Thursday, October 28, 2010

Theater feature: Florida Stage tackles the art of raising 'Cane'

Gregg Weiner‭ (‬above‭)‬ and David Nail in Cane.

By Hap Erstein

Two years ago,‭ ‬Palm Beach County was under dire drought conditions,‭ ‬with a water supply estimated to last only‭ ‬21‭ ‬days.‭ ‬It was a desperate situation,‭ ‬but how do you create a play about it without it seeming like a,‭ ‬pardon the expression,‭ ‬dry discourse‭?

That is the challenge that Florida Stage has taken on with‭ ‬Cane,‭ ‬the opening play of its‭ ‬24th season,‭ ‬a world premiere that is the first subscription show in its new home at the Kravis Center and,‭ ‬perhaps most significantly,‭ ‬the first play in the company’s ambitious Florida Cycle.

The brainchild of producing artistic director Lou Tyrrell,‭ ‬the cycle will be an effort to attract playwrights to write stories about The Sunshine State.

‭“‬Florida is so interesting in its eccentricities and its extremes,‭” ‬says Tyrrell.‭ “‬Here is a company whose name represents the state,‭ ‬making a cultural contribution to the state,‭ ‬and from the state to the country.‭ ‬Wouldn’t it be fun if years later we had‭ ‬12‭ ‬or‭ ‬15‭ ‬or‭ ‬20‭ ‬plays that told various Florida stories‭?”

He expects to commission scripts from major writers across the state,‭ ‬but for the inaugural play,‭ ‬Tyrrell turned to his staff playwright-in-residence,‭ ‬29-year-old Andrew Rosendorf.‭ ‬Like the party guest in‭ ‬The Graduate who says to Benjamin Braddock,‭ “‬Plastics,‭” ‬Tyrrell gave Rosendorf the leadoff slot in the Florida Cycle with one word‭ ‬--‭ “‬water.‭”

Rosendorf,‭ ‬who was born and raised in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington,‭ ‬D.C.,‭ ‬not only began knowing little about water management,‭ ‬he had slim knowledge of Florida’s past.

‭“‬I didn’t know what story I wanted to tell and I didn’t know anything about South Florida history.‭ ‬Oh,‭ ‬my god,‭ ‬I had so much to learn,‭” ‬says Rosendorf.‭ “‬It was overwhelming and exhilarating at the same time.‭”

Playwright Andrew Rosendorf.

He began by reading everything he could get his hands on and interviewing water conservation experts.‭ “‬I became a sponge,‭ ‬learning about the Everglades and about South Florida,‭ ‬its whole history and politics,‭” ‬says Rosendorf.‭ ‬Gradually,‭ ‬he began focusing on the era of the deadly‭ ‬1928‭ ‬hurricane and the present day,‭ ‬a time when much of the region was swampland‭ ‬--‭ ‬that is,‭ ‬there was too much water‭ ‬--‭ ‬and‭ ‬80‭ ‬years later,‭ ‬when water was in short supply.

But Rosendorf knew he had to invent a human saga to attract and retain audience attention,‭ ‬rather than an issue play.‭ ‬So he created characters based on his reading,‭ ‬devising a story about a Belle Glade farmer worried about how to tame his land and survive a brutal hurricane.‭ ‬Then in the second act,‭ ‬Cane jumps ahead to current-day Florida and to the farmer’s descendants,‭ ‬who are battling the lack of water.‭

As Rosendorf puts it,‭ ‬Cane is‭ “‬a tale of betrayal and bloodshed,‭ ‬water and wind,‭ ‬family and fortune.‭” ‬The title‭ ‬Cane has multiple meanings.‭ “‬One is hurricane,‭ ‬also sugar cane,‭ ‬and then there’s‭ ‬the biblical implications of Cain and Abel,‭” ‬says Rosendorf.‭

When he began writing‭ ‬Cane 18 months ago,‭ ‬Florida Stage was in its former cramped quarters in Manalapan,‭ ‬which would have meant a lot of compromises with the production.

‭“‬Certainly our switch‭ ‬to the Kravis was very freeing,‭”‬ he concedes.‭ “‬The set that Richard Crowell is building is massive and gorgeous.‭ ‬When Lou read the script,‭ ‬he quickly had the idea that maybe the dike had some height,‭ ‬when my initial thought to make sure it would be producible,‭ ‬was that the dike could well be the front of the stage.‭

“I’m very drawn to theatricality and there’s theatricality in this play,‭ ‬but I also had in mind that Florida Stage was asking me to write this,‭ ‬so I knew I had to keep a certain producibility aspect in mind as I was doing it.‭”

Not that he makes it easy,‭ ‬writing in a scene in which the‭ ‬1928‭ ‬hurricane blows through Belle Glade.‭ ‬How do you put a hurricane onstage‭?

“We’re going to have,‭ ‬as I understand it,‭ ‬some giant fans,‭” ‬Rosendorf reports.‭ “‬We had explored water as a possibility,‭ ‬but because of the short turnover time when the show is over,‭ ‬we ultimately went‭ ‬to lighting and sound effects.‭ ‬But certainly our actors will be muddied up and wet.‭”

The theatergoers at least will not have to worry about being caught in a deluge.‭ “‬I think the idea is make sure that the audience feels that they are a little bit outside of it.‭ ‬They will not have to come with raincoats.‭”

As with any play it premieres,‭ ‬Florida Stage’s primary audience is at its theater,‭ ‬but it also hopes that the script will be produced elsewhere,‭ ‬to become part of theatrical literature.‭ ‬Does‭ ‬Cane have the universality to interest audiences beyond this state‭?

“I feel that if I’ve done my job right,‭ ‬I think it’s a very universal story of what was going on‭ ‬80‭ ‬years ago,‭” ‬responds Rosendorf.‭ “‬As I learned from my research,‭ ‬water shortage is a huge issue,‭ ‬not just in Florida,‭ ‬but around the country,‭ ‬especially with the Great Lakes and Lake Michigan.‭ ‬Experts believe that the next world war won’t be fought over oil but will be fought over water.

‭“‬We like to call Florida‭ ‘‬the canary in the mineshaft.‭’ ‬What happens here is a microcosm of what is happening elsewhere.‭”

CANE,‬Florida Stage at the Kravis Center,‭ ‬701‭ ‬Okeechobee Blvd.,‭ ‬West Palm Beach.‭ ‬Opens Friday,‭ ‬Oct.‭ ‬29,‭ ‬and runs through Sunday,‭ ‬Nov.‭ ‬28.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$47-$50.‭ ‬Call:‭ (‬561‭) ‬585-3433‭ ‬or‭ (‬800‭) ‬514-3837.

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