In today's current political climate, with the arts beset by uncertainty, it might seem like a good time to play it safe and give audiences what they already know and are comfortable with. But lately wherever I look, artists are doing exactly the opposite. Instead of relying on the tried and true, I'm finding Central Florida performers who are pushing the boundaries of what their patrons expect and delivering theater that is devious, divisive and even dangerous.
Brian Feldman's William Shakespeare's Macbeth
Take, for example, Brian Feldman's Brian Feldman's William Shakespeare's Macbeth, which had its world premiere at the Lake Eola's Walt Disney Amphitheater on March 20. I've been a longtime fan of the Orlando-bred performance artist (see my Feb. 22 column about his Dishwasher act at my home for evidence), and Feldman had me so hyped about his epic one-man encounter with the Bard that I skipped the Fab Fringe fundraiser with Broadway star Carrie Manolakos in order to attend.
In true Andy Kaufman style, Feldman warned that theater lovers would loathe the show and distributed protective earplugs to the assembled, most of whom were homeless. But I was still unprepared for the moment when Brian strode on stage in full body armor (presumably to protect against the play's infamous curse and/or tomatoes pitched by the groundlings) and began reciting the entire play ... with every word replaced by "Macbeth."
Credit goes to director Irene L. Pynn for keeping the story almost comprehensible (assuming you already knew it well), despite Brian's diction swiftly devolving in delirious tongue-twisted babble.
Once the absurdist gag was revealed, however, I swiftly progressed through the "Five Stages of Feldman" – shock, wonder, bemusement, concern and hunger – as I realized the show was not actually a monologue, but rather an interactive battle of wills between the artist and his audience to see who would surrender first. Feldman felled me in this round; I was "out, out" long before Lady Macbeth's damned spot, but I'm certain it won't be our last contest.
Varietease's Stolen Thieves
On April 5, Blue Star's Varietease wraps up its limited run at the Venue of Stolen Thieves, a show that stretched this fan-favorite troupe's aesthetic in new and exciting ways. Inspired by tragedies both personal and national, Stolen Thieves sees Blue's choreography straying far from the pop party of Carnivale, going even darker than her fairytale collaborations with Patrick Fatica, into a postapocalyptic nightmare fueled by present-day politics.
Varietease's latest takes unusual risks in both content and form, eschewing any obvious narrative devices in favor of an ambiguous but emotionally charged scenario: Women garbed in leather and rivets, with shrouded faces, race against time to decode the numerology behind their oppression. Each dancer is handed an envelope at the beginning which randomly assigns a song for them to improvise their solo around; it's a twist that would have made Merce Cunningham smile, but was executed so seamlessly as to be invisible to an unaware observer.
Blue and her collaborators – including Tymisha Harris, Lola Selsky, Megan Boetto and Michelina Wingerter – have become increasingly mature with their movement over the years, blending their burlesque roots with sophisticated ballet and modern techniques. Stolen Thieves represents an equivalent intellectual leap ahead for Varietease, addressing serious themes in an abstract manner that remains open to viewer interpretation.
Winnie Wenglewick's Dangerous Theatre Sanford
Of all the adventuresome artistic efforts I've encountered recently, perhaps none is more dangerous than the one undertaken by Winnie Wenglewick; why, it even says so on the door. Longtime Orlando theater patrons may remember Wenglewick from when she worked for Orlando Fringe, or when she ran Performance Space Orlando in the late 1990s. After returning to the area in 2015 from Denver, where she has run the Dangerous Theatre for a decade, Wenglewick has invested her inheritance establishing a sister stage to her Colorado playhouse in Sanford's old Princess Theater.
When I arrived for a performance during Dangerous Theatre's first preview weekend, I discovered that it's still very much a work in progress. Wenglewick proudly showed me the unpainted walls which had only been textured 24 hours ago, and a spot onstage where a door will eventually be cut. Once complete, the venue will hold two 50-seat theaters, one an unraked black box and the other proscenium-style with stadium seating salvaged from Theatre Downtown.
Dangerous' initial offering is Peter McGarry's A Time to Go Walking, a dramedy set in Ireland about a dreamy potato farmer (David A. McElroy) and his long-suffering wife (Marylin McGinnis). McGarry's play veers between salacious shaggy-dog jokes and mawkish stereotypes, as if Frank McCourt had tried to write a sitcom pilot, but director Wenglewick makes good use of McGinnis and McElroy's comfortable chemistry, crafting an intimate experience that reaches through the fourth wall.
A Time to Go Walking runs weekends through the end of April, alongside the "straight version" of Michael Matteo's An Evening With Mr. Johnson: It's Hard Being a Dick, with Jonathan M. Vick's PTSD drama Dogmai opening on April 7. Going forward, Wenglewick says she hopes to produce and promote more original works and is open to partnering with other companies, offering space in exchange for 40 percent of ticket sales as long as the cast gets paid 20 percent. If ensuring actors are compensated isn't a dangerous idea in this town, I don't know what is.