Nine lives 


Like Garfield on Ecstasy, Orlando theater is the cat that just won't stop climbing up your leg. Even as streetwise survivor Theatre Downtown slinks into its 15th year with an anniversary production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," its quasi-cousin the SoulFire Traveling Medicine Show is preparing to set out some tender vittles of its own at a cozy new space in attraction land.

Theatre Downtown lets its "Cat" out of the bag Friday, March 8. (Wait for the following evening's performance and kick in some extra cash, and you can join in a celebratory buffet.) One of seven Tennessee Williams works the theater has presented in its history, the show symbolizes the emphasis on American drama that has helped to keep TD a viable operation while the hunger for local theater has ebbed and flowed. But upon that thematic framework hangs a multitude of careful choices. By finding a workable balance between classic and original plays -- and between gravity and lightness -- the theater has been able to reconcile its artistic aspirations with fiscal necessity. It's a lesson that other, well-intentioned outfits have learned too late or not at all.

Board member Frank Hilgenberg, who directs "Cat," understands the pitfalls. "You don't always listen to that inner voice saying, 'We have to fill some seats or we're not going to be here," he says.

Listening to that voice has made Theatre Downtown a study in canny perseverance and self-reliance. Although the venue is no stranger to official assistance (thanks, United Arts), it has survived by cultivating a broad yet loyal base of fans whose ticket purchases and charitable donations are mightily responsible for keeping the ship afloat. That, too, is an example to follow as the promise of governmental arts funding becomes ever more ephemeral in a guns-and-butter economy.

"A lot of what we do doesn't necessarily depend on the grant process, even though we benefit greatly from it," Hilgenberg says. "You can't have all of your eggs in one basket."

Soul food

SoulFire, meanwhile, is taking its eggs out of the basket and frying them up in a pan for public consumption. In early June, cofounders John DiDonna (a Theatre Downtown mainstay) and Rus Blackwell will open the SoulFire Theatre and Dinner Experience, a full-time interactive dinner theater located in the Lake Buena Vista Factory Stores on Apopka-Vineland Road. Its first show, "Memories and Mayhem: The Reunion of the Cursed Class of '78," is "kind of in the tradition of "Tony n' Tina's Wedding,"" Blackwell says. A second show will follow within the venue's first 30 to 60 days of operation, the next step in SoulFire's drive to be up to six scripts by 2003.

The dinner theater will fund the group's regular stagings of harder dramas -- like the current The Lonesome West at Zoë & Company -- that don't seem quite right when accompanied by a side of 'taters.

SoulFire's entree-handling initiative, Blackwell agrees, is emblematic of an Orlando talent pool that is looking "to generate income instead of waiting for government money." Rather than bide its time until tourist-tax revenues are parceled out, the troupe is going after those tourists' dollars directly, aiming to grab visitors by the wallet, by the appetite and God knows what else. To wit: SoulFire has put out a casting call that includes a request for "one male who likes to dress as a woman and can sing."

Good luck, freshman hash-slingers. I've had that same ad running in the personals for years and never heard a thing.

Return of the Sundance kids

The Feb. 28 screening at Valencia Community College of the student-shot film "Killing Time" was a sparsely attended affair, with members of the movie's own crew appearing to make up a good portion of the audience. Outsiders who got their first look at the picture (via a video transfer that, as director Anthony Jaswinski volunteered, was less than pristine) witnessed a reversal of the usual VCC cinema equation: "Killing Time"'s script and performances were generally more sophisticated than its technical attributes. No award-winner, perhaps, but the film did make it to the dramatic competition of the recent Sundance Film Festival, and it deserved a better welcome-home. Undeterred, industry pro Jaswinski and the school's camera-wielding student body will reteam for "Rocketship Nation," a Mean Streets-cum-surfer-movie they hope to shoot this summer in Cocoa Beach. Cowabunga.

Heavenly hillbillies

The Back Booth's leap into trash-culture performance art [The Green Room, Feb. 28] will begin with an April 4 evening of storytelling and hillbilly dancing by Jesco White, the star of the cult documentaries "Dancing Outlaw and Dancing Outlaw II: Jesco Goes to Hollywood." White will tell how his ill-fated voyage from Appalachian obscurity to indie idolatry and a guest shot on TV's "Roseanne" left him with a mere $1,000 and a trailer that was burned to the ground by jealous kin. The Riverbottom Nightmare Band will back up White's fleet-footed forays.

The following night, the BB will play host to a Thai Elvis impersonator who hails from Gainesville; he'll be joined by hick parodists Bithlo Mullet Revival and costume-crazed funkateer Shermy D. The wild weekend will conclude with an April 6 spoken-word performance by former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra. (Just don't ask him to autograph the T-shirt you bought at the DKs' recent, Jello-less House of Blues gig.)

Sometime in May, the Back Booth will present a stunt show by the devil-may-care cast of MTV's notorious "Jackass." Self-abuse poster boy Johnny Knoxville won't be there, but anticipate fiery feats of mutilation by co-conspirators Wee-man, Preston Lacy and Steve-O.

"He uses his ass as a dart board," the BB's Ryan Marshall enthuses of the latter daredevil. "He's just really careless with his body."

Forget his body; what's he going to do to that shiny new bar? Marshall claims to be unperturbed, hoping that the "Jackass" squad will give the spotless establishment an overdue breaking in. You kids just don't deserve nice things.


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