Beyond the Bay

Sarasota offers theater experiences missing in the Bay area.

click to enlarge LOOKING SOUTH: Asolo Theatre's A Midsummer Night's Dream was but one inventive production not seen in Tampa Bay. - FRANK ATURA
Frank Atura
LOOKING SOUTH: Asolo Theatre's A Midsummer Night's Dream was but one inventive production not seen in Tampa Bay.

I love Bay area theater. Seeing as many plays as I do in the course of a year, I have some unforgettable experiences, so startling and illuminating I wouldn't trade them for the world. It happened again this season at American Stage (Proof), Stageworks (The Chairs), and even at little Hat Trick Theatre (their scorching version of Neil LaBute's Bash). Plays like Cloud Nine, Bent and The Cripple of Inishmaan are etched in my consciousness, and all of them originated in Tampa and St. Pete. Now that the new season's begun, I'm ready for more such pleasures.

But I'm also aware of a problem: There's just not enough theater in Tampa/St. Petersburg. Even if you attend all the shows at Stageworks, Jobsite, American Stage and the smaller companies, you'll only get a small sampling of noteworthy drama, whether contemporary works or classics by Shakespeare and the ancient Greeks.

So I have a Plan B: I travel regularly to Sarasota to see (and review for the Sarasota Planet) the many productions mounted there. Which leads me to a suggestion: You, reader, should do the same. Put our southern neighbor's offerings together with our own, and you begin to have a satisfying year as a theatergoer. And sometimes you'll enjoy shows years before Tampa gets them.

For example: American Stage next July is offering Donald Margulies' Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner With Friends. But if you've been patronizing Sarasota theaters, you saw the same play three years ago at Florida Studio Theatre, in a first-class production.

And let's say you were intrigued with Margulies' work, and wanted to see more. Well, it's true that Stageworks is offering Collected Stories later this month. But Sight Unseen was just produced not in Tampa Bay but in Sarasota at Banyan Theatre (featuring one of Tampa/St. Pete's best actors, Colleen McDonnell), and Brooklyn Boy, Margulies' latest, is scheduled for later this season at Sarasota's Florida Studio Theatre.

Get the point? By attending only local stages, you'd get half a view of Margulies' work; adding Sarasota to your itinerary, you'd begin to see the whole artist.

Not that there are all that many professional Sarasota theaters. In fact, there are just four (not counting dinner theater): the Asolo company, FST (which also has a separate cabaret), Banyan Theatre and the relatively new Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. Then there's the FSU/Asolo Conservatory, a company made up of often-talented acting students, and occasionally presenting important plays in respectable productions.

Put these theaters on your to-do list, and you'll have some wonderful times that just aren't available in Hillsborough or Pinellas. Just last season, for example, I saw a terrifically inventive Midsummer Night's Dream at the Asolo Theatre — with Oberon as a Hippie King from Haight-Ashbury, Puck with a skateboard, Bottom with a Southern accent, and the Mechanicals dressed like grease monkeys and hardhats.

At Florida Studio Theatre I saw a hilarious version of Dudley Moore and Peter Cook's Good Evening, as well as hard-hitting productions of Edward Albee's The Goat and Eric Jensen and Jessica Blank's The Exonerated. At the Banyan I witnessed not only Sight Unseen but also Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, featuring the brilliant Sharon Spelman as Amanda Wingfield. And the best Christmas show of last season wasn't on either side of Tampa Bay, but rather at the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe: Langston Hughes' Black Nativity.

Finally, at the FSU/Asolo Conservatory I saw David Mamet's exasperating Boston Marriage — the only recent Mamet play produced in our area — and the fascinating Love's Fire, a series of one-acts based on Shakespeare's sonnets, and featuring work by Eric Bogosian, Marsha Norman and Tony Kushner, among others.

And that was just last season: over the years I've seen splendid versions of Master Class and Far East (FST), The Diary of Anne Frank and Inherit the Wind (Asolo), Betrayal and Hedda Gabler (Banyan), and Fuddy Meers and The Heiress (FSU/Asolo Conservatory). Asolo's Hay Fever was the best Noel Coward production I've ever seen, and FST's Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins made other plays about gay coming-of-age seem crude in comparison.

And though the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe is still maturing, our part of Florida needs a good company devoted to the African-American repertory. I find it telling that such a company came to life in Sarasota and not in the more populous Bay area.

Which brings me to another subject: the age of actors in Sarasota and Tampa Bay. You may have noticed that most of the best thespians in Tampa/St. Pete — people like three-time Best of the Bay winner Brian Shea, Jonathan Harrison, Susan Alexander and Ned Averill-Snell — are relatively young. But if artistic directors don't have actors 50 and older to play certain roles, they'll stay away from the many plays that feature such characters.

This isn't a problem in Sarasota, where performers like Bradford Wallace, Carolyn Michel, David S. Howard and many others are available. But I can't name five top actors over 50 in our area: Ron Sommer and Mimi Rice come to mind, and perhaps Richard Coppinger. If a Tampa/St. Pete company is committed to hiring locally, it'll most likely stay away from Beckett's Endgame or Ionesco's Exit the King, or any other drama that demands older performers.

You may not think this is important until you realize that we're likely never to see a Bay area King Lear or The Master Builder or Mother Courage. That's not the case in Sarasota, where world-class older actors routinely turn up in I'm Not Rappaport or Broadway Bound. And does Tampa have anyone like Michael O. Smith to play an aging Teddy Roosevelt in The Bully Pulpit?

My point isn't that Sarasota can replace Tampa Bay theater life — it can't. But it provides a needed complement to what we see here. Put Bay area and Sarasota theaters together for one season, and you'll have just about all the theater you need.

And the hour's drive? Believe me, it's worth it. Six years later I'm still reeling from FST's Master Class with Kate Alexander. Now that was terrific theater.

For another experience like that, what's a mere 60 miles?

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