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There's drama off the field

Whether it's a Wallace Shawn play or a Verdi tribute, the bay area is brimming with theatrical and musical offerings.

By JOHN FLEMING

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 25, 2001


The irony is almost too delicious for words. Right around the corner from Raymond James Stadium a theatrical production is playing that represents a totally different mindset from that of the Super Bowl.

Where the Super Bowl is all about brute power on the gridiron, conspicuous consumption in the corporate boxes and mind-numbing TV advertising, The Designated Mourner laments the loss of a refined world in which poetry and the music of Schubert are what really count.

Perhaps nobody better exemplifies the polar opposite of jock culture than the author of the play, none other than Wallace Shawn, who is also a character actor famous for playing funny-looking little guys in movies like Manhattan and Clueless. He had a recurring role as a nebbish in Murphy Brown.

Shawn's play about the decline and fall of high culture is playing through Saturday at Gorilla Theatre, a cozy venue of adventurous drama improbably located about a mile from the stadium in Drew Park, a raffish neighborhood riddled with XXX-rated sex shops. The production features a superb three-person cast, directed by David Shapiro who also has the marathon part of Jack, the one character in the play who might feel right at home in a sports bar.

Gorilla is not alone in offering an alternative to the Super Bowl. There are a number of stage performances this weekend that should appeal to people who couldn't care less if Trent Dilfer is vindicated or not on Sunday.

At American Stage in St. Petersburg, From the Mississippi Delta opens on Friday. Written by Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland, it's a "dramatic biography" of three generations of African-American women in the South and Midwest from the 1940s to the '80s.

The play is directed by Bob Devin Jones, whose previous production at the St. Petersburg theater was an all-black adaptation of Strindberg's Miss Julie. This is the fifth time Jones has staged From the Mississippi Delta, whose cast includes Sharon Scott, Malanna D. Gray and Khanya Mkhize.

More African-American theater is on tap at the Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center, where Alison Wright appears Friday night in the one-woman show she wrote, Ms. Thang, Europe's That Way! Wright, a San Francisco-based performance artist whose parents live in Tarpon Springs, portrays a jazz singer on tour in Europe.

Community theater is flourishing in the bay area, and one of the most active companies, Eight O'Clock Theatre, is mounting a classic this weekend, Arsenic and Old Lace, at the Largo Cultural Center. The cast includes John Anania, a retired actor who made his Broadway debut in Victor Herbert's operetta, Sweethearts. He went on to appear with Lauren Bacall, Carol Channing, Julie Harris, Sid Caesar, Maureen O'Hara and other legends.

At the University of South Florida, Dancing with the Wheel of Ever Returning, a new dance-theater piece featuring American Indian and Australian Aboriginal performers, continues through Saturday in Theatre 2 on the Tampa campus.

Then there's the Verdi centenary, being marked by two performances of the great Italian opera composer's Requiem in Sarasota. Friday's performance begins at 10 minutes before 9 p.m., exactly the moment when Verdi died 100 years ago in Milan.

Sarasota Opera artistic director Victor DeRenzi, a devoted Verdian, conducts an 88-member orchestra, 200-voice chorus and soloists in the Mass for the dead at Van Wezel Hall. The program -- it also includes Verdi's last completed work, his setting of the Stabat Mater -- will be repeated on Super Bowl Sunday afternoon.

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