Unpleasant Truths On Exhilarating Theatrical Display at “Falling,” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,”

I’d certainly been looking forward to Falling after attending many of the New City Players’ lead up events, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The fast-paced 75-minute show never dragged or faltered, and, as promised, it offered us a rare window into the seldom represented day-to-day life of a family dealing with a severely autistic child. Timothy Mark Davis nailed the pivotal role of Josh, the 18-year old boy with severe autism around whom the play (and the characters’ lives) revolved. The endearingly childlike enthusiasm of his portrayal gave life and soul to a type of person many consider less than human. 

Davis also mastered many of the unique behaviors and emotional traits common to those on the “lower-functioning” end of the autism spectrum. These included his frequent sensory “stimming” by rocking and flapping his hands, his peculiarly blinkered speech, and his blindingly singular focus. I wasn’t surprised to learn how extensively Davis had researched his role during that night’s talkback, where he also described his performance as very intuitive and the role as a chance to follow certain impulses he might naturally suppress; a scene in which Josh unabashedly sticks his hands down his pants in front of his grandmother comes to mind.

As someone on the “higher-functioning” end of the autism spectrum and thus subject to rather different sets of problems (for one thing, being so “smart” and functional at some things that no one suspects the fact that I’m hopeless I am at others), I didn’t relate much too much to Josh. However, I will admit to recognizing a bit of my mother’s almost superhuman steadfastness when it comes to dealing with my own spectrum-related issues in the character of Tami, whose motherly devotion to Josh came through so strongly that I’d be surprised if actress Arlette Del Toro wasn’t a parent herself.

This devotion was all the more impressive given her son Josh’s truly frightening capacity for violence when he is upset or overstimulated. Davis’s performance makes it clear that Josh is lashing out due to his panic, overwhelm and inability to fully understand his surroundings rather than any innate malevolence, but when a fully grown adult male physically attacks a woman less than half his size, the potential for harm is still great.

As the person most intimately involved in Josh’s care, his mother Tami also bears the brunt of his violent tendencies, and the play features a few terrifying scenes in which she is under direct attack. Though much of Josh’s worldview and behavior is totally alien to us, Tami’s love and concern for her son’s future grabs us by the heartstrings and keeps us emotionally invested in the Martin’s plight. Her description of an institution or group home for Josh as “somewhere he that he won’t be loved” hit hard.

Elizabeth Price also excelled in the less showy role of the the bible-thumping Granny Sue, whose visit is the catalyst that brings the Martin’s latent worries about Josh’s future to the surface. Todd Bruno likewise shined in the role of Josh’s devoted father Bill. Though Josh’s issues have understandably taken their toll on Bill’s relationship with Tami,  the father’s steadiness and his own evident love for Josh show how the two have survived as couple for all these years.

Abby Nigro is occasionally a little mannered as Lisa, maybe too focused on being adequately “teenagery” or standoffish than on being naturalistic or the gravity of her character’s emotional reality, but she does rise to the occasion in one of the play’s most intense moments; when Lisa confronts her mother about her fears that Josh could easily kill either one of them in an out of control moment.

“it only takes once,” she says poignantly.

However, the biggest problems I found with Falling lay not with the adept cast but with the script itself. The tail end of the play is somewhat marred by a bizarre twist in which something seems to have occurred that would drastically alter the Martin’s lives, but the event is later revealed to have been a dream of Tami’s. I’m not saying that her anxious imaginings didn’t present an interesting scenario to explore; just that there may have been better, less melodramatic and “more earned” ways to explore it. A more obviously surrealist sequence, for instance, might have made it clearer that we were inside Tami’s head.

The play’s ending is really more of a non-ending; the Martins have now become a little more open about their dissatisfaction and the need for something to change, but that’s about it. This absence of any real resolution to the family’s story is a decent strategy given the playwright’s goal was to leave the audience thinking about the social problem of our society’s lack of accommodations for autistic adults, but it was a little less narratively effective than I suspect a clearer conclusion would have been.

Luckily, the show was followed by a talkback, which gave the evening more of a sense of cohesion than the weighty loose ends left onstage. There were no straight answers there either, but there was thoughtful consideration of and conversation on a variety of spectrum-related issues. In a way, just seeing that a whole room of people, actors and audience, both personally connected to the spectrum and not, genuinely cared about the future of autistic people of all sorts was enough to offer a smidgen of hope.

Some might think that a newly written play about autism couldn’t have less in common with the 1947 Tennessee Williams piece “A Streetcar Named Desire, ” playing until this November 3rd at esteemed company Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Don & Ann Brown theatre. Yet both plays revolve, in very different ways, around the idea of loving someone who is “hard to love”, as Falling director Jessica Schulte puts it, and around the trials and tribulations of a sensitive soul turned toxic by the harsh realities of everyday life.

Mental illness isn’t at the forefront of most discussions about A Streetcar Named Desire, but its protagonist Blanche Dubois clearly appears to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as well as some sort of mood and/or personality disorder. Playwright Tennessee Williams and actress Vivian Leigh, who memorably immortalized the part on film, both suffered from bipolar disorder, and that diagnosis would well explain Blanche’s bouts of frenetic activity interspersed with her periods of anxiety and withdrawal, as well as her apparent hypersexuality and eventual loss of contact with reality during the play’s conclusion.

The gorgeously dilapidated set and evocative period costumes were perfect for bringing us into the dreary and strangely beautiful world of the play.  As is often the case in our darkest tragedies, the bleak nature of the show is made bearable by the poetry of the dialogue, especially Blanche’s dialogue, and the skill and charisma of the performers.

As well as Davis captured Josh’s simplicity in Falling, Kathy McCafferty did an equally marvelous job at embodying one of the most complex and interesting characters in modern theatre in Blanche Dubois.  Blanche is thought to have been partially based on Williams’ sister Rose, whose forced lobotomy in her early adulthood colored much of her brother’s subsequent artistic work. I suspect she may have also been partially based on Williams himself, who also often wrote of feeling out of place in in ordinary human life and using his writing as a refuge. Blanche and Williams also share a tendency to self-medicate with alcohol, another fairly classic bipolar trait.

A Streetcar Named Desire was once explained to me as being about the “masks behind which we conceal our sexual selves,” and that element was also central to this production. McCafferty’s Blanche exuded sexual desire and energy even when the character was doing her damnedest to put forth an “innocent” persona, and even in her most fragile moments, her vulnerability itself seemed to be a seductive force. Courtesy of the phenomenal performance of Annie Grier, it was also clear that Stella’s tranquilizing “sexual addiction” to Stanley was her defining principle, and the animal charisma of Danny Gavigan’s Stanley didn’t hurt matters.

Like Falling, the 3-hour performance of A Streetcar Named Desire (which included 2 ten-minute intermissions) never dragged, but anyone who’s seen it knows that the devastating ending it comes to is a far more conclusive one. In a way, Josh’s loved ones did a better job at accepting his eccentricities than the people who surrounded Blanche did hers, given their abject disapproval and heart-breaking betrayal of her.

Whether it’s in someone as obviously neurodivergent as Josh or someone who, like Blanche, is secretly cracking behind a civilized façade, let’s hope these stories can teach us to look upon those suffering with a kinder eye.

