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Gulf & Main Magazine

Florida Rep, Broadway Palm and Other Area Troupes Choose to Challenge

Artwork courtesy of Florida Repertory Theatre.

Can theater stop Nazism’s rise? Well, that’s not exactly what happened in Cabaret, which loosely follows the rise of the Third Reich through the eyes of an American in love with a Berlin nightclub dancer. And while Cabaret has a decidedly somber ending that was unable to undo history, artists at Florida Repertory Theatre in Fort Myers hope their production of the musical today might make people stay alert to a similar movement.

“There are parallels to what the story of Cabaret is about and what the story of America is right now,” says Robert Cacioppo, founder and producing artistic director of Florida Rep. “I am doing this show for a very serious reason.”

A bold political move in a politically conservative region may sound risky, but the programming decision has drawn heavy interest from theatergoers—who have anxiously asked about the show. It runs from March 20 to April 11 at the Historic Arcade Theatre.

Indeed, that’s just one of several edgy works coming to stages in Southwest Florida, which has more than its share of theater companies and actors willing to tackle material outside the Rodgers and Hammerstein songbook. From college students’ workshopping never-produced parables about tourism’s future, to ribald comedies with adult themes, the region welcomes a healthy amount of envelope-pushing content.

Perhaps no theater in the area lays so great a claim on “serious theater” as Florida Rep. Last fall, it staged Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced, about a Muslim-American lawyer facing Islamophobia at a progressive dinner party. In the works is the world premiere of Damascus, which explores the mindset behind domestic terrorism. Stacks of scripts at the theater offer ambitious and uncomfortable material for audiences, who nevertheless fill the seats in its Historic Arcade Theatre and smaller ArtStage Studio Theatre.

“Our audiences in that [studio] space, with 110 seats to sell, we are selling out drama and hard-hitting pieces,” notes associate director Jason Parrish. That serves an endorsement of Florida Rep’s devotion to experimental theater and brand-new works. Parrish is a central figure in the latter particularly, running Florida Rep’s Annual PlayLab Festival and finding new scripts.

The festival receives about 250 submissions yearly, of which 75 end up going through a complete vetting. Those are read by 41 judges around the country, and six plays are then read in front of audiences at Florida Rep. Final winners have varied from comedies to avant-garde works. “We try to keep people on their toes,” Parrish says.

Willkommen! And Bienvenue! Welcome!

Challenging material doesn’t just reside in the studio space, however, as the upcoming production of Cabaret confirms. While hardly mined from obscurity, the 1966 classic—music by John Kander, songs by Fred Ebb, book by Joe Masteroff—delivers an unusual story about risqué entertainment.

Cabaret is based on John Van Druten’s play I Am a Camera and Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin. Protagonist Cliff Bradshaw falls for a German cabaret performer and tries to rescue her amid the rise of fascism.

Cacioppo says the decision to stage Cabaret came in response to white supremacists’ marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August—and a spike in outward displays of racist extremism in the nation. “Sometimes you do a play for pure entertainment, and sometimes you do it to make the audience think,” he says. “This happens to be one that does both.”

He’s in the director’s chair for the production, and Britt Michael Gordon plays Bradshaw. It’s audacious to make the show a centerpiece for the spring schedule in a county that overwhelmingly supported Donald J. Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

Parrish suggests the rise of a populist reality TV veteran to the presidency might inform the production. Cacioppo, however, says he wants the show to transcend party politics, and he has no plans to draw any direct comparisons with the rise of any U.S. presidential administration. People had many reasons to vote for Trump, whether economic or because of individual matters of policy. But the growing profile of white nationalist extremists should give everyone reason for alarm, he says.

“Look, we’re not a political organization,” Cacioppo says, “but the theater going back for thousands of years has brought up ideas and thoughts.” In the case of Cabaret, the musical tackles one of modern history’s greatest questions: How could the people of Germany allow the rise of the Third Reich?

