December 20, 2014

Culture Watch: Women Take Center Stage

Florida Rep has a run of female-dominated productions this season, reflecting their evolving roles in current society.

It wasn’t intentional. No one said, “Hey let’s try this.” But when the schedule was finished, the folks at Florida Rep realized they had put together something special—a string of plays with strong female leads.

When you think of the great parts in theater—Willy Loman, Hamlet,Stanley Kowalski, Uncle Vanya—it’s a man’s world. Even those parts that did create memorable roles for women, think Hedda Gabler and Blanche Dubois, often reduced them into two camps—the manipulators and the manipulated.

And Florida Rep’s run of female dominated theater started out that way last month with The Little Foxes, Lillian Hellman’s story of a woman who feels she must turn to drastic measures to get a piece of the family fortune.

But the remaining plays on the schedule offer a more nuanced look at the American female experience in ways that represent a shift that’s been happening in theater for the past half decade.

“Theater tries to reflect the truth,” says Jason Parrish, Florida Rep’s associate director. “Society has changed greatly. Writers have started to reflect society.”

The slate of shows this winter/spring includes two dramas—the first a story of a war photographer struggling to adapt to her life outside a combat zone (Time Stands Still through Feb. 16) and one of a family struggling with an old wound reopened by a daughter’s upcoming memoir (Other Desert Cities March 15 to April 6). Two comedies with strong female roles also take the stage with Miracle on South Division Street (Feb. 8 to March 2) and Educating Rita (April 19 to May 5). Only a run of the Broadway classic The Fantasticks (March 22 to April 28), which helped make Jerry Orbach a star, breaks up the mood.

Florida Rep head Bob Cacioppo says his only mission when trying to figure out a season is looking for excellent plays, noting that both Time Stands Still and Other Desert Cities are Pulitzer finalists and Tony nominees and on the schedules of companies around the country.

“These are plays that you connect with and that take you in places you don’t expect,” he says. “That they happen to have strong women is just a bonus. Before 1970, if plays like this had 10 characters, it would be eight men and two women.

“But it’s not like that now. We live in a more equal society. Both (sexes) have egos. You are seeing plays written that explore that.”

While Florida Rep fans shouldn’t expect another run like this next season or any time soon, Cacioppo did mention a lot of other great plays he’s hoping to stage at some point in the future (Venus in Fur, Clybourne Park, 4,000 Miles). And Parrish points out the company has a great stable of women, including Carrie Lund, Sara Morsey and Rachel Burttram, ready to take on meaty roles.

“Usually, it’s tough to find a play with something for more than one of them,” Parrish says. “But in Other Desert Cities, there are three formidable roles. It was really a no-brainer for us.”

Must See of the Month

Naples International Art, Antique & Jewelry Show

Although the Naples International Art, Antique & Jewelry Show is geared toward making sales, you don’t need an avalanche of zeros in your bank account to enjoy it. I like to think of it as an eclectic travelling museum where you don’t know what’s going to be around the corner. Last year the exhibition filled 50,000 square feet with fine art, antiques, jewelry, contemporary art, glass and more. For $15 you can see a variety of art and artifacts likely destined for someone’s home rather than in a museum near you. A pretty good bargain if you ask me. Feb. 7-11, naplesshow.com.

—JF

Artist Profile

Mission: Opera Star

Vanessa Tompkins, singer, Ave Maria University

With aqua-blue eyes and fair skin, Vanessa Tompkins has the good looks she’ll need to be an opera star. Years of ballet lessons have given her the grace to match. Ultimately though, it’s her soprano pipes and hard work that will determine how far Tompkins’ star rises. “I think she could make it; she has the kind of dedication she’ll need and I think she could be very competitive,” says Dr. Timothy McDonnell, chairman of Ave Maria’s music department. He adds, “With these things, it’s a combination of positive circumstances, talent and dedication.”McDonnell has always known that Tompkins had star power. After watching her audition as a high school senior, McDonnell knew she would excel at the small Catholic university. Determined to add her to his roster, McDonnell turned on the old recruiting charm. At the time, Tompkins had been leaning toward Indiana University, a big-name music school. McDonnell, however, convinced Tompkins—a Tampa area native—that a smaller school like Ave Maria might offer more solo opportunities. And it certainly has. Her résumé lists line item after line item of solos she has performed. They roll off the page like movie credits at the end of a film. The difference, of course, is that she’s the star on every single line. For the past four years, Ave Maria has served as a warm incubator for Tompkins’ talent, feeding her opportunities and giving her the nourishment needed to grow her instrument. “(McDonnell) really looks at your voice as a precious gift,” Tompkins says. “He wants to bring out the song inside you.” “There are sounds in the instruments that she’s found over these past few years,” McDonnell adds. “It’s amazing what time can do for young voices; as it ages, it’s almost like a fermentation process.” And Tompkins seems to be a particularly fine varietal, bound to only get better with time. “My dream is to become an opera singer and travel around Europe. That would be amazing,” she says. “But right now I’m focusing on getting into graduate school.”

—A.C. Shilton

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