And Now For Some Community Theatre

My last post was about, among other things, the connection between theatre and the community, and another way that theatre can transform a community is by encouraging and educating its young performers. Thus, I decided to support Sol’s Children’s Theatre by bopping over to its first production of the season, Little Shop of Horrors.

Given that these were student performers, I’m not going to say too much about the acting, besides that Celia Roberts had great stage presence and hit some impressive notes as “Mrs. Mushnik,” a role gender-bent from Mr. Mushnik in the original script. In fact, the vocal talents of some of the female ensemble members made me wonder what could have been if some other male characters had been less traditionally cast.

The show was well directed by Courtney Poston and had great production values. This was my first time seeing the stage version of Little Shop of Horrors, and it was refreshing to see a show that was relatively family-friendly and consistently amusing without being frivolous or grating. The play, which initially seemed to be a whimsically absurd story of a sweet workplace romance and a mysterious plant, also had some surprisingly dark moments and complex themes.

After all, the only happy ending to be found is for Audrey II the plant, and the way that it (He? She? Female name, male voice….Do giant plants even have gender identities?) gradually talks Seymour into committing steeper and steeper crimes so that he can keep the fame being a giant-plant-gardener has granted him is eventually revealed to be an allegory for the ways in which insidious forces of evil can gradually infect our psyches. In fact, the show’s closing edict urging us not to “feed the plants” could well be considered a similar message to the one espoused under far more serious circumstances in Gablestage’s production of Wiesenthal.

The next production on my agenda was Calendar Girls at the Delray Beach Playhouse, where I’ll be performing in a few staged readings for their Playwrights’ Festival later this month. The play Calendar Girls was inspired by the film, which was in turn inspired by the true story of Angela Baker, a British woman who lost her husband to leukemia and then sought to raise money to buy a new couch for the wing in which he had undergone chemotherapy. The twist is that she raises this money by convincing a few of her closest WI (Women’s Institute) friends, all of who are over 40, to appear with her in a special “nudie calendar.”

The grief of Annie (the character based on Angela) and this noble mission provides the heart and pathos behind what is otherwise a relatively light show. The women’s calendrical caper eventually raised over 5,000 dollars for leukemia research, and many productions of the play have taken up that mantle by making their own charitable contributions. The Delray Playhouse did so by donating to the Holy Cross Hospital’s Partners In Breast Health program.

Calendar Girls is quite the popular show over in England, the home country of its protagonists, and this production makes it easy to see why. The play boasts several meaty roles for older actresses and movingly and memorably celebrates the power of female friendship and the good that can come from baring it all for a good cause, pun only kind of intended. Helen Buttery is a heartfelt and grounding presence as protagonist Annie. Other standouts include Amy Salerno as the fun-loving Celia, Marcie Hall as the spotlight-frenzied Chris, and Forman Lauren as the young-at-heart Elaine.

The play’s highlight was most definitely the photoshoot scene, which began with the characters loosening up for the occasion by taking swigs from a large bottle of vodka and becoming fittingly raucous. The actresses appear quite scantily clad, but all of their truly naughty bits are creatively covered up by props ranging from flower wreaths to cinnamon buns.

The second act is somewhat less engaging as the focus shifts to an out of nowhere subplot about one woman’s philandering husband and an unrealistic plotline in which the women struggle against the temptation to give into their own “plants” and appear wearing only flowers in an advertisement for detergent. However, the play finishes strong as the ladies smooth over their superficial disagreements and enjoy the lovely sight of a hill covered in the sunflowers that John had requested be planted in his memory.

I then completed my latest trifecta by attending this Thursday evening’s performance of Sister Act at the Lake Worth Playhouse. Though this story is a fictional one, it did, like Calendar Girls, feature a group of traditional women who gain worldwide acclaim for their nontraditional behavior. Its action kicks off when wayward soul singer Deloris agrees to hide out in a convent in order to gain protection from her criminal ex-boyfriend Curtis.

Deloris predictably fails to fit in with her “sisters” at first, leading to few entertaining “fish-out-of-water” type gags, but things take off when she is placed in charge of the church choir. The rock and roll inspired anthems that ensue take the convent’s congregation by storm, leading to a huge spike in donations for the church, national TV appearances, and even a performance in front of the pope.

The playfully irreverent in-story musical numbers that result from this contrivance are probably the show’s highlight, featuring some impressive harmonizing and showcasing the vocal talents of Michelle Sanchez as Sister Mary Robert and the rapping abilities of Arielle Ingrassia-Smith as Sister Mary Lazarus. On the whole, the choreography was less impressive than the singing, but who expects nuns to know how to dance anyhow?

I’ve never seen the movie Sister Act, but the broad and endearingly improbable story seemed veritably built for musical comedy. As protagonist Deloris, Fednike Nozistene had great comedic timing and vocal chops, and the star power to suggest that she was as “Fabulous” as the script asserted. Unfortunately, her more frantic dialogue occasionally got too shrieky to be clearly understood. This may have been less of a problem with her and more with the sound design, which more noticeably faltered a few times during the performance.

In contrast, the exquisite set and costume design shined both literally and figuratively. A gorgeous stained-glass window served as the backdrop to the chapel scenes and eye-popping outfits appeared throughout; standouts include Deloris’s opening leopard ensemble and the nun choir’s shimmering finale habits.

Jill Williams as Mother Superior made the straight-laced character likable, and her charisma and sincerity enlivened even uptight anthems like “Here Within These Walls” and “I Haven’t Got A Prayer.” Less enjoyable and a tad indecorous was “Lady in the Long Black Dress,” a song which featured some less talented male company members as Curtis’s lackeys discussing how they would hypothetically seduce unwilling nuns in order to gain access to Deloris. Finally, Joseph Gervasi lent an endearing awkwardness to his portrayal of Deloris’s protector and eventual love interest Eddie.

Otherwise, the tuneful music by veteran Alan Menken and often clever lyrics by Glenn Slater ensured a consistently enjoyable performance. So did some hilariously specific touches, such as John Carlile as the Monsignor dancing excitedly during his sisters’ first choir performance. You probably won’t come away with any great spiritual insights from this religiously inspired tale, but if a feel-good night at the theatre and the chance to enjoy some incredible local talent is what you’re after, you definitely won’t be disappointed.

You only have until this October 20th to catch all three of these productions, so time to get moving!

New City Players’ New Way Of Looking At Theatre’s Purpose

The art of theatre is about a lot more than just what happens onstage. Ideally, it’s also about creating a community and raising the consciousness of that community, and about, in the words of another favorite director, “telling stories that need to be told.”

Unfortunately, some theatre companies get so busy with the admittedly overwhelming work of putting on shows that they disregard the implicit obligation that comes with being a part of the world offstage. However, the New City Players, an up-and-coming theatre company which has been drawing attention in Fort Lauderdale since 2014, is not one of them.

Some of its community-oriented programming includes its monthly NCP Lab, which provides a platform for artists to share work in development, and City Speaks, which allows attendees to share personal stories in a theatrical atmosphere. In search of adventure, I attended their latest iteration of the Green Room, a monthly gathering for theatre enthusiasts. 

