Center Stage: Record-breaking ‘Native Gardens’ extended at box office
Jason Parrish, Florida Repertory Theatre’s associate artistic director, welcomed a packed audience to a recent offering of “Native Gardens,” by Karen Zacarias,” at the Artstage Studio Theatre. This comedy about new neighbors planted in an old neighborhood offers a comedic take on current events, but with an optimistic, laugh-out-loud, endearing message; much like Robert Frost’s poem “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, set in New England. Things change when dealing with fences in Washington, D.C., where erecting a new barrier is more about strengthening our separate differences.
This play reminded this viewer of that great American TV Sitcom, “All In the Family,” which always ended on a compassionate, human note. This fast-paced comedy, while focusing on the “isms” (racism, sexism, ageism, as well as cultural superiorism) also observed that harmony cannot exist without some willingness to delve into self-examination, which opens the door to the possibility of change on either side of the fence. So, what’s really at stake? Well for one thing, personal issues of boundaries both of traditions as well as ownership. Questions like how much are the new transplants expected to change in order to grow and thrive in the old existing culture? How much is the “old guard” expected to bend to accommodate the new folks in the neighborhood? (Doesn’t this all have a familiar ring to it; kind of like the nightly news?)
Nationally-acclaimed Director Stefan Novinski has chosen to take his talented cast, along with playwright Zacarias’ rich comic material, weave it together to form a hilarious tapestry for the audience to relish every poke, jab and punch line as the neighbors’ war of words escalates faster and harder. Fight Director Kady C. Janes has managed to choreograph giddy, slap stick movement worthy of a Marx Brothers movie routine. While set designer Ray Recht created an almost visual human character with his garden design. The dead leaves, messy lawn, creepy garden gnome of the newcomers’ garden really contrast meaningfully with the well-tended, vibrant flower beds of the Butley’s precise horticultural masterpiece.
The four leading roles are so well played that they make the audience believe that these are all people we know and can relate to. Carol Halstead, as Virginia Butley, made an auspicious Florida Rep debut, switching from a patrician Washingtonian to a Polish/American gal from the wrong side of Buffalo New York when rubbed the wrong way. While Florida Rep regular V. Craig Hedenrich makes difficult transitions from playing Frank Butley with the tongue-in-cheek sense of humor into a whining, willful, tough-as-nails, opponent seamlessly and easily. (That’s good, skilled, acting folks.) As the new neighborhood intruders, we have Anthony Michael Martinez and Jennifer Paredes (both of whom are also making their Florida Rep debuts). Both of these professional Broadway actors were at the top of their game playing the energetic new-to-the-neighborhood folks, whose optimism turns hard when push comes to shove. Their transitions were so smooth that the audience never realizes what acting skills it takes to make these shifts.
Acknowledgements must also be given to the ensemble players, Alberto Gayoso, Isabella Cintron and Chance Cintron, who function as a landscaping crew hired to work on the gardens; their silent comments by physical labor add yet another color to deepening the enjoyment of this comic play; going on to prove good acting doesn’t necessarily need words.
This play is a real comic treasure that is resonating with the Fort Myers audiences, so much so that it is already breaking box office records and has been extended until May 19 due to demand. So, act now by calling the box office at 239-332-4488. Remember when you call to remind ’em Marsha sent you.