“Dangerous” theater? The Empty Spaces Theatre Co. explores plays that got banned.

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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Zany, wild, unpredictable, irresistable: welcome to Fringe!

ORLANDO – It has a fairly long title, but for anyone who has lived in Central Florida for the past two decades and loves the local theater scene, it really just comes down to one word:
“Fringe is the biggest and baddest arts party/creative schmorgasboard that you can find on the East Coast,” said Paul Castaneda, executive director of the Greater Orlando Actor’s Theatre, or GOAT.
The Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival kicked off the spring Fringe season on Monday night with the annual Fab Fringe Fundraiser, an opportunity to sample food and drinks, to take part in auctions and raffles, and to meet some of the creative forces behind this event, which was held at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center.
This is, as Fringe’s Producing Artistic Director Beth Marhsall noted, a special year for the event that brings together more than 70 shows in Loch Haven Park.
“It’s our 20th year, and the theme of it is ‘The Reunion,’ “ Marshall said. “One of the cool things is we’re celebrating all the things we have done over the years.”
It’s a homecoming, in a sense, for past Fringe artists, some of them — like veteran stage director John DiDonna — once again involved in this year’s Fringe festival.
DiDonna’s production this year will be “Unspoken,” which he described as a “dance-spoken word multimedia project” that includes Punch & Judy-type puppets, similar to the ones DiDonna used last year in his Halloween production, “Phantasmagoria.”
Fringe, he said, is the ultimate theater experience – such a wild collection of pieces that there’s virtually guaranteed to be something for everyone.
“It’s everything from high drama to classical works to bizarre new works,” DiDonna said. “Twelve days just to see theater – how incredible is that?”
Fringe General Manager George Wallace said there are definitely 75 shows booked for Fringe this year, about three less than in 2010, although his office is still negotiating with a few artists who are on a waiting list to see if their productions can get accommodated.
“We’re right on target with last year,” Wallace said. “It’s such an eclectic mix of first year performers and veterans who are coming back here. We have a lot of new artists this year as well.”
That would appear to be good advertising for any veteran Fringe audience members who have come to expect the offbeat, zany and unpredictable during Fringe – artists who are given the opportunity to let their creative juices run wild and see what they come up with. Fringe’s philosophy, as its Facebook page notes, is “100 percent UNCENSORED, 100 percent UNJURIED, 100 percent ACCESSIBLE.”
“We’re the oldest Fringe festival in the country,” Wallace said. “And it’s a big year for us. There’s a lot to be excited about.”
The 2011 20th Annual Orlando Fringe will be held May 19-30 in Orlando’s Loch Haven Park at various theater “venues,” including stages inside the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre and the Orlando Repertory Theatre. In keeping with the homecoming/reunion theme this year, “Our program book will be looking like a yearbook,” Marshall said. “On Wednesday, May 18 we will have our ribbon cutting ceremony, and then we’ve got the 12 days of Fringe.”
Hosting this event has been a wonderful experience over the years, said Rita Lowndes, who runs the John & Rita Lowndes Shakespeare Theatre.
“We’re delighted to have the building so well used,” she said.
Al Pergande – who bills himself on his business cards as “hack writer,” “raconteur,” and “bon vivant” – is one of the returning artists. He first produced a Fringe play in 2004 called “Go Left Right,” “which was completely awful beyond words,” he said – and then followed it up in 2009 with “The Mayor of Orange Avenue,” of which he said “I thought it went well. It had a few issues.”
This time, Pergande is producing the comedy “Big Swinging Dick’s Topless Bar,” about a guy named Dick who tries to turn a failing bar into a success by making it a strip joint, with comedic results.
Fringe, he said, is distinctly unique because “It’s like this massive place where you’re not responsible for anything – unless you’re producing a show. Then you’re responsible for everything.”
To learn more about Fringe, email producer@orlandofringe.org, log on to http://orlandofringe.org, or call 407-648-0077. The Fringe Festival office is at 398 W. Amelia St. in downtown Orlando.

