When it first came into my head to say farewell to the 2021-2022 season with a top ten list, I also intended this essay to be something of a farewell to both South Florida Theater Magazine and South Florida as a whole. Instead, after a grand two months of living in Maryland and working at the Olney Theatre Center, I also find myself instead announcing that, as of Halloween, I have returned full time to the area to continue keeping an eye on the theatre scene and do… well, something or other!
I’ll probably tell a more nuanced story of my adventure away and unlikely return in a longer blog post one of these days, but the short version is basically as such: a decision, first, to depart for somewhere in particular, gradually transmuted into the idea that I needed to escape at any cost, which in turn led me to insert myself into a situation that, while not truly bad and in many ways illuminating, also wasn’t really ideal. In recognizing that I needed to change something about my circumstances, I came to what I now believe to be the false conclusion that leaving Florida entirely was the only solution, as opposed to trying to rearrange my life here in a way that would allow for greater freedom without requiring me to sever all existing ties.
While life in Maryland had its good points, in a deeper sense, working for a large organization that I could play little part in the actual functioning of felt somewhat hollow; and after a while the vague promise of future returns of a sort I wasn’t even sure I wanted could no longer outweigh the temptation to return to a community that I don’t think I ever truly wanted to leave. In addition, I have also decided that I am simply unwilling to live any longer without my kitty kat.
So, as odd as I know this sounds, it does not feel as if I was wrong in leaping away but that leaping was a necessary step in some strange, predestined process of self-discovery; that I left my position in a blaze of irreverent glory rather than having failed, and that coming home with an abundance of grand plans and renewed commitment is actually a non-linear step forward rather than a step back. And so leapt I have, hoping that if I merely continue following my insane whims, then by some Dionysian grace or other, everything will more or less work out.
But, back to the matter at hand: theatre criticism!! Why, exactly, it is that I decided to fashion myself a theatre critic when I actually hate being “critical” is still a little beyond me, besides the fact that I love seeing theatre, love contemplating theatre, and love to draw attention to the incredible work being done in theatre throughout South Florida. For this reason, you’ve probably noticed that I try to be as charitable as possible in my reviews while still being as truthful as possible, since I’d much rather give someone a debatably deserved compliment than be undeservedly cruel.
This also perhaps relates to the fact that I’m still learning to trust my own sense of artistic judgment; in a few cases, this insecurity has even led me to make a comment that indicated what I thought I was supposed to say or think rather than my actual opinion, which I obviously now regret.
In any case, at least by virtue of having seen more plays this season than the vast majority of theatregoers, I now find myself at least theoretically qualified to weigh in on this past season, as well as that reflecting on which plays I found particularly impactful was a refreshing chance to be purely celebratory with no attention to the nits I’d usually pick. Besides that I decided to limit myself to only including one show per company to make choosing the standouts a little less impossible, there was also no real criteria to this tallying besides my aforementioned insane whims. Thus, in some cases, shows that I found more fun to watch won out over shows that were probably technically better produced or written, and, in others, the social context or artistic ambition of a show gave it an edge over a similarly well-done but more conventional classic.
I’m also reluctantly excluding New City Players from this analysis since I feel too close to their work as an ensemble member and spend enough time rambling about how awesome they are already. It’s also worth noting that there are plenty of shows I didn’t see and even some pretty key companies that somehow stayed off my radar entirely, like Miami New Drama, The Wick, and Ronnie Larsen Presents.
Since I’ve never been a particular fan of hierarchies, I also intend this list as more of a vague progression from “incredible” to “even more incredible.” Well, that and the fact that I simply got tired of changing them given how many times over the course of my drafting I found plays changing positions—which you can choose to interpret as attesting to the difficulty of my task, to the fact that I have no bloody idea what I’m doing, or, perhaps, to both. Finally, just in case anyone is actually taking the rogue opinions of this renegade millennial seriously, I really just want to commend everyone for a remarkable season whether you’re acknowledged here or not, for your gracious acceptance of my judgment, and for keeping me perennially entertained.
How do you measure a year if not in theatre reviews? Before I figure out what kind of cheesy pun I’m going to make in order that I might move on to quote the famous chorus of Seasons of Love, it’s worth mentioning that it’s at least partially because I didn’t review this show (though you can read Dale King’s review of the classic for our publication here) that it strikes me as necessary to now express just how much I enjoyed it.
