Looking Back: The Best (and Worst) of the 2010-2011 Season

By Bill Hirschman

Gregg Weiner and Erin Joy Schmidt in GableStage's Fifty Words


Theater reviewers must have a better than average ego to flatter themselves into believing that their judgment has worth, regardless of what anyone else thinks. So imagine critics asking each other for a reality check whether their standards were still intact because they were writing so many near-rave reviews in a row.

That gives you a hint of just how unusually strong the 2010-2011 season was in South Florida.

Certainly, there were disappointments and disasters that will be listed later. But any season that encompassed such sterling productions of August: Osage County, Collected Stories, The Light in the Piazza, The Brothers Size and The Sparrow is one you save the Playbills for to review on a rainy day.

Off stage, we struggled with the demise of Florida Stage, a seismic event that unnerved anyone who loved thought-provoking theater.

But also off-stage, anyone could spot signs of not just survival, but a burgeoning theater community: Palm Beach Dramaworks’ deal to move into the Cuillo Center for the Arts downtown; the birth of Zoetic Stage at the Arsht in Miami; Coral Springs’ Broward Stage Door opening a third stage at the Byron Carlyle in Miami Beach; the move of Rising Action to Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale; the rise of Empire Stage and Infinite Abyss in the old Sol Theatre space in Fort Lauderdale; Mosaic Theatre in Plantation becoming Broward County’s sole Equity house; the 20th anniversary of the Broward Center; Boca Raton Theatre Guild turning pro; the expansion of the Arsht Center’s role as a producing house, and the newly-minted Caldwell 2@Mizner and Parade Productions taking up rented residence at Mizner Park Cultural Arts Center’s black box theater.

Thumb through this incomplete album of memories stubbornly refusing to fade into ephemera. In no particular order:

* Actors’ Playhouse’s August: Osage County in March was a landmark for several reasons.

Barbara Bradshaw, Annette Miller and Kathryn L. Johnston are part of the dysfunctional family in Actors Playhouse's August: Osage County

First, it was simply a solid production that didn’t take a backseat to any other edition we’ve seen and yet found a different spin on what has already become a standard in the regional theater repertoire across the country. Second, director David Arisco’s willingness to cast all but one role with local actors was a testament to the depth of the bench here in South Florida. Three hours of stage time sped by. It was worth the time just to hear Laura Turnbull slice David Kwiat with a few jagged words that her “missing” father is obviously dead.

* The Sparrow engendered a bit of jealousy because the Arsht basically imported the revival by the House Theatre of Chicago. But politics aside, this tale of adolescent angst last April was a triumph of staging that made the most of theatrical conceits and required the audience invest their imagination. Certainly, such evocative techniques are employed here occasionally (notably at PlayGround Theatre), but the hard truth is that South Florida’s tradition-bound audiences rarely welcome The Sparrow’s visual poetry of fusing lights, sound effects, music and choreography to recreate a schoolgirl flying through the air, a freight train rushing inches by the audience or the mourning of a town tragedy by actors simply holding portraits to their chest. We hope local producers and artistic directors were encouraged to push the edge of the envelope a bit more. In theater, Dr. Freud, sometimes a cigar can be more than a cigar.

* South Florida has fostered playwrights Michael McKeever, Christopher Demos-Brown,

Alliance Theatre's The Brothers Beckett with Ryan Didato, Kaitlyn O’Neill, playwright David Sirois and Mark Della Ventura

Marco Ramirez and Nilo Cruz. Add to that list David Sirois whose Brothers Beckett was a stunning world premiere for Alliance Theatre Lab in March. It was a character-driven comedy that thrived on witty banter and fast-slinging cultural references, but which murmured disturbing questions about a generation of Peter Pans who cannot grow up. Alliance’s resident playwright joins Adam Rapp and Neil LeBute in dissecting a Not-Quite-Lost Generation.

* When done well, The Pillowman is such a marrow-scraping experience that critics are happy to pass on seeing yet another production about torturing artists in a totalitarian dystopia. But Infinite Abyss’ production this summer was so overwhelming in the intensity of its acting and calibrated pitch of its direction that the audience can feel sorry for friends who passed it by. Inside the sweltering and claustrophobic digs once occupied by the Sol Theatre, audiences kept asking like Butch Cassidy, “Who are these guys?” Those guys were Scott Douglas Wilson as the story-spinner Katurian, Todd Bruno as the homicidally-disturbed but clueless brother, Dominick Daniel as the sadistic cop and Jim Gibbons as the contemplative partner. Led  by the moment-to-moment pacing of Jeffrey D. Holmes (where the heck did he come from), the company synthesized a new take on Martin McDonagh’s harrowing script. To begin with, the antagonists were not the soulless torturers of most productions and Katurian bore more responsibility for the tragedy than directors usually acknowledge. Wilson was so compelling as he  told his twisted tales that the audience didn’t mind that the stories were not being mimed behind him by other actors, as most productions opt for.

