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Review: Living Drama Theatre Proves a Show Still Shines Even WHILE THE LIGHTS WERE OUT

Living Drama Theatre defines the space more than its modest building would suggest

Review: Living Drama Theatre Proves a Show Still Shines Even WHILE THE LIGHTS WERE OUT

The show must go on. The eternal mantra of anyone whose calling led them to a role in front of or behind the proverbial red curtain. Many assume that "the show must go on" relates to when something wrong happens on the stage. Actors push through, trying to distract an audience from a mistake. But this phrase, this state of mind, is an allegory for the fleeting life of the theatrical experience as well.

Our lives have largely been on pause since the global pandemic began. Theatres, especially, have been hurt by the entirety of their way of life - communal gatherings for an extended time within a room - grinding suddenly to a halt. Big-name theatres on the Great White Way shut their doors and only now are making plans for a fall comeback. But it's the community theatres that have been hit much harder. Their pockets don't run as deep, their volunteer staff aren't always paid. Much of the support in community theatre comes from the community. I've seen firsthand how several theatres made adjustments - temporary at first, perhaps now permanent in some respects - to adhere to the new lingo that became pandemic vernacular: social distancing, mask mandates, regularly tested performers. Orlando Shakes moved their productions to outdoor venues. Garden Theatre crafted masked, socially-distant choreography for their musicals. Mad Cow Theatre opted for online presentations. Anything that could preserve some semblance of the theatrical experience, these theatres found a way.

Some theatres have adjusted in more unexpected ways. Moonlight Players in Clermont vacated their rented space earlier than planned because of the pandemic. They continued to create productions in other spaces, just no longer in The Warehouse Theatre that they called home for twenty years. A building does not define a theatre, the people do. Four walls and a ceiling or not, they find a way to ensure that, indeed, the show must go on. That phrase was echoing in my mind the night the lights went out in Eustis, as my first foray at the Living Drama Theatre took me to a bourgeoisie mansion somewhere on a cliffside in Bermuda, the setting of a 1988 play WHILE THE LIGHTS WERE OUT. And Living Drama Theatre defines the space more than its modest building would suggest.

You wouldn't expect to find a theatre in this particular part of town. The new buildings that surround it are modern and commercial, typical corporate structures of a suburban shopping plaza. A Big Lots! centers the plaza as an anchor, with small, independent eateries flanking it. Yet, once you turn a corner, practically hidden from view, you're face to face with the restored, facade of the original 1968 building. It's like a real-life easter egg: a joyful discovery that some bygone relic of the past is still here, having endured for the past fifty-plus years with the history written on its walls. The original box office juts out, its own tiny room as a vestige of another time. The lobby is modest, a small sitting area, framed photos of the original owners, and a concessions stand with your usual movie theatre staples. Then, the double-doors open, and a phrase familiar to many a "Doctor Who" fan gets uttered: "It's bigger on the inside." It's new and shiny again, it's a place people want to return to, time and again. The show must go on.

Living Drama Theatre is a testament to the tenacity and vision of the Duarte family. They realized a newfound potential for the space, formerly the Plaza Theatre and Florida Sunshine Opry. Two lives were not enough for this Eustis staple, and after a year's worth of renovations, a third life began in the four walls: Living Drama Theatre. It became a labor of love, a passion project for the entire family. They kicked off the opening of the theatre with the stage comedy Southern Fried Funeral. This was their way of keeping the arts in Eustis, to provide their community with the kind of lighthearted, family-oriented fun that makes theatre so exciting. And then, in the midst of their inaugural season, the world shut down.

Over a year later, and I've just entered the narrative of the Living Drama. I'm answering an e-mail from a Moonlight Player, Kayleigh Mollycheck, who has invited me to check out the production of WHILE THE LIGHTS WERE OUT at the Living Drama Theatre. It's a family-run theatre, she tells me, and they put their heart into every aspect of it. Her e-mail comes at just the right time; I'd opted not to return to theatrical shows until I'd been fully vaccinated. With the second dose in my system, I'm ready to return. Thus, I respond yes, and make plans to see WHILE THE LIGHTS WERE OUT on the opening night of its two-weekend run.

The three-act show takes its time as its extended first act has the unenviable task of introducing fourteen characters and their relationships to each other. I'll do my best to break it down. Clive Wickenham (Joshua Hernandez) is a successful neurosurgeon who has invited family and friends to his house to celebrate the engagement of his son Algernon (Luke Bane) to eminent fashion designer Bibi Cavendish (Victoria Duarte). His wife Lady Monica (Kayleigh Mollycheck) has also invited socialite Jasmine Perdoo (Madison Sawyer), as well as her adopted sister Ferdonia Custardine (Audra Schubert) and niece Chloe (Laura Zeng). Despite a rocky history, Bibi's former fiance Pierre Pourri (Adam Gross) has also garnered an invitation, being a close friend of Clive's. Algernon and his "cousin" Chloe are also carrying on a secret affair, while Pierre has been attempting to get back together with Bibi.

The afternoon does not go smoothly for anyone involved as Detective Inspector Benjamin Braddock (Aaron Gross) and his assistant Alma Threedle (Kenyatta Edwards) have also been called in to check on a suspicious note sent from the Wickenham estate to the police station. The family's help - maid Mimosa (Diaundra LaPorte), housekeeper Nancy (Emma Jones), and butler Remley (Jim Earnest) - round out the cast, as everyone gathers together in the living room when a storm causes the lights to go out. In the darkness, a shot rings out, a struggle ensues, and a murder occurs. When the lights return, a mysterious blonde (Marann K Curtis) is discovered holding a bloodied knife, despite the dead body on the stage having been strangled to death.