Activities included relay races featuring teams named after famous dramatists like August Wilson, Lillian Hellman, and Tennessee Williams. Actor Timothy Mark Davis, literary manager Jessica Schulte, and associate Artistic Director Ryan Maloney also spoke about the company’s upcoming production, Falling, a play by Deanna Jent based on her real-life experience of raising a son on the severe end of the autism spectrum. Thus, we also heard from autism expert Dr. Jennie Trochio and concluded the evening with some empathy-raising theatre games.

I was also in attendance at NCP’s most recent quarterly “Forum,” which they host in conjunction with their productions. These are gatherings “where people from our city witness and engage in civil discourse” and that “aim to create a space where essential issues pertinent to the human condition can be discussed and debated with a spirit of charity.” This month’s forum was on the theme of autism spectrum disorders. 

As I mentioned briefly in my intro post, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when I was around 10, so I found it somewhat of a curiosity that my usually disparate identities as a theatre devotee and a person on the spectrum had however briefly intertwined.

The event’s first speakers were Alexai Perez and her daughter Zofia, a young girl with both autism and Down’s Syndrome who expresses herself through her sensory creations. Next up was Cynthia Drucker, who created the Pompano Beach gallery Artists with Autism to showcase and promote the creative work of her son and other talented artists on the spectrum. Then came a Q&A led by Samantha Sweeting Davis and featuring a panel of experts including Dr. Michael Allesandri, Dr. Galen Chun, Ysela Haim, and Rev. Phil Letizia. Ms. Trochio, who had spoken at the Green Room, also returned for the occasion, and spoke memorably about her practice of meeting her autistic students where they are developmentally rather than trying to push them beyond their limits. 

The speakers also discussed how inaccessible the theatre itself can be towards people with disabilities and the importance of treating even severely autistic people as fully aware human beings, emphasizing their unique gifts rather than their deficits. They also discussed the horrific unemployment rate among autistic adults and encouraged us to make an effort to seek out entrepreneurs with autism, who often went unrecognized by the mainstream media and the general public despite their evident talents.

Next on the agenda were Boaz Minerva and his son Derek, a non-verbal autistic who, with the help of his parents and a more experienced mechanic, has founded his own bike repair business and is professionally known as “Bike Dr. Derek”. Finally, closing out the evening were Christina Sullivan, creator of inclusive homeschooling center Evolve Learning Community and her son, Austin Sullivan, who is on the more Aspergian end of the autism spectrum and memorably discussed his social anxiety.However, the conversation that NCP is trying to start doesn’t end there. Falling, which opened last night and plays until this October 27, will also feature a nightly “Act 2” consisting of a talkback with actors from the play, autism experts, and community members with a connection to the spectrum. I’ll be weighing back in with my thoughts on the play itself sometime later this weekend!

Rage and Remembrance In True West and Wiesenthal

The Southeastern Premiere of Wiesenthal seemed as good a theatrical fit as any for my “days of repentance,” the ten days between Jewish holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that are meant to be a time of intense religious reflection. Presented at Gablestage’s intimate Biltmore Theatre, the show explored the life of famous Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal.

I’m not a particularly observant Jew, but I do have Jewish heritage on both sides, including a maternal grandmother who was a Holocaust survivor. I lost two great-grandparents and many more extended family members to the events sometimes referred to in Hebrew as the “Shoah,” and its shadow has always loomed large in my psyche.

The framing of the show, as Wiesenthal’s speech to the last American tour group to come through his office, allows the character to address us directly; he even has us speak to his wife over the phone and offers us cookies. Further, this device offers a convenient way to delve into Wiesenthal’s memories and backstory as he recounts them to us, including his experiences of losing most of his family to Hitler’s regime and being imprisoned and nearly starved to death in a concentration camp. Tom Dugan’s script seems to capture the very essence of Simon Wiesenthal himself, and it offers more than enough humor and buoyancy to make the play’s dark subject matter bearable.

David Kwiat’s skilled performance as Wiesenthal adeptly demonstrates the good-humored and grandfatherly aspects of his character as well as the determined rage he can direct towards the deserving. As I’m sure many in the audience did, I got an eerie feeling regarding our current head of state when Wiesenthal spoke about Hitler’s outsize charisma and excellent public speaking abilities, having written my own opinion piece comparing the two figures for Musee Magazine in early 2018.

One of the play’s most memorable moments was when Wiesenthal reads us a note that a young boy named Albert left in a Jewish prayer book shortly before being sent to a concentration camp, urging whoever found it to ensure that he was remembered. Also striking was Wiesenthal’s description of Adolf Eichmann, whom Wiesenthal had worked for years to help capture. Wiesenthal was expecting a hard-driving monster, but the infamous Nazi mastermind came off more like a meek bookkeeper. Like so many others who committed unthinkable acts during the Holocaust, Eichmann pathetically claimed to have only been following Hitler’s orders.

I may be as of yet “not guilty” of war crimes, but I, like Eichmann, am certainly complicit in complacency. I am guilty of not doing enough to counter our nation’s ungodly political atmosphere, of not speaking out more vocally about the causes I care about, and even of colluding with certain forces that I believe may be actively doing harm.

I could certainly stand to take a page out of Wiesenthal’s book; instead of being paralyzed or driven to bitterness by his past, Wiesenthal channels the traumatic events of his early adulthood into a powerful drive not for revenge but for justice. His motivation is primarily to teach future murderers that they are not going to get away with it, thus preventing tragedies like the one that killed his family and avenging the spirits of Albert and all those like him.

If we can all learn to be as wise as Wiesenthal, we will never be short of worthy opponents. Towards the end of the play, Wiesenthal’s show-long address to the audience becomes a direct call to action as he urges us to take up his mantle in remembering those lost to the Holocaust and doing our damnedest to prevent such a thing from ever happening again, as he implores us to combat the “human savage in all of us that will never go away.”

That savagery was on full display in True West by Sam Shepard, playing at the nearby-ish Main Street Theatre and produced by the Main Street Players. This two hour firecracker of a play blazed by in a flash, only blighted by some strangely placed and cliché-sounding music cues and a few oddly staged set changes.

The play begins when Austin’s retreat to his mother’s apartment for some quiet writing time is abruptly crashed by his delinquent brother Lee. Actor Christopher Milan’s outsize, chaotic energy in the part brought an immediate tension to the preceedings; you knew instantly that Lee’s presence was going to throw a wrench into Austin’s seemingly civilized existence, even before we had any inkling of why or how.

As befits Sam Shepard’s absurdist style, Lee ends up winning a game of golf against an executive who had promised to produce Austin’s script. Lee then convinces the executive to produce Lee’s own script instead. The problem with this scheme is that Lee has no writing training, so he enlists Austin’s help in getting his far-fetched Western ideas into proper screenplay format.

The chaos that then ensued probably appeared only slightly farfetched to those who have had the misfortune of encountering a writer who is deeply under the thrall of a deadline. The two characters began drinking continuously and quickly let their mother’s apartment descend into utter chaos, complete with dead plants and a floor papered with discarded pages.

Tyler Grimes is adept at playing the caring but exasperated brother and “straight man” to Lee’s wild card during the play’s first act. However, as the show goes on, Lee’s animalistic nature ends up drawing out Austin’s (and Grimes’) own “inner savagery.” This transformation results, among other things, in Austin hilariously accepting Lee’s dare to steal a couple of toasters and then trying to placate his brother with some good old-fashioned fresh toast.