* While we’re at it, kudos are overdue for Jim Gibbons’ acting here and over the past decade. We’ve never seen him give a bad performance, only average performances trapped in rotten shows. And when he is gifted with a good director and a meaty part, his work is simply as good as it gets. Proof: his soulful clown in the Sol’s Waiting For Godot and his breathtaking range of haunted characters in Eric Bogosian’s Drinking In America. With a purring Shelby Foote voice and Fallen Angel features that speak of a hard road travelled, Gibbons can seem achingly sympathetic, dangerously seductive, terrifyingly evil or all three at once. About the only good thing about the closing of Florida Stage where he was a carpenter is that it frees him up to get more acting jobs.

* Admit it: When you heard the premise of A Round-Heeled Woman (senior lady seeks out a sexual relationship) you feared the stage equivalent of a “very special” Lifetime Movie whose only redeeming value would be to see actress Sharon Gless in the flesh. What a lovely surprise that the GableStage production in January was a drolly funny, often moving exploration of someone insisting on living life to the fullest regardless of the emotional risk. Gless provided the icing on the treat with an endearing portrait of someone you’d just like to spend more time with. An added bonus was a strong performance by Antonio Amadeo as her estranged son and her most promising lover.

* It would be impossible to choose the best show of the season. But a leading contender

Barbara Bradshaw and Kim Morgan Dean in Mosaic Theatre's Collected Stories

would have to be the uniformly wonderful Collected Stories at Mosaic Theatre. It was showered deservedly with adulatory word of mouth since it opened in November. But just to repeat it, director Margaret Ledford brought out truly amazing performances from the brilliant Barbara Bradshaw and a vibrant Kim Morgan Dean as the veteran writer and her protege.

* The Women’s Theatre Project, known for its unpredictable run of triumphs and misfires, scored a success with Eclipsed. The portrait of the intentional dehumanization of Liberian women during wartime and a shattering indictment of cruelty was the best work that the Women’s Project has offered in many months. Director Genie Croft led an ensemble of fine actresses, Karen Stephens, Lela Elam, Carey Hart and Renata Eastlick. But the headline was the discovery of newcomer Elvire Emmanuelle as a 15-year-old whose naivete and innocence are burned away by the horrors of war. The actress works primarily on film projects, and we can only hope someone will drag her back onto a stage soon.

* Stuff was one of the most satisfying offerings by the Caldwell Theatre in its comeback season. The world premiere script about the mad Collyer Brothers by Michael McKeever was funny and insightful, the direction by Clive Cholerton was strong but invisible and Tim Bennett’s lush parlor haven of the first act magically turned into a hoarder’s nightmare after intermission. While the acting by McKeever, Nicholas Richberg and Marckenson Charles was unimpeachable, it was the Angie Radosh’s portrayal of an imperious and manipulative matriarch that qualified as a home run – bringing out all the conflicting layers that McKeever had carefully laid in, shuttling between shrewdness and dottiness, insightfulness and utter cluelessness.

* Paul Tei may be spending a good part of his year in L.A., but he keeps coming home to lead the Mad Cat Theatre troupe’s campaign to shake up traditional expectations. Among other productions, its recent so my grandmother died blah blah blah was a hilarious fever dream contemplation on pop culture as if Lewis Carroll was writing in the 21st Century.

* For more than a decade, Broward Stage Door has been fighting (and sometimes capitulating to) its reputation for relentless mainstream fare designed to bring in the buses from seniors’ condos. But through offerings like A Little Night Music and The Drowsy Chaperone, it had begun to shake off the rap that it’s fatally addicted to safe and familiar titles. Well, it spiked that reputation with The Light in the Piazza. the wildly romantic but off-beat musical by Adam Guettel. Director Michael Leeds helmed what may be the finest locally-produced musical theater since Floyd Collins at Actors’ Playhouse in 2003.  We wrote in March: “A lot of people unable to explore outside their comfort zone are going to hate it. But those willing to scrap their expectations for a Jerry Herman musical and open themselves to a boundary-busting redefinition of the genre will be richly rewarded.” We still feel that way.

* The Caldwell’s impresario Michael Hall was producing serious-minded plays with gay themes and characters on a regular basis before almost anyone else in the region. So it was a pleasure to see the semi-retired Hall come back to the Caldwell in February to direct Next Fall, a thought-provoking drama about a gay couple struggling with one partner’s profound religious faith. It skillfully dissected the difficulty of maintaining the most intimate relationships despite profound differences between human beings.

