Christopher Demos-Brown is having a year.
True, 2018 has barely begun. But the Miami playwright and lawyer already has a rich creative docket mapped out.
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His newest work, “Wrongful Death and Other Circus Acts,” previews Thursday and opens Friday in a Zoetic Stage world premiere at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
On Jan. 30, “American Hero” — a retitled version of his award-winning play “Fear Up Harsh,” which premiered at Zoetic in 2013 — opens at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey, which has also commissioned another Demos-Brown play for its 2018-19 season. On April 21, the Maltz Jupiter Theatre will present a reading of “Coral Gables,” Demos-Brown’s new “prequel/sequel” to “Captiva,” which had its premiere at Zoetic in 2011. And in November, his play “American Son,” a searing set-in-Miami drama propelled by the deadly incidents involving police and black citizens, will open on Broadway after a successful premiere at Massachusetts’ Barrington Stage in 2016 and another acclaimed production at George Street in early 2017.
First, though, comes “Wrongful Death and Other Circus Acts.” Though the tone is what audiences have come to anticipate and appreciate about Demos-Brown’s writing — smart, darkly funny theater — the play and production are stylistically a departure for both the playwright and the company.
“When I started writing this five or six years ago, it was more serious. There were aspects of the practice of tort law that were so infuriating; there’s a really warped system. The monetization of pain and grief is really strange,” Demos-Brown observes.
In a script note, he explains that “wrongful death” is a legal term meaning the death of a human being as the result of a wrongful act of another person, entitling survivors to monetary compensation.
One particular comment, however, lingered in Demos-Brown’s mind and served as a spur to writing the play.
“I remember a conversation with a representative of Lloyd’s of London when I was working on an aircraft case. When you’re looking at compensation, you consider what the person did for a living, what future earnings would be, family members,” the playwright says. “He quipped that he’d just done a crash in India where he felt he was overpaying at $20,000 to $25,000 a person.”
Many of Demos-Brown’s plays involve legal elements (“let’s just be thankful I’m not an anthropologist,” he says), but “Wrongful Death” is his first centered on the practice of law. Over time, the script’s tone shifted.
“I’m comfortable in that serio-comic zone, so I thought, ‘Let me write a bitter satire,’” he recalls.
The play also changed through Demos-Brown’s collaborative creative process with Zoetic’s artistic director, Stuart Meltzer. Meltzer, whose company leads all South Florida theaters with 17 nominations for the 42nd annual Carbonell Awards (Meltzer himself got five, including best director of a play and a musical), saw something different in the “Wrongful Death” script.
“I heard what he wanted to do. Something risky, a different style,” Meltzer says. “You want to exploit the idea of these lawyers and their idea of money and the American dream. So you come up with the idea of an old-school circus, with what that entails: a lot of smoke and mirrors, clowns, a sense of danger.”
And so “Wrongful Death and Other Circus Acts” will be performed in the Arsht’s Carnival Studio Theater with the audience seated in the round. A circus ring serves as the playing area.
Death, a character portrayed by Vanessa Elise, appears as an aggressive chonga clown and ringmaster. As Laura Mendes, a lawyer looking for her first payday in excess of $100 million, Laura Turnbull addresses the “court” as she strolls around the ring carrying a parasol, as if she were walking a tightrope; later, Ryan Didato as her idealistic young associate David Marvin Schwedel does the same. Playing Darla Van Beck, Mendes’ equally aggressive and merciless opponent, Autumn Kioti makes her dramatic entrance unspooling from an aerialist’s silks.
“This play highlights one of Stuart’s strongest qualities as a director: He’s really inventive,” says Demos-Brown. “He has a real breadth of what he can do — comedies, dramas, musicals. And he’s written a few plays now. That makes him even better as a director. He’s more comfortable making suggestions and getting pushback.”
To a person, the actors are savoring the experience of being the first to inhabit such vivid characters. Although Turnbull, whose Laura Mendes routinely uses locker room language that would make nearly anyone blush (the Tweeter-in-Chief excepted), does wonder about something the playwright said to her.
“About six years ago at a Carbonell party, we were talking. He told me he was starting a play about a female attorney, and he had me in mind,” Turnbull says. “The character’s name is Laura. There were readings that I couldn’t do, so I didn’t have access to the script until I was cast. I thought, ‘Well. He heard my voice?’ But people compartmentalize who they think they are.”
She sees Mendes as “super intelligent. A ball buster. She’s a woman fighting in a man’s world, so you learn to speak their language, thinking maybe that’s what they respect. There’s a desperation to her. She has lost her marriage and is about to lose her business, so she’s fighting with everything she has.”
Kioti, a New York-based performance artist who grew up in South Florida and began here theater career here, appreciates the way Demos-Brown explores placing a value on human life. And she appreciates the chance to play a character very unlike herself.
“I work a lot in social justice as a performance artist, so it seems like kismet that I should be doing this,” she says. “The part is so evil, and I love it. I get cast as a lot of quirky, nice people. Darla is all power, all confidence, and I’m so not that as a human being. She’s like a hyena. A scavenger.”
Elise and Didato were students of Meltzer’s when they went to Miami’s New World School of the Arts. She worked with the director professionally on the Zoetic world premiere of Michael McKeever’s “Clark Gable Slept Here.” This is Didato’s first time being directed in a professional production by his former teacher, though he did originate the leading role in Meltzer’s Carbonell-nominated play “The Goldberg Variations” at Island City Stage in June.
“Four years ago when I was living in New York, Chris flew me down for a reading of the play. It was awesome. There were four readings in all, and I wouldn’t take no for an answer. I feel like Marvin is written in my voice,” Didato says.
“He dreams of doing great things and has that arc of being idealistic. But he becomes what he didn’t want to be. He chews people up and spits them out. It all comes down to money. … Going up against these strong women is so fun and so funny. Marvin is a little bitch.”
Elise, who also plays a client and an expert witness in “Wrongful Death,” is a Latina originating a role that was written with a black actor in mind. No sweat, she says.
“The youth here in Miami, that’s how we talk. I grew up in Allapattah. And I throw in some Spanish here and there,” she says.
As Death, the actor has scripted exchanges with audience members at each performance — but of course, only her words are written, and what she’ll say next depends on a theatergoer’s reactions.
Says Demos-Brown, “I do feel sorry for the one person she picks on the most.”
“I’m looking forward to that. I have a lot of experience with improvisation and interactive theater,” Elise says. “When I read the first draft of this play, I laughed so flipping hard. … But an important focus is to educate the audience. This will start a conversation.”
As for Meltzer?
“My goal is to have the audience on the edge of their seats the entire time,” he says.
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If you go
▪ What: ‘Wrongful Death and Other Circus Acts’ by Christopher Demos-Brown.
▪ Where: Zoetic Stage production in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.
▪ When: Previews 7:30 p.m. Thursday, opens 7:30 p.m. Friday; regular performances 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday (additional matinee 3 p.m. Jan. 20), through Feb. 4.
▪ Cost: $50 and $55.
▪ Information: 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org.