Friday, May 13, 2011

Florida Stage: The Cha-Cha of a Camel Spider (5 reviews)

Florida Stage opened its production of The Cha-Cha of a Camel Spider on May 4, 2011.
An electric and timely new play from Carter W. Lewis, the author of The Storytelling Ability of a Boy. What happens when “soldiers of fortune” outnumber our army troops? Fortified with a BFA in Slam Poetry Performance, a young woman finds herself caught up in a frightening and darkly comic journey with two rogue mercenary soldiers and a vaguely magical Afghani cab driver who has a penchant for Led Zeppelin.
Louis Tyrell directed a cast that included Elizabeth Birkenmeier, Laura Turnbull, Todd Allen Durkin, Eric Mendenhall, and Antonio Amadeo.

John Thomason relates the entire story of the play, getting mired in various details, and eventually gets around to reviewing the play for the Broward/Palm Beach New Time;
Like Lewis' last effort for Florida Stage, The Storytelling Ability of a Boy, Cha-Cha is about the power of youthful artistic expression to overcome the violence surrounding us — an admirable if naive proposition that Lewis conveys well. The wordplay-infused slam poetry that Bethany uses to bend bullets, warp time, and spread Zeppelin could have been spat by an HBO def poet. The acting kudos go mostly to Durkin, though. If Amadeo's and Turnbull's solid performances are imbued with familiar tics that trigger memories of past performances, Durkin's take on his brutal, lonely soldier of fortune is altogether new; he is emotionally unrecognizable in the part.
Hap Erstein reviewed for The Palm Beach Post:
Ostensibly a darkly comic rant about America’s use of mercenary private armies, it becomes instead a surreal exercise in the transporting power of verbal poetry. Or maybe the play was always about the potency of the arts, and the initial emphasis on Blackwater-like combat forces is just an attempt to misdirect us.
The theatrical journey begins in the offices of "e," a corporate military training facility, where Loretta Hanrahan (an aptly stressed-out Laura Turnbull) and her daughter Bethany (verbally nimble Elizabeth Birkenmeier), a recent college graduate with a virtually worthless degree in spoken word poetry, are hacking into the company’s computer system to ensure they receive the death benefits owed them.
Even if he is steamed, Lewis has not forgotten the value of comedy nor vivid characters. Hanrahan’s hit men, Stack and Denny (Todd Allen Durkin and Eric Mendenhall), are bitter buddies, demoted to the dull purgatory of security detail at stateside "e" headquarters.
The guards are an amusing, if grouchy and timid pair, but even better is Muslim Ahmad Ahmadazai, a wisecracking cabbie who may actually be dead. It is that kind of play. As played with dry wit by Antonio Amadeo, the character all but steals the show, or at least deserves his own spin-off script.
Among the things that are clear: Director Louis Tyrrell delivers everything Lewis could hope for in this world-premiere production and Victor A. Becker’s scenic design cleverly goes from glossy corporate offices to a wilting greenhouse in another showy display of Florida Stage’s new home.
Christine Dolen reviewed for The Miami Herald:
Lewis has crafted some funny, observant dialogue for Cha-Cha, and he has also cooked up poetry for Bethany that is deliberately bad (her natural state) and pointedly deep (her “inspiration” flowing from an artificial heart removed from a torture subject). Bethany refers to herself as the poet-avenger and the iambic pen-Terminator. But as played by the teenage-looking Birkenmeier (an actress-playwright who is currently working on a master’s degree), the poet wannabe registers as a lost, wounded kid.
Turnbull has little to do but shout... Durkin’s Stack is faux-fierce and funny; Mendenhall’s Denny is a guy trying to remember what it felt like to be young and alive. Given what the other actors have to work with, Amadeo easily walks away with the play, creating a full, rich, mysterious character who is simply adorable.
Set designer Victor A. Becker creates, for the play’s final location, a beautifully weathered greenhouse jam-packed with plants, a place belonging to Denny’s grandma. Why do Denny and Stack take the kidnapped Bethany there? Why does Ahmad show up? Why does raging Loretta wait outside? Why does the play end with a sitcom-pretty, happily-ever-after tableau?

These and way too many other questions are never clearly, satisfyingly answered in The Cha-Cha of a Camel Spider.
John Lariviere reviewed for Talkin' Broadway:
Though the set is serviceable, the production is lacking the impressive nature of other recent Florida Stage sets such as that for Cane.
Todd Allen Durkin tries a bit too hard to be the luggish, macho Stack. He is convincing most of the time, but sometimes is on the verge of a "Saturday Night Live" caricature, puffing out his belly and strutting about. This might have worked better if the actor playing his sidekick Denny were following the same style, but Eric Mendenhall's portrayal is much more realistic.
Laura Turnbull is interesting and impactful as Loretta, but we do not get enough time with her on stage.
Elizabeth Birkenmeier captures the artsy flavor of her character Bethany, and some of her yearning, but misses some of the tenderness that would make this character more relatable...
The best performance in the play is Antonio Amadeo as Afghani cab driver Ahmad Ahmadazai... His comedic timing in his responses to his captors and his observations on life are the most entertaining things in this production. They are done with a passive playfulness that still drives home his valid points.
The Cha-Cha of a Camel Spider is not without its problems. There is a mixture of the use of magic or altered reality, flashbacks and overt symbolism... There is also so much... "slam poetry" that it becomes a bit indulgent, and stops moving the plot forward... While Carter Lewis has chosen a worthy subject, he loses his grasp on it by mixing together too many conflicting elements and no palpable resolution.
Ron Levitt reviewed for ENV Magazine:
“Wow-manship” neatly fits the bill for Carter W. Lewis’ latest play – The Cha-Cha of a Camel Spider — currently weaving its spell at its Florida Stage premiere....For simplification, let’s refer to Lewis’ latest play as CHA, but there is nothing simple about this production.
Topnotch director Lewis Tyrrell once again utilizes his skills to fine-tune this production. That includes utilizing his unusually large set at Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse to give credibility and reality to a story.
Long after you leave the theatre will you be talking about Antonio Amadeo as the music-loving Afghani cab driver. The Carbonell award-winning actor perfectly captures this character’s personality and spirit, adding humor to a dramatic event. It is a milestone portrayal of an American Muslim who has been in the States for 22 years, but is still considered a stranger (or worse yet, a terrorist).

Ditto for two other award-winning actors – Laura Turnbull (one of Florida’s most beloved performers ) as the widow of a slain Company man, and Todd Allen Durkin as one of the mercenaries. (“privileged thugs”). Durkin – fresh off a noteworthy performance at Mosaic in The Irish Curse – once again shines in a role demanding a streak of violence and bravado. Relative newcomers Mendenhall and Birkenmeier (the protagonist who believes her poetry and love of life can make the world a better place) apparently benefited from being part of this star ensemble. Both give excellent performances.
Credit Victor A. Becker for outstanding scenic design, Erin Amico for the costumes, sound by Matt Kelly and especially Suzanne M. Jones for effective lighting. All of this technical support helps bring the military facility to life at the West Palm Beach theatrical venue.
The Cha-Cha of a Camel Spider plays through June 4 at Florida Stage.


  1. What happened to Hap's review?!

  2. Hmm. It must have gotten lost in the Blogger outage. I'll dig around for it.

  3. That's what she said.