Since Rent was my first theatre obsession (or, as I describe it in this expansive blog post chronicling it, my gateway drug), I’ve actually seen more productions of the musical than I can count. But the fact that this version was performed by young, earnest, FAU theatre students as opposed to more seasoned professionals seemed to bring the show’s themes of youthful exuberance existing at odds with the specter of the AIDS epidemic to the forefront, which made it even more affecting.
The energy and passion the entire cast brought to the play combined with the poignant story and eternally gorgeous score meant that my enjoyment of the piece seldom faltered. Though I knew exactly what was coming, I still found myself in tears after one characters’ tragedy and at the play’s uplifting conclusion—and I also noticed that I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t keep my eyes dry.
Well, speaking of leaving the theatre sobbing— few plays this season offered as much sheer emotional power as did Palm Beach Dramaworks’ The People Downstairs, written by local playwright Michael Mckeever and directed by William Hayes. This well-crafted new play offered an in-depth retelling of the true story of the titular “people,” who risked everything to shelter the Frank and Van Pels families during the era of Nazi occupation. A stunning leading performance by Amy Miller as Miep Gies and the committed work of her fellow actors served as the emotional lynchpin of this beautiful production, which ultimately highlighted the importance of compassion amidst adversity and of standing strong behind your principles no matter how great the cost.
There are few plays this season that I remember laughing at more than I laughed at Old Tricks, a play that both starred and was written by the multitalented Michael Bush. Though it offers an original, zany premise and seemingly endless jokes, underneath its farcical antics, it also included surprising depth in its fascinating portrait of the nuances of gay subculture. A cast that was up to the challenge of delivering the mile a minute wit displayed in the play’s dialogue supplied everything else that was necessary for a thought-provoking and truly hilarious night of theatre.
Our Dear Dead Drug Lord is an ambitious 2019 play by Alexis Scheer that was granted its Florida premiere by Zoetic Stage this season. And whether they loved it or hated it, I doubt that any audience member emerged from the show unaffected, especially after witnessing its surreal and shocking climax, which embodied the unique ability of theatre to offer visceral thrills and challenge our understanding of reality’s very fabric.
Presiding over the production, directors Stuart Meltzer and Elena Maria Garcia expertly lead a talented cast of young actresses in bringing Our Dear Dead Drug Lord’s quirky characters to life. Both structurally daring and politically provocative and as darkly comedic as truly harrowing, the play also presents the lives, psyches, and power of young women as something worthy of exploration, which is something that I can definitely get behind.
While it was somewhat hard to choose between this show and the always-polished Slow Burn’s haunting and probably equally excellent Once On This Island, this is one of those occasions where I have to admit that I had a lot more fun watching Head Over Heels than I did absorbing Ti Moune’s bittersweet tale. This highly theatrical romp through a 1500s epic poem set to the music of 80s girl group the Go-Gos managed to overcome my usual impatience for fluffy-rom coms by offering enough playful modern twists to create a story that felt fresh and by challenging convention in its centering of queer narratives. Plenty of inventive staging, a plethora of catchy tunes, and a host of incredible performances completed the picture in this perfectly calibrated production.
Though the outstanding nature of this play may be old news to those who were lucky enough to catch it at Zoetic Stage in 2017, this season’s remounting of the work by Actor’s Playhouse offered me my first chance to see Elena Maria Garcia excel in this bold one-woman play written by herself and Stuart Meltzer. By allowing Garcia to showcase her incredible range as she transforms from character to character as well as incorporating plenty of visual twists, Fuácata! avoids any of the stagnancy one might associate with solo shows, instead blending broad comedy and profound cultural commentary to masterful effect. The result was pure bilingual brilliance!
Though new plays can be hit or miss, the undeniable effectiveness of Theatre Lab’s spring premiere of Gina Montet’s Overactive Letdown was a pretty obvious triumph. While it offers a more structurally conventional narrative than the wilder plays on this list and is therefore likely a good deal more accessible, its use of theatrical fantasy sequences to illuminate its main character’s slow descent into post-partum mental illness elevates what could have been a simple “social issue” play into a far more absorbing and evocative meditation on how isolating and all-encompassing the condition can be.
Leading actress Lindsay Corey’s incredibly vulnerable and pitch perfect performance and excellent supporting work by her co-stars were also essential to this production’s success, as was Margaret Ledford’s nuanced direction. In inviting us to empathize with the unthinkable, Overactive Letdown makes a lasting impact in its chilling exploration of a worst case scenario that the awareness it fosters may in fact have some power to prevent.