However, Austin’s anger becomes less and less benign as he and Lee’s rivalry grows ever more contentious. Lee, meanwhile, does eventually manage to show a bit of humanity, if not decorum, in his apparent envy of Austin’s more conventional life and his tender longing for a woman to share the rest of his “night” with (the two have lost all sense of time in their drink-fueled delirium, and it’s actually almost dawn.)

The brothers’ bickering eventually escalates into a physical fight, and even the entrance of the boys’ mother near the end of the play is not enough to prompt either of them to remember their better natures. Neither is the threat of mortality; despite the fact that Austin goes as far as nearly choking his brother to death, the two desperate creatures can only close out the show by resuming their bloodthirsty brawl.

Sam Shepard reportedly wrote True West as an examination of the trap of contemporary masculinity and the oft-troubling duality of human nature, and viewing it in conjunction with Wiesenthal could well have been a masterclass in how to be a human being, complete with good and bad examples. True courage and true manliness is not to be found in indulging your lowest impulses as Lee does, nor in repressing or denying your pain and your rage as does Austin. If you do, that darkness will always be lurking under the surface, ready to come roaring out given the slightest opportunity. The best of us, like Wiesenthal, can channel our savagery against the true savages out there, and make the world a better place in the process.

Both plays are finishing up their respective runs this October 20th, so there’s no time to waste if you’re interested in catching either of them!

On Poets, Madmen, and The Wisdom To Know The Difference

This Saturday was another theatre-filled day in Ilana-land! First, I spent most of it at rehearsal! I’m acting again for the first time since undergrad in the upcoming Playwrights’ Festival, which plays on October 26th and 27th at the Delray Beach Playhouse. Four short plays are playing on Saturday night and four different short plays are playing on Sunday afternoon, but since I’m cast in two of them, you’ll get to catch me no matter which day you attend!

Obviously, the two hours I spent rehearsing and the four hours I spent bopping around at the playhouse between my first call time and my second one did not fulfill my insatiable appetite for theatrics. So it was straight from there to a production of Uncle Vanya at Florida Atlantic University (FAU)’s Studio One theatre. I’d never read the play or seen anything by Chekov performed in full before, but I’ve studied Three Sisters and The Seagull in depth for some of my acting and writing classes and I have a basic understanding of the playwright’s reputation as one of the fathers of modernism—and for writing real downers.

I get why Chekov is still a lot people’s jam almost a century and a quarter after his death. Dysfunctional families, broken dreams, and existential ennui just never go out of style! FAU’s production featured a pretty outstanding cast composed of graduate and undergraduate students, some of whom did quite a good job playing characters very different in age than themselves. It also had the advantage of some interesting directorial choices. A director’s note by Desmond Gallant stated his desire to “highlight the inherent comedy” in Chekov’s writing as opposed to dwelling on the characters’ anguish.

I think that this was the right approach. The situations of the characters in Uncle Vanya are so obviously unpleasant that their misery will come through whether or not it is emphasized, so we may as well get in as many laughs in as we can along the woeful ride. I certainly found myself chuckling quite a bit, even during the play’s most dramatic confrontations—actually, maybe especially during the play’s most dramatic confrontations.

Initially, I wondered if Christian Mouisset’s stiffness and nervousness as Doctor Astrov may have been awkward acting, but as the play went on, it became clearer that it was the anxiety of an alcoholic character in a sober moment. Later, Mouisset made such a believable drunk that I found myself wondering whether any of that stage vodka was real. He also had real chemistry with Kailey Jones, who played Sonya.

Their two characters were both so good-hearted and earnest that you couldn’t help but hope that they could somehow make their way to happiness with each other. But this being a Chekov play, I knew better than to expect such a thing, so Sonya’s giddiness when she thinks her affections for Astrov may be returned was tremendously devastating.

A hallmark of Chekovian tragedies is that the characters are trapped at least as much by their inertia and their self-pity as by their circumstances. Though Vanya’s crazed conviction that he could have been the next Dostoevsky if he had not spent his whole life as all but a slave to his egotistical brother-in-law Alexander, he certainly could have amounted to more than the servant he is; if he had made the effort to stand up for himself and break away!

The couple behind me talked quite a bit during the show. During one particularly desperate speech of Vanya’s, I heard them quite loudly call the character “Pathetic.” He was. They all were.
But I know that I’ve gone on plenty of rants that were just as or more pathetic as his. Chekov is an expert at portraying the familiar, circular debates that take place in an unhappy household. In a play like Uncle Vanya, we recognize ourselves onstage, and we wish we hadn’t. To borrow a quote from one of my best directors, “the most terrifying thing about these characters is how relatable they are.”

Power and status seems to be no guard against despair in a Chekovian vision; even the relatively privileged Yelena, Alexander and Doctor are still utterly miserable. It was also pretty striking that the characters who were most unfortunate were least vocal about their stations; for example, Nanny’s physical state is nearly as bad as Alexander’s and she has spent her whole life serving him and his family and listening to their complaints and drudgery. Likewise, Telegin’s wife left him on the day after they were married and his acne earned him the humiliating nickname Waffles, but he doesn’t spend the whole play moping about it!

I had some initial sympathy for Alexander after seeing him in so much pain, perhaps due in part to actor Ryan Page’s exquisitely realistic portrayal of that pain during his character’s first scene. However, this goodwill faded as the extent to which he has exploited his brother in law and his daughter became clear. As for Yelena, I actually may have had more sympathy for her if she had cheated on her husband rather than ignored the affections of two men (Astrov and Vanya) who were head over heels for her while constantly complaining about bored and unhappy she was.

But perhaps the most miserable characters are Sonia and Vanya. It seems as if they were most tortured not by their circumstances but by the thought that they had been wronged by fate, that they could have and should have transcended them. For Sonya, had she only been more beautiful, or, for Vanya, had he only not gotten caught in Alexander’s web.

Thanks to a warning posted in the lobby and a reiteration of that warning in the preshow announcement, I knew a gun would be fired at some point during the show (sort of gives “Chekov’s Gun” a new meaning, doesn’t it?), but what I didn’t expect is for no one to die! Instead, Vanya threatens to kill Alexander when he announces his plans to sell the estate he and Sonia had worked so hard preserve, then threatens to kill himself, but in the end has to courage to do neither.

By that point, it may have been a nobler end if Vanya had just cried “uncle” and done it instead of survive to continue complaining about how miserable he is; and yet isn’t the thought that the character would be somehow less pathetic if he’d had the guts to end his life a sort of sick one?

There was still a whole Act 4 to go, and I spent it half expecting some big twist, like the doctor using the morphine he takes back from Uncle Vanya (another potential suicide attempt of his) on himself. But no, besides the fact that Yelena and Alexander had escaped the morass, things were just going to go on quietly sucking as usual. That much stagnancy and disappointment is a heavy burden to carry despite the cast’s continual efforts to liven things up.

That act seemed to drag despite their best efforts, and I interpreted Sonia’s long final speech as depressingly delusional rather than genuinely transcendent. Like Sonya and Vanya, I was just ready for it all to end, though I did enjoy the funny stage business during the show’s curtain call after it did!