The answer in the lines of the play seems to be complacency. Those who loved life in the nightclubs of Berlin weren't interested in public altercations with the fascist movement. Why presume politics would interfere with their own lives?

Cacioppo relished the chance to bring the production to life in Southwest Florida’s premier professional theater outlet, with guild talent from around the country. Yet the show will be in a venue with 393 seats—offering greater intimacy than in major performance halls that host Broadway touring productions. That allows Cacioppo to adopt an important stunt from early productions of Cabaret: A large mirror will turn on the audience, the ultimate moment of self-reflection.

He enjoys the fact that while the content of Cabaret remains edgy and provocative, it also happens to be “about the sexiest, greatest musical ever written.” The high-glamour show lures audiences in with a candy, Cacioppo says, that turns into a sour gum for audiences to chew on long after they go home.

Way Off Broadway

Of course, Florida Rep holds no monopoly on pushing limits. Many theater venues in the region will challenge audiences this year by stretching boundaries in humor and thought—sometimes with works never before performed for an audience.

Broadway Palm’s main theater holds its Broadway classics in a dinner-theater space. But the Fort Myers venue also has a smaller Off Broadway Palm stage. “People want to have more choice than just the big musicals,” says Paul Bernier, artistic director of The Off Broadway Palm Theatre and also of the Children’s Theatre.

Performances in the more modest space still promise entertainment—but not necessarily family entertainment. “We want to get away with more different subject matters,” Bernier adds. “It’s a harder PG-13 rating. There’s a little more language. We can be a little edgier in that space.”

Starting in March, the Off Broadway Palm hosts Rise Up, O Men, the sixth play in the Church Basement Ladies series about a Southern church community. Come June, it welcomes The Savannah Sipping Society, another play about Southern culture that sees a collection of women discussing the intricacies of their lives during happy hour.

Bernier himself starred last year in the blue humor-rich Right Bed, Wrong Husband—although he concedes that script was mainly picked for its ability to fill seats. Certainly, market pressures affect the region’s black box (experimental theater) ticket offices the same way it shapes programming decisions for the major venues. “I’d love to do a heavy drama,” Bernier notes, “but people won’t come.”

The region is also home to such incubators of edginess as The Laboratory Theater of Florida, and to Florida Gulf Coast University’s TheatreLab drama program. Events coordinator Johanna Hoch says FGCU students work on new material from conception to stage to debut about once a year. For 2018, young actors are prepping for the premiere of Your Florida Fantasy, a new play inspired by Southwest Florida’s beauty.

Professor Barry Cavin and select students chose the play last summer. They’ve worked with playwright Zachary Michael Jack to complete the script and put it in front of its first audience April 13-22. The story about tech entrepreneurship and Florida tourism veers in unusual rom-com directions. “This is about the newest new work you can do,” Hoch says. “It’s not often you get to work on something virtually from the beginning.”

The final work promises to be as fresh as the typical Off Broadway Palm show is funny. It is evident through their choices of shows that area theaters are determined to entertain and to ascertain a place in their viewers’ hearts and in their heads. 

Southwest Florida Theater Information

Florida Repertory Theatre

2267 Bay St.
Fort Myers

Broadway Palm Dinner Theater

1380 Colonial Blvd.
Fort Myers

The Laboratory Theater of Florida

1634 Woodford Ave.
Fort Myers

Florida Gulf Coast University TheatreLab

10501 FGCU Blvd. S.
Arts Complex
Fort Myers

Alliance for the Arts’ Theatre Conspiracy

10091 McGregor Blvd.
Fort Myers

Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall

13350 FSW Parkway
Fort Myers

Cultural Park Theater

528 Cultural Park Blvd.
Cape Coral

Gulfshore Playhouse

755 8th Ave. South

Naples Players Sugden Community Theatre

701 5th Ave. S.

Written by Jacob Ogles, a freelance writer and frequent contributor to TOTI Media.