then strive again thanks to Georgia’s efforts to clear away the recriminations and the baggage.
Under Amadeo’s direction and thanks to the two men’s acting, the play often echoes Sam Shepard’s familial warfare in True West or Buried Child. The tense push and pull is less a dance then a cage fight. As wry as the first act’s tone can be, the second is its reverse with a life-and-death seriousness leavened only by Amadeo’s natural bent for gentle humor.
As a director, Amadeo deftly positions and smoothly moves his chess pieces around the claustrophobic attic. He and Quiroga both have a sixth sense for using their body language to underscore what their characters are feeling, such as Quiroga often seeming tense and coiled. Like a Shepard play, Amadeo dilutes the talkiness by having the characters employ physical actions wherever possible, punctuating the dialogue with keys being thrown across the room, a fist slamming on a table, one brother stomping a packing box, Georgia unearthing from a memento of the brothers’ mutual past out of a drawer or a box.
As a scene designer in the past, Amadeo has frequently illustrated how his imagination can triumph over a budget smaller than some teenagers’ allowance. But this instance is an unusual triumph because while the set seems just thrown together on the spur of the moment, the creation of this completely convincing environment obviously involved ingenious preplanning and design – not to mention a cornucopia of worthless “treasures” that people accumulate. Amadeo indulges in some inside jokes by including a poster of his favorite rock star, Prince, and a plastic Yoda reflecting his own love of action figures.
The first act, although it might sound simply like a cute stunt, actually serves as a grinning celebration of the act of artistic creation. The magic of theatre is, like a stage magician’s trickery, actually hard-won craft and pure elbow grease rather than supernatural conjuring.
It’s hard to know how choreographed the first act is and how much of the crew’s banter is really improvisation rather than culled from numerous run-throughs. There’s some great meta-dialogue like, someone asking why Naked Stage is using theater students as a crew. “Because we’re free,” someone answers. Despite the somewhat chaotic aura, their nightly success at building a set in under an hour belies the off-hand ad hoc feel. It’s a bit like Fred and Ginger meeting “for the first time” in the first reel and instantly executing an intricate 10-minute dance number.
Kudos are due the cast/crew comprised of Shawn Burgess, Ricardo Redd, Victor Rodriguez, Jakes Tompkins and Kaitlin Sarnacki who actually works as the stage manager and Stephanie Meskauskas who doubles as the light board operator.
The set building does go on a bit long. We’re ready for the show to start after a half-hour. (Update Nov. 11: The set-building has become so smooth that it’s now down to 29 minutes). But there’s something wonderfully ambitious and audacious about the entire thinking-out-of-the-box Pirandello concept that should be encouraged by theatergoers. It’s the kind of thought-provoking, youth-oriented theater that this region desperately needs.
A Man Puts On A Play runs through Nov. 18 at The Naked Stage performing at Pelican Theatre at Barry University, 11300 NE Second Ave., Miami Shores. Performances 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $12 for students, $18 for seniors, $25 adults. Call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.nakedstage.org