A lot has changed since Andy Rogow’s Island City Stage presented its first production, Tom Jacobson’s “The Twentieth Century Way” at Empire Stage in Fort Lauderdale.
The cramped space with hardly a stage and ‘80s track lighting barely held 30 patrons, all seated on cheap stackable chairs and stained second-hand leather couches. Mike Westrich and Clay Cartland delivered solid performances and the fledgling LGBT-themed theater company seemed set to deliver for the community.
Now, fast-forward 10 years: The multiple Carbonell Award-winning, critically acclaimed company is opening its anniversary season with a revival of that same play. Island City Stage has a new, larger and dedicated home in Wilton Manors, a theater with a proper stage and seating, state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems. Cartland is back, himself a Carbonell-winner and one of the most in-demand actors in South Florida, and he is rejoined by director Michael Leeds.
The words are the same, but the experience has been transformed in this revisited production that would fare well Off Broadway and rival any other professional theater across the country.
An audition for a vaudeville show provides the premise for this true story of two actors who were hired by Long Beach police as “vice specialists” in 1914 to root out “sexual perverts and deviants.”
Lurking in public restrooms and bathhouses, the actors enticed likely suspects into exposing themselves — possible thanks to the invention of the zipper (“the twentieth century way”) — and then arrested them after marking their members with indelible ink.
A hefty fine and jail time soon followed, and at least one of the men they entrapped committed suicide. The police chief credited the pair with ridding the city of a “dangerous class which threatened the morals of the youth of the community,” and the men collected $15 for each arrest.
While waiting for their “audition,” Jacobson’s play sends Brown (Cartland) and Warren (Vieites) into a dizzying series of improvised scenes to test their acting (and manly) prowess. They portray police, reporters, the so-called “vagrants” and more from the famed Long Beach case, sometimes pausing to speak as themselves and all with the help of the props on hand for the audition.
Both Cartland and Vieites display their acting mettle in this nonstop, 90-minute romp, transforming seamlessly, yet clearly from character to character. And set designer Ardean Landhuis earns praise for transforming the space into a credible vaudeville stage with an impressive proscenium arch.
It was satisfying to compare the changes that have occurred at Island City Stage over the past decade, even when reminded it sadly took more than 60 years to overturn the California anti-sodomy law that Brown and Warren’s work encouraged.
Island City Stage, 2304 N. Dixie Hwy. in Wilton Manors, presents Tom Jacobson’s “The Twentieth Century Way” through Oct. 31. Tickets are $35 at IslandCityStage.org.