Really, I should’ve just been thanking my lucky stars I wasn’t them. My prospects for a happy future are not yet as entirely vanished as Sonia’s, Vanya’s, and Yelena’s seem to be….are they? Some plays really make you think twice!

Whether you want to focus on the tragic aspects of Uncle Vanya or the comedic ones, there’s no reason to miss out on this great production of a classic, which plays through this October 6th. Many of the play’s lines are positively timeless. For instance: “When real life is wanting, one must create an illusion. It is better than nothing.”

You know, the theatre could be considered just one such illusion.

Huh.

The next play at which I sought respite from my pathetic existence, on the following afternoon, also trafficked in themes of illusion and the stories we tell ourselves to survive, albeit in quite a different style. I was lucky enough to snag myself a ticket to the last performance of MNM Theatre Company’s production of Man of La Mancha!

The Tony-winning 60’s musical is not so much an adaption of 17 century masterpiece Don Quixote but an inventive play within a play inspired by aspects of the novel and aspects of the life of its author, Miguel Cervantes. I haven’t read or researched either, so I’m not one to offer any literary or historical comparisons, but judged on its own merits, the work was plenty entertaining and even more thought provoking.

It was also quite well-produced, starting with an appropriately dreary prison set and period costumes and a truly phenomenal cast. Leads Michael McKenzie as Cervantes/Quixote and Anna Lise Jensen as Aldonza probably gave the most complex and memorable performances, but other standouts included the angel-voiced Milton Mendez as Padre and expressive Gaby Tortoledo as Antonia. Rio Peterson also definitely deserves props for playing guitar as well as playing a prisoner for practically the entire show, or at least as long as his character was alive, as does fellow ensemble member Rebeca Diaz for ably picking up his character’s mantle!

The nested structure of the piece was disorienting at first but eventually fascinating, as was Quixote’s unusual philosophy, encapsulated in his iconic anthem “The Impossible Dream.” For him, an ordinary old man who insists that he is a knight and on following the rules of chivalry, even when that means calling a windmill a dragon or a shaving basin a golden helmet, meaning is found in striving to meet his lofty ideals rather than in accomplishing any particular goal. Yet Quixote’s bizarre idealistic striving and Cervantes’ telling of that striving are both shown to lead to concrete positive results. In the play within the play, these changes are largely confined to the self-image of one woman; in the fictionalized tale of Cervantes, one man’s story leads to enlightenment of an entire prison!

The show, like Shakespeare before it, reflects on the similarities between madmen and poets, as “both select from life” what pleases them. After all, you could say someone who’s spouting falsehoods is crazy, or you could say he’s putting on a show!

I think I too, in the end, would choose a delirious world in which nobility mattered and was consistently rewarded over the so often underwhelming real one, where Don Quixote’s beautiful damsel Dulcinea is only Aldonza the kitchen whore and dying men are wont to ask not “why they were dying, but why they had lived.” So far, I’ve always chosen illusion, whether that be in madness—or in art. Heck, my unwavering belief in the dying art of theatre might be just as crazy as Don Quixote’s belief in the dying art of chivalry!

I’ll certainly by keeping an eye out for MNM’s next production!

A Tale Of Two Bocas

At first glance, the synopsis of Boca Bound, a new musical by Bonnie Logan and Richard Peskin, intrigued me greatly. After all, it’s not so often a piece of theatre comes along that takes place in South Florida, in a city half an hour from mine and to which I’ve lately been commuting to on a daily basis. Plus, the show’s protagonist Nadine had, like me, been convinced somewhat reluctantly to abandon her former life as a New Yorker and head south.

However, I may have initially underestimated the differences in our concerns that would spring from the fact that this “Nadine” was 40 years my senior. After the workaholic attorney Nadine hits 65 and thus her law firm’s mandatory retirement age, she feels lost and purposeless. So Nadine’s lifelong best friend, Gert, invites her to stay with her at her country club community in idyllic Boca Raton.

I wasn’t entirely surprised to find that Boca Bound’s creative team was new to professional theatre writing. The music was pleasant and occasionally amusing, but rarely particularly profound or memorable; the dialogue was often cliched and clunky, the exposition was usually delivered too obviously, and the narrative seemed to lack focus until the end of Act 1.

Until then, the show was largely a collection of corny jokes about the “difficulty” Nadine has adapting to laid-back and superficial country club life. A romantic sub-plot between Nadine and good-natured widower Allan does little to enliven the proceedings; the simplicity and ease with which the two characters connected unfortunately made the pair rather monotonous to watch.

I did eventually get more invested in the show when its most interesting conflict arose. Nadine’s children rarely speak to her and yet share an intimate bond with their more supportive “auntie” Gert, who stepped into a mothering role while Nadine threw herself into overtime at the office to deal with grief over her husband’s premature death. I probably have more in common with the misunderstood artistic children than their hypercritical mother, but I still found the family’s eventual reconciliation genuinely moving.

I found little fault with any of the show’s major players despite their occasionally underwhelming material, and there was a thread of real feeling in this play somewhere under all of its schmaltz.  I’m also glad to see the perspectives and experiences of the oft-ignored demographic of older adults explored onstage; I just wish it had all been done a little more skillfully.

Why You Should Actually Go See Actually This Weekend

As enjoyable as my last adventure’s whirlwind of color and excitement had been, Actually by Anna Ziegler as presented by Bob Carter’s Actor’s Workshop and Repertory Company in West Palm Beach was an example of the raw, haunting, heart-stabbing, head-spinning kind of theatre that’s much more my speed.

Despite the fact that they only had a week and a half to learn the part after a sudden drop-out by the original actress, Emma Sue Harris totally nailed the role of Amber, perfectly capturing the character’s anxiety, ambivalence, and unlikely charm. I’m not sure that the singular textual mention of her character’s ”weird sad eyes” necessarily called for the cross eyed contacts they were saddled with, but that’s more or less my singular complaint. Their costar Jacquez Linder-Long was also excellent as Tom, deftly balancing the character’s surface charisma, nuanced past, and hidden doubts.

The show is an incredibly minimalist one; the cast includes only those two actors, and the set consists of only two chairs. The action of the play shifts between flashbacks of the courtship between main characters Tom and Amber and scenes of the two reflecting on the aftermath of a sexual encounter that Tom remembers as consensual and Amber recalls as a rape.

The story is, or at first seems to be, that Amber unthinkingly says that Tom “practically raped her” after their drunken fling and then fails to prevent her friends from blowing the whole thing out of proportion and turning the matter into a formal accusation. The central couple’s courtship prior to that moment is awkward and refreshingly realistic and unromantic, yet still quite touching. Up until the fateful sexual encounter around which the play revolves, Amber was far more into Tom than the reverse. While she genuinely likes him and is hoping he will be her first real boyfriend, he is mostly humoring her and trying to get into her pants.

Eventually, though, Tom begins to warm to Amber’s weirdness, and the thing about them that is almost the most devastating is the fact that had it not been for this fateful misunderstanding, these two lonely and tormented characters actually might have been able to connect with each other. It is obvious that they still care about each other even after the incident, but the affection is now mixed with feelings of hatred on both parts.

Both characters were intoxicated and seem to have a very hazy recall of the night, but Amber claims that she got up to leave and he forcibly pulled her back and finished, while Tom has no memory of this happening.


