Traditionally, I'm not the biggest fan of what I'll call "stunt" theater -- the school of thought that assumes no one will leave home to see a play unless its key elements are reorganized and recontextualized until they're almost unrecognizable. (""It's Our Town," but aboard a German U-boat in 1943!" "It's "Much Ado About Nothing" at a Dairy Queen!") So why do I love it that Theatre UCF is staging an all-African-American version of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" beginning Thursday, Jan. 17?
"It's not indicative of one race or culture," says Donald Seay, the University of Central Florida's theater department chairman, lending a logical argument to my gut feeling that the idea makes sense. "The challenges, problems and fears this family faces, any family could face."
Though he's directing the show, Seay can't take credit for the nontraditional casting. It was UCF performance instructor Mark Brotherton, he says, who suggested that "Salesman" -- which had been on the school's theater schedule since last year -- become a vehicle for some of the drama program's many students of color. Though Seay predicts the audience will see Miller's work from a new perspective, he reports the students are learning how great themes reach across racial lines -- and that their opportunities to find themselves on the stage don't begin and end with August Wilson.
"Why should they limit themselves?" Seay asks. Nothing in the script has been changed, and its time frame is exactly the same. "The only thing that, at first, was kind of funny," he recalls, "was that all of the names fit the characters ... except for Biff!" He lets out a loud cackle. "But it doesn't stand out, so we left everything as it is."
Perhaps strangely for a show devised to spotlight the student body, the central role of Willy Loman is instead played by a faculty member, acting professor Anthony B. Major. While Seay admits that students are the preferred choices to fill any role, he won't say that the talent just wasn't there this time. "Anytime we can get an adult `to work` with the students, we feel we're gaining something," he explains.
Major, in turn, calls the play's young cast "phenomenal. I have to be careful that they don't steal the show," he teases.
Born in Sarasota, Major has decades of experience in theater, film and TV -- in both the performance and production capacities. At UCF, he helped create a course that teaches diversity through the theatrical arts. He is also the only person I know of whose r?sum? includes work with Joseph Papp, Redd Foxx, Sidney Poitier and Dolly Parton. As such, he's uniquely qualified to comment on the intersection of white and black images in the arts -- including the onscreen dynamic between Paul Newman and Robert Redford, who he says reminded him of "two brothers" from Harlem. He makes such a convincing case that I'm now even more curious about the ultimate outcome of his personal mandate to "get the subtleties" in "Salesman" -- to hone in on what he calls "the essence of the writing.
"If that's done, it'll supersede race," Major predicts. "They won't say, 'That's a black man.' They'll say, 'Wow, that's Willy Loman.'"
Don't look for the seventh edition of the ever-more-popular "Nude Nite" art show (Feb. 15 and 16) in its old location above N.Y.P.D. Pizza. Its last few editions there have been so cramped that, as promoter Victor Perez says, "You couldn't even see the artwork."
So, where will "Nude Nite" take place? Last July, Perez announced that he would transport the whole magillah to the Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts. Instead, he has recently focused his efforts on securing a location in the Winter Park Village shopping plaza -- specifically, a 30,000-square-foot space at the rear end of the same building that houses the Cheesecake Factory. (Nudes? Rear end? Cheesecake? I love it when I don't have to supply the jokes.)
That arrangement, however, has hit a snag: The property's managers are allegedly concerned about the possibility that the show could "offend" shoppers.
"I'm kind of flustered about the whole thing," says Perez, who expects to have the final "yea" or "nay" by next week.
So far, about 60 artists have signed up to participate in "Nude Nite"; Perez will accept applications until Feb. 1 at www.nudenite.com. Wherever the event ends up, it also will include living-sculpture performances by the Can Sir Troupe and music by such acts as Red Shift Mantra and the Delusionaires -- the latter of whom inspire nudity just about everywhere they go, if their publicity can be believed. (It can't.)
After "Nude Nite" wraps, Perez will visit Milan, Italy, with a group of other local arts types shepherded by impresario Robin Van Arsdol. Upon his return, he will temporarily relocate to Philadelphia, where his significant other, painter Tiphanie Windsor-Perez, is due to attend school. I could pass a comment about cheese steaks being more reliable than cheesecake, but remember, I'm not doing the jokes this time.
Macy on parade
William H. Macy will be the opening-night guest at this year's Sarasota Film Festival, taking place Jan. 19 through 26 at that city's Regal Cinemas Hollywood 20 and nearby venues. Other celebs slated to appear include Michael York and Shirley Jones -- who won an Academy Award for "Elmer Gantry" before she did the world an inestimable public service by giving it David Cassidy. For tickets: (941) 364-9514 or www.sarasotafilmfestival.com.
The impressive roster of features includes Todd Solondz's typically controversial, straight-from-Sundance "Storytelling" and the Southeast premiere of "Kandahar," the acclaimed portrayal of the plight of Afghani women. (If you can't make it to Sarasota, you'll have to wait until the film opens in Orlando March 15.)
Gay and lesbian entries will also be part of the mix, their screenings blessed by visiting cast members from the Showtime series "Queer as Folk." Speaking of which, isn't it about time for someone to lens a documentary about lesbian singer/songwriters and title it "Folk as Queer?"
Whadddaya mean, "no?"