Thursday, May 12, 2011

Cha-Cha of a Camel Spider

A Beautiful, Poetic “Cha-Cha of a Camel Spider”

By Skip Sheffield

“Some people believe poetry can alter reality,” says Bethany, the plucky heroine of “The Cha-Cha of a Camel Spider,” the final play of Florida Stage’s 24th season, through June 5 at Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. By play’s end I felt inclined to agree.
Carter W. Lewis’s “Camel Spider” is about the nasty business of war and its collateral damage, but it also celebrates the beauty of the spoken and sung word.
As a one-time poet and lifelong journalist I greatly admire the tapestry of gritty reality and gauzy fantasy Lewis has woven out of thin air, with a minimum of hocus-pocus and special effects. The effect is achieved through the sympathetic, knowing guidance of director Louis Tyrrell and a wonderful cast, his fully inhabiting his or her character.
Bethany is played by newcomer Elizabeth Birkenmeier, a tiny, highly-intelligent and gifted actress currently working on her MFA at Carnegie Mellon school of Drama.
Bethany is 22, but Birkenmeier appears even younger; a childlike waif adrift in a cruel, harsh world.
The setting is a stark, unspecified military training facility somewhere in the USA. Bethany is seeking to discover the truth about her father, who was killed by “friendly fire” in Afghanistan.
I have always appreciated the irony of the term “friendly fire.” The end result is the same as hostile fire: injury and/or death. The weapons just happened to be in the hands of the soldiers who are supposed to be on your side.
In the case of Bethany and her deceased father, two of the soldiers who were on his side were eyewitnesses to the incident.
Stack (Todd Allen Durkin) and Denny (Eric Mendenhall) are “soldiers of fortune” to express it euphemistically, or mercenaries, to be more direct.
Stack is older and more cynical. Denny still clings to youthful idealism and conscience.
Bethany will use her womanly and poetic wiles to touch the men and appeal to their sense of decency. A lot is at stake. Bethany racked up a bill of $200,000 earning a BFA in “spoken word poetry,” and there is a wrongful death insurance policy.
They didn’t have such a thing as a spoken word degree when I was in college. It was called English Literature.
In the context of this play the term is perfect, because in between her cross-examination of the soldiers, Bethany embarks on wild flights of poetic fantasy.
There are two other characters: Bethany’s protective mother Loretta (Laura Turnbull), representing practical reality, and Ahmad Ahmadazi (Antonio Amadeo), an Afghan taxi driver who inhabits a realm somewhere between the reality of driving a cab and the dream world of the lyrics of the British musical group Led Zepplin. Ahmad also provides much-needed comic relief.
How this all melds together is hard to explain, but trust me: it works. “Camel Spider” is the most fantastic piece of theater I’ve seen so far in 2011. I think it is by far the most beautiful offering of Florida Stage’s 24th season, and a note-perfect finale for the first season at Kravis.
Tickets are $25 and up. Call 561-832-7469 or visit

A Deep, Beautiful and Joyous “Color Purple”

“The Color Purple” is also a beautiful show, continuing through Sunday at Kravis Center in the larger Dreyfoos Hall, but that beauty is laced with pain and suffering and ultimate triumph.
Part of the Kravis on Broadway series, “The Color Purple” is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Alice Walker movie and the Steven Spielberg film, as combined by playwright Marsha Norman.
Set in Georgia from 1909-1949, “Purple” is the story of two black sisters: Celie (Dayna Jarae Dantzler) and Nettie (Traci Allen).
Celie has the misfortune of being impregnated twice while young and forced into an abusive relationship with a tyrant called Pa Mark Hall). Her children are taken from her, and Celie is reduced to what amounts to slavery.
Sister Nettie on the other hand gets an education and goes to Africa as a missionary.
“Purple” is the story of Celie’s trials and sorrows, portrayed beautifully through song and dance. It is also the story of Celie’s friendship and love for Shug Avery (Tarena Augustine), a beautiful club singer who drifts in and out of her life and encourages her liberation.
“Purple” is filled with a large cast of colorful characters, in the best sense of the word, with many very funny and joyous moments balancing the drama.
Dayna Jarae Dantzler is a performer who grows before your eyes both in stature and voice, until by the finale she is a tiny, triumphant dynamo capable of raising the rafters of that beautiful hall. Catch it, as they say, while you can.
Tickets are $25 up. Call 800-KRAVIS-1 or go to

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