Tom is a well-developed, interesting character, and I think I would have had sympathy for him even if the reasons he was in a bad mood the night of the incident weren’t quite so extreme. As it was, his backstory on that particular evening felt a little too much like the wheels of plot churning than a realistically likely scenario.

Further complicating the matter are the pair’s class and racial differences. The official assigned to Amber’s case warns her to think twice before accusing an African-American student, and Tom resents Amber’s refusal to take into account her white privilege before putting him in a position in which he is likely to be considered unfairly due to his race.

Yet more complexity comes from the fact that Tom had a previous incident of sexual deviance on his record, an encounter with one of his high school teachers. In his recounting, she initiated everything, but then framed him as the aggressor because she was trying to preserve her reputation; the authorities then believed her because of their racial bias. If his version of events is true, his righteous anger is justified, but is there a chance we could actually be dealing with a character who has a tendency for mentally rewriting unpleasant truths to keep his “nice guy” ego intact?

As an awkward, high strung, literature-obsessed upper middle class Jewish girl with body issues, a low alcohol tolerance, and an inability to look people in the eyes, I had a freakish amount in common with Amber—which makes it all the more remarkable that for most of the play, I wasn’t actually on her side, but on Tom’s. After all, though she claims to have implied it with her physical action, Amber agrees that she never said “No,” to him, only “actually…,” as well as that she had clearly indicated her desire to have sex with Tom earlier in the night.

It’s only towards the end of the play, when it becomes apparent that Tom may have realized that Amber “wasn’t into it” during the encounter and continued anyway rather than being genuinely mistaken, as well as when Amber reveals how deeply she has been hurt by the experience, that I started to wonder whether I may have initially made the wrong call.

I certainly understand Amber’s experience of “wanting something and not wanting it at the same time,” and the fact that she seems to see sexuality and being desirable as a path to connection and normalcy. It’s hard to tell what exactly pushes her over the line from wanting to be intimate with Tom to definitively not wanting it midway through their encounter; was it that she just was just wasted and overwhelmed, or upset with Tom for being too drunk and preoccupied to relate to her as more than just a piece of ass?

I wish there were a way to acknowledge Amber’s feelings of violation and confusion without having to saddle Tom with a word as loaded and potentially destructive as “rape.” But would it belittle Amber’s experience to call the incident anything else? Am I judging her valid complaints about a line that Tom should not have crossed through the unreliable prism of my own beliefs about what a woman should do and what constitutes a woman being too self-righteous? How cruel have I been to the men I was involved with by implying, however casually, that my consent might’ve been dubious in situations where my desires were practically unreadable?
Actually, I have no idea, and it’s worth going to see Actually on its final weekend not only so you can experience a thrilling evening of theatre but so you can deeply consider these questions for yourself.

Science Fiction Double Feature….

I will proudly plead guilty to being a theatre addict, but seeing two shows in one evening is a little out of the ordinary even for me, though not actually unprecedented! But given a 7:30 showing of When She Had Wings at Florida Atlantic University’s Theatre Lab in Boca Raton and a 10:30 showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Old School Square Theatre in nearby-ish Delray Beach, doubling up was not only possible but plainly convenient.

Naturally, that meant I had to make the night a double feature, and if there were a way for me to throw these very different shows under one figurative umbrella, it would be the whimsically surrealist “science fiction” character of both. Or maybe I’m just trying way too hard to make this pun on the title of Rocky Horror’s opening number work. Who knows? This is only my second post, guys!

When She Had Wings is the Theatre Lab’s second Heckscher Theatre For Families production, meaning it was written to be suitable for a younger audience, as part of the company’s admirable student outreach program, which has thus far provided free theatre and writing workshops to over 1,500 students from around the area. So though I was prepared to have to turn off my brain a little to enjoy the material, in the end the unique piece actually offered me a lot of food for thought. The play was also quite a feast for the eyes; I’d liken the fantastical, gnome-filled set to something out of Alice In Wonderland.

Actress Stephon Duncan adeptly starred as 9-year-old “B,” a character at least 20 years her junior who is obsessed with flying, planes, and Amelia Earhart. B even has “memories” of flying before she could walk, but she has now forgotten how, and fears that she will lose the ability forever on her upcoming 10th birthday.

Compounding B’s dilemma are her divorced parents. While B’s well-meaning but overprotective father hovers, her distant mother has made arrangements for her to attend fat camp. B’s struggles with her size also added ‘weight’ to the character’s journey and to the play’s unusual choice of villain— the force of Gravity. This concept was personified by actor Rodrick Randle, who, interestingly enough, also played the role of B’s father. This “gravity” here served as an inventive metaphor for the burdens that more figuratively “bring us down.”

B’s mission finally gets off the ground when she meets the mysterious A, excellently embodied by actress Barbara Sloane. A is at first costumed and referred to by B as a bird, her mono-syllabic name indicating the only sound she can squawk. Later, a visit from a nosy nursing home attendant and a change in costume makes it seem as if A may instead be an escaped stroke patient.

Yet when A’s utterances begin to resemble airplane code, B decides that her new friend is actually the amnesiac ghost of Amelia Earhart. The audience then gets a mini history lesson as B tries to get her hero to remember her true identity by regaling her with tales of her past. Though it never becomes definitively clear whether the apparition actually is Earhart, by the end of the play the unlikely duo does indeed manage to fly, a feat made possible thanks to the stage magic of silks.

Other memorable theatrical moments were provided by the Wingman and Sound Op, two enigmatic white-suited figures who helped provide sound and visual effects throughout the play. Among other things, they play the kazoo in imitation of an airplane motor, “water” the audience with a watering can, and hold up the fabric “cloud” into which A disappears for good after teaching B how to lift off.

Though the play’s ending was quite touching, it was still a little ambiguous for my tastes. For example, was B’s costume change into pajamas near the finale supposed to imply that her visit from A was all a dream? That interpretation would certainly explain the play’s symbolic, intuitive logic and how A’s character could shift so dramatically…or is that just me trying to force too much logic onto a play meant to be uplifting and fun? Maybe I should quit thinking so much and spend a little more time trying to fly.

You have 2 more chances to catch When She Had Wings, next Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. Henceforth, I’m going to try and see shows closer to the beginning of their runs so that humans can conceivably make reference to my musings as if I were an actual reviewer or something, which I guess is what I am positioning myself as (you don’t need a license for that, do you?) I vacillated until weekend three of four to buy tickets to see this one mostly because I was debating whether or not I’d enjoy a show aimed primarily towards a family audience. Verdict: I definitely could.

The seventy-five-minute show was over by 8:45, so I had plenty of time to spare before play two, which I spent downing an espresso martini (ok, two of them) at nearby Dada’s. I know, I know, so much for responsible reporting behavior! Hey, I did at least manage to stay sober for the entirety of show number 1.

Well, possibly because the venue didn’t serve alcohol.

Besides, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is also the sort of rambunctious show that lends itself well to a little insobriety. Even the show’s narrator asked during his introduction whether everyone of age had yet gotten themselves an adult beverage.

I also meant to see this production of Rocky Horror closer to the start of its run, but apparently I can’t tell time and was late for the performance I’d planned on attending. While you missed this year’s incarnation of the musical, it may well be back with a lot of the same players and behind-the-scenes team in the not-too-distant future. This is the fourth time company Entr’acte Theatrix has mounted the production, the others being in 2012, 2014, and 2017.