This metatheatrical take on an unthinkable real-life statistic also transcends the usual “issue play” mold with its unique structure, which effectively serves to highlight the insufficiency and destructiveness of the existing cultural narratives that exist around HIV/AIDs. In this artistically daring and semi-autobiographical piece, playwright Donja R. Love humanizes the issue by telling the story of an unnamed protagonist who receives a life-changing diagnosis of the condition. The script succeeds tremendously in both delving into the inevitable pathos of its premise and in frequently lightening the mood with comedic moments and theatrical twists, and manages to come to a genuinely hopeful conclusion despite the adversity explored.
In Island City’s production, memorable and pristine technical elements and direction by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg also succeeded in creating the unusual atmosphere and energy One In Two demands. The play’s innovative framing device also requires all three of its performers to be prepared to step into any of its three tracks at each performance, a laudable feat in and of itself. Yet actors Randall Swinton, Kevane La’marr Coleman, and Nathaniel J. Ryan were not only up to the challenge but each excelled in their respective roles, at least the ones I caught them in!
While this 1977 work by Maria Irene Fornes has taken its rightful place in the annals of theatre history, Fefu and her Friends is a play that not many companies dare attempt due to a combination of its challenging physical requirements and its perhaps even more challenging content, including its potentially baffling structure-or-lack-thereof. However, I commend Thinking Cap Theatre and director Nicole Stodard for not only taking on the difficult work but pretty much knocking it out of the park, offering South Florida theatregoers a rare chance to experience the play and admirably pushing audiences out of their comfort zones.
The play’s ensemble of incredible actresses also elevated the intense material, especially the commanding leading performance of Rita Cole, and its finely tuned technical elements helped create an eerie and ethereal atmosphere that highlighted the play’s otherworldly vibe while still evoking its period setting. The difficulty of ascertaining a linear “meaning” from the text itself makes the fact that this production was still able to have an emotional impact and at least hint at its key thematic ideas all the more impressive. And if you’re interested in diving deeper into Fornes’s work with Thinking Cap, you can also check out their podcast!
Well, what can I say? Probably not much more than I already said in my possibly over-long review or that others haven’t already said about this pretty universally awe-inspiring production, but if you weren’t already convinced, then I’ll say one more time that this immersive version of the classic amounts to a truly unforgettable theatre experience. While I’ll admit that it annoys me to have to agree with the judgment of more conventional institutions on this matter and perhaps annoys me even more that I’m forced to end this list with something as mainstream as a Disney musical, the particular story of Beauty And The Beast is one that only seems to grow in poignancy the more closely I look at it, offering a timeless lesson on the redemptive power of love that can touch the hearts of children and adults alike.
More importantly, finding a way to meaningfully transfigure a well-trod play is almost more difficult than bringing a new one to life, and the fact that director Giancarlo Rodaz managed it with the help of a talented creative team and the show’s vibrant array of predominantly local actors is as worthy of accolades as their success suggests. I also may as well mention that, at least to my knowledge, this production is the only one on this list that isn’t lostforevermore to the terribly temporary nature of theatre, being that it’s slated to come back around to the Arsht this February with most of the original cast and crew intact!
Well, there you have it! Now that I’m back in FL, I’m in for an action packed weekend as I plan to catch a performance of one of my short plays by Theatre Arts Productions this Friday, have a heck of a good time spearheading the raffle at New City Players’ season kickoff jamboree this Saturday, and attending the Carbonells this Monday to finally see what all the fuss is about. In any case, see you at the theatre!
Ilana Jael earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College and a BA in Writing and Psychology from Florida Atlantic University’s Wilkes Honors College. She also served as co-founder of the student theatre troupe “Theatre in the Raw.” She has been dabbling in both playwriting and acting since high school. A few favorite roles include Rebel in Columbinus (Bob Carter’s Actor’s Rep), The Fearful One in The Cave (G-Star School of The Arts), and Amanda in The Glass Menagerie (Theatre In The Raw). Her one-act plays Goodbye, Karma’s A Bitch, Certainly Not About Him, and Open Heart have also been previously performed at Actor’s Rep and/or at Florida Atlantic University. More recently, Ilana appeared in and created the original musical ZeeZou’s Stardust Extravaganza with Area Stage’s Miami Queer Theatre Collective. Her short plays have been produced virtually by New City Players, Theatre Lab, and Femuscripts. She is also a current company member of New City Players, and you can check out her theatre blog at ilanaintheatreland.com!