ORLANDO – Community theater is often quick to embrace the very familiar – revivals of popular plays that have broad appeal, the kind of shows that seem guaranteed to sell box office tickets.
But sometimes the theater world goes out of its way to avoid the universal, and instead to get right in your face – to embrace shows that are controversial, distributing, and — hopefully for the directors, producers and actors — thought-provoking as well.
That’s the aim of the Empty Spaces Theatre Co., which is devoting 2011 to plays that are anything but wholesome and inoffensive.
“We have a mission to do dangerous plays this year,” said director John DiDonna. “So far it’s been a rich experience.”
Empty Spaces Theatre Co., founded by DiDonna and Seth Kubersky, is well versed in tackling controversial subjects. Past productions have included “Stripped,” a docudrama exploring the world of exotic dancers in Central Florida; “Bent,” about the persecution of gays during the Nazi Holocaust; “Jesus Hopped The A Train,” about the brutality of prison life; and “Frozen,” about a mother who confronts the pedophile who killed her daughter.
Now Empty Spaces is branching out to include, as DiDonna called it, “dangerous” plays, although in this case the definition means plays that have been banned. In some instances, the subject matter is no longer as controversial today as when it was originally written; for other works, though, the controversy rages on.
Their first two productions highlight that contrast. In January, Empty Spaces did a reading of Mae West’s play “The Drag,” a 1920s comedy-drama about homosexuality. After some try-outs in Connecticut and New Jersey, West announced she was bringing the play to New York, but it never made it to Broadway after the Society for the Prevention of Vice vowed to ban it.
“It was banned for sexual reasons,” DiDonna, adding that today the content would barely raise an eyebrow.
That’s not the case with “My Name is Rachel Corrie,” the play by Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner, taken from the writings and journals of Rachel Corrie.
Corrie, an American born in 1979, died on March 16, 2003 when, as an American member of the International Solidarity Movement, she was crushed to death in the Gaza Strip by an Israel Defense Forces bulldozer. Corrie was kneeling in front of a local Palestinian’s home, acting as a human shield to prevent IDF forces from demolishing it.
The play, which closed on Feb. 28 after five performances, remains highly controversial for its politics.
“This is kind of a pro-Palestinian play, in a way,” DiDonna said. “It’s a very visceral play. It got banned in Miami, and got shut down because of its politics. Rachel Corey was an American girl who went over to the Gaza Strip, and was trying to protect a house from being demolished when she got killed by a bulldozer. This play is politically dangerous.”
Or is it, he added. DiDonna noted that the performances were following by nightly talk-back forums, “Putting Rachel Corey in Context,” and not everyone thought the play’s message was inflamatory.
“The play is 90 minutes long, then we have a community dialogue after it,” DiDonna said. “Everyone who has seen this show says ‘Why is this dangerous?’ That’s just it – it’s not. We’ve had Jewish audiences who have loved it. I think this play can actually bring some dialogue between the Palestinians and the Israelis.”
If “Rachel Corey” has tested the patience of some Jewish audiences, the play “Corpus Christi” has done the same for Catholic — including DiDonna, who said he resisted even reading the play for years because of its content.
Terrence McNally’s passion play depicts Jesus and the Apostles as gay men living in modern day Texas, and in this version, Judas betrays Jesus out of sexual jealousy. Jesus is also shown admiring the gay marriage of two apostles.
Derided as blasphemous and immoral by some critics, DiDonna said it took him a while to read the piece.
“I have a section in my class on dangerous plays,” said DiDonna, who teaches drama at Rollins College and Seminole Community College. “When I finally read it, I said ‘Hey, this is good.’ I’m a straight Catholic man and I have no problems with ‘Corpus Christi.’”
Sexual content and violence are the principal objections behind another play that Empty Spaces is reviving: “Shopping and F***ing,” a 1996 play by England’s Mark Ravenhill. It’s a comedy about what happens when consumerism supercedes all other moral codes. When it was first performed in London, it shocked some audiences with its sexually-violent content, including the violent rape of an underage male.
“It’s a British play that is extremely shocking and vulgar, with very violent sex,” DiDonna said. “But in the end, it’s a morality tale. It’s dangerous. It has never been produced in Florida.”
DiDonna said the plays that have been chosen are not necessarily lost masterpieces, or ones the espouse a point of view he readily agrees with.
“We’re doing plays that we don’t necessarily agree with,” he said. “But we feel they should be heard. It’s been working well for us.”
How long will Empty Spaces keep producing so-called dangerous plays? That, DiDonna said, is still up in the air.
“For as long as we want,” he said. “We’ll do this as long as we want.”
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