I’ve attended this incarnation once before, and I was far from the only repeat viewer. Given that its famous film version has been a cult classic since the 1970s, the evidence is plentiful that the peculiar story of Rocky Horror is one that never really gets old.

Where When She Had Wings’ set had been a technicolor wonderland, Rocky’s was a sensual and gothic one. The vibe was only enhanced by the fact that much of the audience had also dressed up for the occasion. Though I attended in a somewhat risqué black lacy dress and black lipstick, I looked positively conservative next to some other audience members, not to mention the cast! Central character Dr. Frankenfurter is corseted the entire show, and by the end of the evening, even the heretofore conventionally dressed male characters were clad in red feather boas and fishnets.

Prop bags were also available for purchase to help audience members with the “call-outs” that have become traditional among Rocky’s devout fanbase and are now commonplace at productions of the musical as well as screenings of the film. For example, whenever the character Brad’s name was mentioned, the participating audience would yell “asshole,” and whenever Janet’s name was mentioned we would make sure everyone knew that she was a “slut.” We also brandished glowsticks during the song “There’s a Light” and threw toilet paper towards the stage on the line “great Scott.” Besides these tried and true additions, I noticed a few new ones mixed in as well.

“What do you think about President Trump?” someone said during one pause.

“I think we can do better than that!” Dr. Frankenfurter responded from onstage, and the audience erupted into raucous applause.

That was the only time during the play that I remember things getting overtly political, but a director’s note from Carlo Rufino-Sabusap (who also played Dr. Scott) stated that part of his artistic ambition was to transcend the current bigoted political climate by reminding us that “wildly different people from different backgrounds” could work together to “make something great.”

It’s certainly a resonant idea. Maybe Rocky Horror’s unique embrace of difference and freakishness is one of the reasons it became such a phenomenon in the first place. Art in general and theatre and particular have always been the province of the misfits, and few plays do more to “celebrate the idea of the outsider,” as director Sabusap puts it, than one in which one main character is an alien transvestite and the other two go from a relatively conventional couple to one that is subversively defiant of their day’s social and sexual norms.

While Rosseroni Paris as the devious Dr. Frankenfurter and Mary Grace Tesoriero, as the initially innocent but increasingly uninhibited Janet, were probably the cast standouts, I noticed no real weak links in the company. I did find myself briefly wondering how Dr. Frankenfurter’s seduction of Brad and Janet under false pretenses (in each case, he pretends to be the other’s fiancé in order to get them into bed) would have gone over had the show come to prominence during the Me Too era. Though Frankenfurter is clearly supposed to be a charismatic, likeable character, I suppose him getting sent back to the planet Transylvania at the end of the play could be conceived to constitute an indictment of sorts.

More likely, I’m just thinking too much again. However contrasting they may have been, I’m glad I got the chance to see both of these shows, and I’m also glad I got to see them both in one night! We need shows as encouraging and informative as When She Had Wings to teach us to fly and shows as raucous and sensual as Rocky Horror to keep us all in the air. I hope all the young viewers that Theatre Lab’s latest production reached grow up a little more empowered to do whatever they want to do and become whoever they want to become, from sluts to assholes to alien transvestites!

Ilana In Improv-Land

Improv, improv, glorious glorious improv. A magical place where, with only a few words and a lot of imagination, men can be women, women can be men, and both men and women can be everything from serial killers to penguins.  A chair can be a cat, curtains can be wings, and just cue your piano player, and suddenly, life’s a musical.

I am an odd character in that I have taken a fair amount of improv classes and even been part of a few troupes over the years, and yet I will still adamantly insist that I am neither a good improviser nor an “improv person.” I’m a thinker, but not a quick thinker; my personality is composed of at least 50 percent apprehension, and I find it pretty impossible to get out of my damn head. The defining improv mantra of “Yes and” is honestly pretty alien to my instinctive philosophy of “No, goodbye; now please leave me alone.”

But oddly enough, I think it’s precisely because I’m not an improv person that I keep ending up back in class. I’m so awkward in the real world that being onstage is only slightly more frightening to me than your everyday conversation, and I think that if I can just master my anxiety in-scene, I’ll be able to do the same in-life. For in the end, isn’t all the world but a stage?

Plus, improv is just a hell of a lot of fun. Since moving back to Florida, I’ve been a bit of a regular attendee at the improv drop-in classes that take place thrice weekly at Delray Beach hotspot Improv U. As I’ve said, I’ve taken quite a few improv classes before, but these drop ins seem to me to have a particular magic. There are usually somewhere between 10 and 20 people at each one, and though there are always a few familiar faces, it’s never exactly quite the same group. Attendees are of all ages, hail from all walks of life, and range from experienced performers to total novices.

Yet despite the fact that many of us are complete strangers to each other, somehow, miraculously, we all seem able to let down our guard. We muster the courage to be as silly as is required in games like “forward/reverse”, in which the host can suddenly tell the players to start running their scene backwards, and “Ding”, in which, when the host rings a bell or says “ding”,  the performer who last spoke must come up with a new line on the spot.  Each class is concluded with the students circling up to compliment each other on their best moments, a practice called “warm fuzzies.”

The inviting atmosphere is largely due to the enthusiasm and expertise of Improv U founder and Monday night teacher Anthony Francis, whom I caught up with for a quick interview midweek.

“Every class has just been my favorite thing.” Francis says.

Perhaps even more important than his obvious knowledge of the form, Francis exudes warmth and patience; I’ve seen him explain even the seemingly trivial art of gibberish with a minute specificity, and he seems to have a knack for knowing when to offer suggestions and when it’s time for a round of applause. Four years ago, he started teaching his first drop in, hoping mostly just to find other people to play with; he now heads a lively improv community of at least 200 people. He speaks of becoming one of the leaders of the South Florida improv scene as something he did almost by accident, but his success is something he would never take for granted; he feels “honored to be where he’s at” and as if, after years of searching, he has finally found his place.

Improv is, in some ways, relatively accessible. You don’t need extensive training to get started, or even to memorize lines. Yet the form is also deceptively difficult; it takes a lot of talent and training to generate entertaining material in real time. It not only takes intelligence, but a particular kind of intelligence. Though Francis referred to himself as not being “book-smart”, I sure as hell would fall flat on my face if I ever tried to perform a solo musical improv set!

“I don’t know anyone who’s in the highest levels of improv who’s not a genius,” Francis says.

Mastery of the “rules” and of skills like object work, character building, and “gifting” your partner with information are certainly important to the making of a good improviser, but even a solid foundation is no way around the inherent vulnerability of stepping onstage without a script. Yet the resulting scenes are often wonderfully weirder and more viscerally entertaining than anything that could spring from a playwright’s pen.

Francis is determined to prevent people from giving up on the art of improv, which he describes as a “candle in the wind” that he is determined not to let go out.  Yet though Francis referred to improv as a “dying art form,” in South Florida it seems to have taken off. Even from the sidelines, I’ve noticed that there are not only many more troupes out there than there were a few years ago, but that the caliber of those troupes has improved noticeably as well.

