Monday, May 11, 2015

Play Lab at Florida Rep

My curiosity was piqued last year when I heard about Florida Rep's 1st Annual Play Lab. It was an opportunity to see staged readings of new works, one of which would be presented this season. Talk-backs with the playwright and actors would take place after each reading. All for $10 per show. How could I resist?

My favorite reading was "Split in Three" by Daryl Lisa Fazio. Florida Rep's production of the show just closed, and it got rave reviews. But here's the crazy thing -- I enjoyed the staged reading just as much as the full-blown production! So when this year's Play Lab rolled around, I didn't hesitate before signing up for the entire Festival.

Mike Magliocca as the Tin Man
in "Journey to Oz"
My week-end of theater started off with a production of "Journey to Oz." The play was commissioned by Florida Rep as part of last year's Play Lab, and I opted out of the reading because it was a children's show. What a mistake!

Playwright Christopher Park is the Artist Director of The Experiential Theater Company, a group that brings "immersive, interactive theater" to kids in the United States and the U.K. And so I wasn't surprised when kids - and adults - were invited onstage to join the fun. While the play focuses on Dorothy's travel to Oz via tornado and the ensuing events, nods were given to Frank Baum's other Oz books (14 in all). A great time was had by all, and I'd highly recommend the show to kids of all ages.

Playwright Cynthia Babak and partial cast of "Where I Dwell"
My favorite reading of the week-end was "Where I Dwell" by Cynthia Babak.  It's a finely crafted story about family and relationships and loving each other in spite of your differences. Ms. Babak's writing is beautiful, and the nine-member cast was amazing. The show got a standing ovation after the last word was spoken.

Then came the talk-back. As far as the audience was concerned, putting "Where I Dwell" in Florida Rep's line-up for next year was an easy decision. But Bob Cacioppo, founder and producing artistic director of Florida Rep, had some logistical concerns.  To him, the script reads more than a screenplay than a theatrical production. Seventeen locations are called for. The audience immediately began brainstorming workable ways to stage the production. One person suggested projecting settings onto a screen. Another talked about the move towards minimalist sets.  A third suggested having a run just as a staged reading. Time will tell what happens with "Where I Dwell," but I'd go out of my way to see (or hear) it again.

Ad for "Firestorm" at Kitchen
Dog Theater in Dallas
I also thoroughly enjoyed the other Play Lab drama, "Firestorm" by Meridith Friedman. The leads in the reading - Robin LeMon and Zolan Henderson - were coming right off a matinee performance of "Split in Three."  They had no trouble switching gears, though, and did a terrific job with the thought-provoking story. While the play is set in the context of a political campaign, it's really about marriage and race and the consequences of past decisions. I loved its humor and the fact it made me think about some of the choices I've made in my life. And I liked the ambiguity of its ending (which the playwright shared has been changed several times).

Florida Rep is a member of the National New Play Network, and "Firestorm" came to the theater's attention through this organization. One of the ways NNPN gets new plays out to audiences is through its rolling world premiere program.  The concept is simple: NNPN will provide financial support to three (or more) theaters that mount a production of the same new play. It's an amazing opportunity for playwrights to work with different creative teams to produce their shows. In addition to the funding, participating theaters get the status of hosting a world premiere. A rolling world premiere of "Firestorm" is currently underway, and I'd love to see a production by Florida Rep added to the list.

The comedies in the Play Lab line-up didn't grab me nearly as much as the dramas. "The Dingdong" by Mark Shanahan is an adaptation from "Le Dindon" by Georges Feydeau.  Feydeau is the father of modern farce, so the play had the expected complicated (read silly) relationships and comings and goings.

"J'Oy Vey" by Lojo Simon and Anita Yellin Simons told the story of two women - one Jewish and one Christian - who spend a night with their twin granddaughters as Christmas/Chanukah approaches. Although the audience seemed to enjoy the reading, I felt the playwrights went for easy laughs.

From my perch as a mere theatergoer, neither play seemed sufficiently special to warrant the resources for its development and production.  (Capiocco shared that each show costs between $250-300,000 to produce, and I expect a world premiere would be more.)  Perhaps, though, I'm just not a comedy person. 

Regardless of whether or not any of these shows appears at Florida Rep again, it was a great week-end of theater. I'm already looking forward to next year.

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