* Last spring’s Crazy For You was just one more example about how some of the slickest, lushest, most rousing musical theater in the state is being done by the Maltz Jupiter Theatre. In addition to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on each production, the Maltz staff has a reliable eye for casting. In this case, they hired infectiously joyous performers in Matt Loehr and Vanessa Sonon as the tap-dancing bickering lovers-to-be.

* Karen Stephen’s reprise of the multi-character one-woman show Bridge and Tunnel was not simply a tour de force, but underscored that a really good performer can convincingly inhabit a wide range of wildly different characterizations. It’s called acting.

* The one gem in an unexciting Florida Stage season was December’s Goldie Max & Milk, Karen Hartman’s underrated tale about motherhood and lactation featuring standout performances by Erin Joy Schmidt and Deborah L. Sherman.

* The Naked Stage is perpetually struggling to stay afloat, but its production of Sartre’s No Exit was the best show most people didn’t see last season. Shoe-horned into the tiny stage at Barry University, the claustrophobic depiction of hell as other people was a surgically incisive indictment of humanity’s darker nature. Co-directors John Manzelli and Antonio Amadeo helmed a quartet of actors including Katherine Amadeo, Andy Quiroga, Mark Della Ventura and, once again, Deborah L. Sherman.

* Fifty Words , Michael Weller’s  latter day Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, tracked the disintegration of a marriage during a very dark night of the marital soul at GableStage. Joe Adler’s direction was seamless and the wrenching performances by Erin Joy Schmidt and Gregg Weiner were difficult to watch because they cut so close to the bone.

* Palm Beach Dramaworks played to its strength of illuminating productions of classic plays with its offering of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida.  Director J. Barry Lewis once again dissected and then illustrated the meaning of every moment in a play. His company leapt into Shaw’s dense thicket of ideas and language barreling at you with hardly a moment to take it in and made them both comprehensible and entertaining.

* The Irish Curse at Mosaic Theatre was a surprisingly funny and affecting examination of the modern myth of manhood with an ensemble cast of skilled character actors.

* The God of Carnage closed the Caldwell’s regular season with an unabashedly

Nick Santa Maria, Kim Ostrenko, Kim Cozort and Michael Serratore in Caldwell Theatre's The God of Carnage

entertaining look at adults behaving badly.

* The season, for most purposes, ended on a mountain crag: Tarell Alvin McCraney made his long overdue bow in South Florida both as director and playwright with his The Brothers’ Size at GableStage. The highly stylized and profligately theatrical depiction of the ying and yang of sibling relationships challenged mainstream audiences to let go of their addiction to naturalistic staging.

There were several surprises during the season: Rock of Ages (Broadway Across America) turned out to be delightfully stupid fun; the 25th anniversary production of Les Miserables (more Broadway Across America) injected new vibrance in the warhorse;  Pandemonium (Arsht) threatened to be another quirky Stomp, but proved to be a fascinating use of everyday objects to create unearthly music; and The Sound of Music (Maltz), another show that critics avoid, received a no-excuses production that respected the difference between genuine sentiment and manipulative sentimentality, plus featured a superb performance by Catherine Walker as Maria.

And just to make sure no one thinks we haven’t gone soft, we marked down several disappointments: The Radiant (New Theatre), a flawed script and one miserable supporting performance, although it was lovely interviewing the blameless star Angelica Torn who played Madame Curie; The Color of Desire (Actors’ Playhouse), Nilo Cruz’s latest that was alternately lovely and ham-handed;  Oliver (Actor’s Playhouse), some decent adult voices and performances but overall a pale promise of what could have been; Ghost-Writer (Florida Stage), the script read far better, sunk in part by a lackluster male lead;  The Tempest (New Theatre), other than Avi Hoffman’s terrific turn, made you wonder if we ought to put a moratorium on locally-produced Shakespeare; and Cane (Florida Stage), a promising first script that needed more work.

And then there were the flat-out failures: the passionless Equus (Andrews Living Arts), the missed opportunities of House of Yes (Alliance); who would cast Mame (Broward Stage Door) with an unconvincing Mame;  The Comfort of Darkness (Caldwell) filling the not-so-mesmerizing entry in the Chemical Imbalance sweepstakes; bare (at the Broward Center), the justifiably lower-case musical whose only redeeming factor was the scene-stealing supporting performance of Marissa Rosen; and The Killing of Sister George at Rising Action didn’t look quite so bad compared to the painful-to-sit-through Fit To Be Tied at the same venue.

So let us know, what would you add to the list?

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