Theatrically, South Florida is a place where tried-and-true shows rule, from time-tested American classics to recent buzzed-about plays from New York. The region’s playwrights, happily, have upped our appetite for original fare. But work that’s more experimental or unusual in form is much harder to find.
Unless you go to a Mad Cat show.
Founder-artistic director Paul Tei has been pushing the stylistic envelope almost since the company was formed 14 years ago. Mad Cat has done the occasional play by Neil LaBute, Christopher Durang, Samuel Beckett and other well-known playwrights, but far more frequently Tei has opted for creating original work embracing multimedia elements and a bold aesthetic.
Devised by members of the London-based Superbolt Theatre, Centralia imagines what might happen if the last four residents of a ruined Pennsylvania town went on the road to share their stories. Centralia and its tragedy, you should know, are real: The burning of trash at a landfill in 1962 started a fire in a vast coal vein running under the town, a fire that is still burning. Cracks in the earth, sinkholes and lethal levels of carbon monoxide eventually caused most of the residents to flee, and numerous buildings have been razed.
The show’s little traveling band weaves together anecdotes, dramatic reenactments, musical numbers and interpretive dance to convey a sad story with heart and humor. Centralia is surprisingly funny, sometimes hilarious. Who would think to put a lip-synching group dance to Cher’s Believe into a show about a fire that wiped out a town? Superbolt and now Mad Cat.
The cast — Troy Davidson as Alistair, Theo Reyna as Norman, Bonnie Sherman as Jennyfer and versatile musician-composer Steph Taylor — isn’t supposed to come off as a polished theatrical troupe. These are supposed to be stubborn, down-to-earth Pennsylvanians telling their stories with an amateur’s charm and passion. Under Tei’s direction, Mad Cat’s quartet of fine pros finds subtle ways to convey that let’s-put-on-a-show spirit while skillfully bringing to life each of Centralia’s disparate segments.
The play isn’t a long one, so describing its text or sequences in detail wouldn’t be fair to future audiences. Just know that Ken dolls, three pairs of pale orange tennis shoes, a symbolic red orb and an adapted Kenny Rogers album cover figure into the action. So do small replicas of Centralia buildings and a pipe that periodically spews scary smoke.
Set designer Tei, costume designer Karelle Levy, lighting designer Melissa Santiago Keenan, sound designer Matt Corey and choreographer Michele Zohn artfully tailor their work to fit the show’s homespun vibe.