Over the next two acts, Braddock and Threedle attempt to figure out what happened not just while the lights were out, but by also uncovering everyone's relationship to the other and any possible motivations for murder. The story wears many hats in its approach. Traditionally, it's a cozy mystery much akin to an episode of "Murder, She Wrote" or a Miss Marple novel. The stagey setting of a living room harkens back to Victorian plays, the drawing room dramas that were the bread and butter of such popular plays like The Importance of Being Earnest. Finally, the entire play wears a tilted beanie of comedy. It's a farce that lampshades the two previous genres through every plot point, every revelation, every icy-tongued barb exchanged between the characters.

I recognized a couple faces among the cast as crossovers from the Moonlight Players. Hernandez and Mollycheck previously co-starred in the fall 2019 production of Dial M for Murder, a play I was fortunate enough to attend during its closing weekend. More familiar with their work in that play made me delight in seeing them play a different kind of coupling here, especially as Lady Monica has a lot more bite than the ingenue role of Margot. Likewise, Hernandez is tasked with a larger, leading role here compared to his supporting position in Murder. The more theatres I venture out to see in Central Florida, the more likely there will be overlap in the talent pool. It's always great to see familiar faces pop up in new productions, as it showcases the versatility of the performers in tackling roles different from those I'd seen before.

Still, the best thing about community theatre, in my opinion, is that it brings together the talents of all levels. With the right direction, all their performances come together seamlessly and consistent to each other. In WHILE THE LIGHTS WERE OUT, we see such an example with a stage veteran like Jim Earnest occasionally sharing time on the stage with high school graduate Luke Bane, whose primary scene partner is Victoria Duarte, who herself holds a degree in theatre. Yet all three come across naturally within their roles when the scene calls for drama (between Bane and Duarte) or comedy (a bit of physical slapstick with Earnest and Bane). With an ensemble of fourteen players, not to mention creating a lighting scheme that complements them all, a strong hand at direction is needed in order to ensure all on stage giving more than their personal best. They need to deliver even if mistakes are made.

One mistake was made, which I found as funny as anything scripted. When Chloe Custardine questioned Detective Inspector Benjamin Braddock about how anyone could have poisoned the whiskey, performer Laura Zeng accidentally flipped a couple words, rendering the line slightly confusing to the audience. Bane, who had the next line, ad-libbed in character as Algernon, "How many drinks have you had?", which Zeng shot back, "Fifty-thousand or so, I don't remember." The audience reacted as well to the improv as to the rest of the scene, as Algernon continued the questioning with Braddock. These kind of unscripted moments could easily be "let the earth swallow me up" moments, but both players handled the honest slip-up as casually and as professionally as the moment would allow, whilst still keeping true to their characters.

Directing this play is Michelle Duarte, mother of the company and the heart and soul of the theatre. On opening night, she wore a sparkly evening dress as she walked about, making sure everything was running smoothly. Living Drama may not be the St. James or the Lunt-Fontanne, but it's her theatre, and she was going to make sure the show opened in style. Indeed, its opening night was a success. Much of the audience consisted of Living Drama regulars - patrons often at the theatre for its Monday night country-music concerts - as well as members of the Eustis community showing their support for Duarte, whose battle with lupus has continued to take a toll on her health, a battle she knows she won't win. She knows the Living Drama Theatre will go on without her. But she carries on, with the motto of anyone who's ever set foot on a stage beating in her chest, "the show must go on." It's this motto that she endears within her performers and the production.

It's also the motto that, in a bittersweet sense of pandemic irony, might leave the audience wondering about a new mystery. Will the show actually go on past May? Living Drama Theatre's had its own personal drama these past few months as well. Having been forced to close for nine months during the pandemic, and performing shows at smaller capacities than before, this exorbitant loss of income may force the building itself to close by the end of the month. Orlando's eminent theatre critic Matt Palm goes into more detail in an Orlando Sentinel article that broke shortly before WHILE THE LIGHTS WERE OUT opened.

Next weekend is the second and last weekend for WHILE THE LIGHTS WERE OUT. And the weekend after that may be the last that Living Drama Theatre can call those four walls home. Central Florida is re-opening in a lot of ways that seemed unfathomable this time last year. It's heartrending that their doors might close when so many others are re-opening. Yet, even with the hardships this theatre has gone through, and the uncertainty of the future, all involved with WHILE THE LIGHTS WERE OUT made sure to go out on that stage and give it their all. They rose up, like a David to the mighty Goliath, to deliver entertainment for an audience that strives for it. They know what Living Drama Theatre means not just to the Duarte family, but to their community. It fulfills a need for the return to normalcy, to a night out on town, to those everlasting moments of joy that theatre brings. Living Drama Theatre may have risen from the proverbial ashes of two former theatrical buildings, but it does so because the theatre and the arts are an important part of the history of not just those four walls, but also to the future that Michelle Duarte will inevitably leave behind.

Tickets for WHILE THE LIGHTS were out can be purchased at the door or online via Living Drama Theatre's web site.

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From This Author - Albert Gutierrez