Nowhere was this more evident than at the 4th annual Palm Beach Improv Festival, which was spearheaded by Francis and Improv U and took place last weekend at Delray’s Old School Square Theatre. “If for whatever reason you didn’t make it, you’re dead to me.” Francis deadpanned at the following Monday’s drop in.

The three-day fest featured 32 troupes, plus 3 big-name headliners. Even taking into account that some performers appeared in multiple troupes, it amounted to quite a crowd. This is the first year Francis had to, reluctantly, turn a few troupes away.

I attended every night, and found each one riotous; highlights of Thursday and Friday’s shows include the surreal physical comedy of CatBird, the energetic short form of No-No Square, and the fierce musical improv of Wakanda Vs Everybody. However, I’m going to spend the rest of my recounting zooming in on the Saturday shows for simplicity’s sake.

Each block was introduced by a mysterious “Guy,” whose bumbling delivery elevated the pre-show listing of sponsors (Dada, Honey, and Subculture Coffee) and announcements into a mini comedy show in and of itself.  During the night’s first block, I was struck by Banana’s Republic’s snappy internet inspired form, in which performers could return to a previous scene by looking through their “browser history” or explore an interesting loose end by opening a scenic “new tab”. Next, the Society of Circus Players began their set by passing out objects to the crowd, including a hat full of lines, a die, and a book, which all eventually made their way back onstage to serve as the lynchpin of a game.

Duo Four First Names kicked off the second block with a whimsical and strangely touching musical improv set, inspired by an audience member’s story of her sister’s “miracle baby.” Next, Understated brought awestriking detail and specificity to the humorous tale of a couple united by their shared penchant for murder. Then there were Da Boyz, whose performance was so off the wall that my initial reaction was to emphatically declare that they had “broken improv.” Before their set had even properly started, they had lifted a large pole that held up a “Palm Beach Improv Festival” banner from beside the stage and begun waving it around, which led to a joke about whether Francis had gotten proper insurance for the venue.

“Hey Anthony, I think there’s something going on in the hall,” troupe member Dallas then said. Francis gamely stepped out, and Da Boyz proceeded to facetiously attempt to damage things. Soon, the two were pontificating on the purpose of the p in “pterodactyl”; apparently the extinction of the dinosaurs was actually caused by poor pronunciation. Then, as penguin and penguin trainer, they proceeded to heckle the audience and try to feed us imaginary fish.

Closing out the final block of troupe performances was Improv U house team Business Casual. Their method of jumping quickly from game to game without explaining the rules might not have worked very well with a general audience, but it did work quite swimmingly in a crowd of improv aficionados, fitting in perfectly with the jam-packed, festive atmosphere.

The first headliner set was Chris George’s I Am The Show, in which George asks an audience member to choose from a group of three films he has never seen before, plays the movie on mute, and then improvises his own dialogue, complete with sound effects. This makeshift soundtrack was both hilarious and surprisingly fitting to what was happening onscreen, with George often seeming to predict the camera’s next move. “If you’ve seen enough movies, you can kind of have a sense of how they work, what’s going to happen next,” Francis hypothesizes. I, for one, favor the explanation of “magic.”

Next up was TJ Mannix, starring in his solo musical improv show Limboland. Along with his vocal and comedic chops, he embodied his characters with such emotional commitment and developed his plotlines with such specificity that moments of his set were as affecting as any drama. I remember a few “awws” interspersed with the laughs.

I’m sure the final 2 sets of the evening (Francis and Billy Merrit in This Is Your Fault and a teacher jam), were also great, but I am admittedly a little sketchier on the details for those, since I’d celebrated the headliners by consuming some vodka lemonade “Headliner” cocktails in rather rapid succession beforehand. Note also that it was only sometime during that insane tipsy night that I decided that yes, I was going to finally actually start this bloggedy thingy—I will henceforth make an effort to engage in more responsible reporting behavior.

Luckily, I managed to (mostly) sober up in time for the very last event of the night: the mixer, in which any improviser present, whether they’d performed in the fest or not, could throw their name into a hat to be paired with another improviser for a two minute performance. I had the good luck to be paired with Francis himself for a musical scene in which I was a queen and he, my knight, had failed to rescue my daughter from a dragon.

Francis, was, as usual, brilliant. I, though, wish I had been more of an active contributor instead of stuttering a few lines and letting him take the lead. But so it goes. Oh that the world were a mere improv scene; oh that we could all call forward/reverse on life, ring the magic bell and ding ourselves a new choice. Unfortunately, reality is finite, time is inalienable, and the laws of physics are kind of a thing…oh well. Wonderland may still be a fairytale, but Improvland is a pretty dope substitute.

Intro/About Me!

Some passions build slowly, interest growing over time. Some, like my ongoing infatuation with the theatre, burst into being more or less instantaneously. All it took was one viewing of the RENT movie, and I was hooked for life. When the time came when I ought to have been bat-mitzvahed, I asked my parents if I could instead take a trip to New York City to see RENT live on stage instead. Partially because a vacation was less effort to plan than a blow-out party, they agreed. I have still never been formally initiated as a Jewish woman; and as much as I have ever had a religion, mine is still the religion of the stage. It wasn’t long before I wanted to see what it was like on the other side of the curtains, despite the fact that acting was a bit of an odd choice for me.

I’d been diagnosed with sensory integration disorder when I was three, and Asperger’s Syndrome when I was nine. It still feels weird to talk about any of this publicly, since I’m so unused to talking about it in any sense whatsoever, but apparently it is the 21st century and neurodiversity is a real thing that people talk about now or something and me being open about these things is probably Important in some broader cultural manner and really I should just get over myself and go back to talking about theatre damnit.

I stumbled upon a flyer for Bob Carter’s Actor’s Workshop and Repertory Company’s annual summer acting camp, and the rest was history. And maybe this was nothing but timing and I would have matured either way, but, in a very real way, it feels as if my life is divided into before I found the theatre and after. I even catch myself wondering how much of my ability to “perform” as a semi-functional neurotypical I owe to those days. After all, many of our “acting” exercises would not have been out of place in a more conventional social skills class or autism therapy group.

In rehearsal, we were taught to pay attention to our body language and to that of our fellow actors, to speak as clearly as possible and at a correct, audible volume. In improv, we learned the importance of agreeing with our partner if at all possible and of maintaining a shared goal. Putting one’s self in a character’s shoes is the basis of empathy; to stand in front of a mirror imagining yourself into someone else is, it turns out, a stepping-stone to more fully seeing your peers–and yourself.

The insanity and adventures that ensued during my acting years could quite literally fill a whole book, which I know because I’ve actually written that book and am actively seeking publication! However, I gradually realized I was far more comfortable and effective on-page than onstage. I then went on to obtain my Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Writing at Florida Atlantic University, my thesis project being a psychologically infused theatre script called Tell Me I’m Pretty, and went on to get my MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence. I am currently working as a social media specialist, but I still dabble in playwriting and voraciously consume as much live theatre as I can get my hands on. The idea of starting a theatre blog was something I was kicking around a bit while I was living in New York, but it may be an even better idea now that I’ve moved back to South Florida; there is so much amazing theatre happening here, and far fewer people talking about it! I also may eventually branch out into covering some personal stuff and some non-theatre art stuff–for in the end, isn’t all the world but a stage?