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“Praising What is Lost”: a haunting new play in search of a larger audience.

ORLANDO – Samuel Burstein lives through his rich, atmospheric memories, ones he fondly looks back on for comfort. Now living in a nursing home, those memories are what keeps the elderly man happy.
The only problem, his grandson Marc believes, is that none of those memories are actually Samuel’s. His grandfather’s visions may be vivid, they may seem genuine, but they’re of people he never met, places he never lived, experiences he never had. And it all has Marc worried.
“These aren’t my grandfather’s memories,” Marc tells Dr. Gabriel, his father’s physician at the nursing facility. “None of them are real.”
In a sense, though, Samuel may be following in his grandson’s own footsteps. In addition to observing his grandfather’s medical treatment, Marc’s days are busy trying to build a stable relationship with his girlfriend, Rachel, while also piecing together his estranged relationship with his strong-willed and often critical sister, Beth. Marc’s method of escape, it seems, is strikingly similar to his grandfather’s: he creates fiction.
“Being a writer, my trade is stories,” Marc says. And fiction provides temporary relief – for both of them.
“Praising What is Lost” is an original, full length play by Orlando’s David Strauss, which had its premiere today at the Orlando Public Library. The Playwrights’ Round Table presented a staged reading of Strauss’ play with a cast of seven that included the author himself in the lead role of Marc.
It was part of ArtsFest, an ongoing celebration of the arts across Central Florida, which features 220 events in 81 venues across four counties, and is being produced by United Arts of Central Florida. The artistic activities continue through Feb. 13.
“This is a work in progress,” said Charles R. Dent, president of the Playwright’s Round Table, of “Praising What is Lost.” Dent joined the actors during the performance to read the play’s stage directions.
“This is how we do these things,” Dent said. “We give them a tryout.”
“Praising What is Lost” is an intimate drama, and one that doesn’t necessarily follow the typical path of opening quietly and then building toward shattering moments or sharp dramatic twists. It’s about people you might feel like you know quite well, who have issues and concerns they’re grappling with that any of us could easily relate to – including the fact that Marc, as a healthy, virbrant young man, has to suddenly confront some uncomfortable issues about aging and mortality more directly now that his beloved grandfather is struggling with Alzheimer’s.
Marc looks to comfort from Rachel, who responds by offering to bake him cupcakes and give him a backrub while he watches “Star Trek.” He’s also working to smooth over the rough patches in his sometimes rocky relationship with Beth.
Samuel is in a nursing home, taking part in a trial program for patients recovering lost memories. Samuel’s progress seems good, at first; he remembers a lot, and he’s happy to be able to recall fond moments he lived through. But everything he tells the family worries Marc and Beth, since they don’t recognize a word he’s saying as being something from their grandfather’s past.
But their concerns are meaningless to Samuel, who brags “I feel more alive, more connected than I have in years.” Whether the memories are his own or just dreams he’s created, they enable him to cope.
And the family’s dilemma comes home in a heartbreakingly real moment when Marc decides to take his grandfather’s photo so he can post it on his Facebook page. When Samuel asks to see the picture on Marc’s digital camera, he’s horrified at the image that stares back at him.
“Oh, my God,” he says in dismay, “What happened to me. How did I get so old?”
Recalling his youthful days – the images that stir now in his mind, keeping him content – he says, “Look at me – I’m not film star handsome anymore. I’m ravaged. Look at my white hair.”
Reality, it seems, can be a struggle to confront.
After the reading, Strauss said the play was semi-autobiographical, based in part on his own grandfather being placed in a nursing home.
“I like the dynamic of people having to make decisions they may not be ready for,” he said. “Drama is about conflict.”
Strauss creates a haunting portrayal of a situation any of us with an aging parent or grandparent could be asked to take on. His characters’ reactions are fascinating to watch. Let’s hope “Praising What is Lost” finds its way from a staged reading to a fully produced show in the near future. It deserves to find a larger audience.

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