Raising the bar 

Been to Joe's NYC Bar lately? It's this cozy little tavern on West Church Street where the people are friendly and the conversation never lets up. If you've gone looking for it but couldn't find it, don't feel out of the loop: It isn't always there.

Joe's, you see, is not a real watering hole, but a self-contained, interactive-theater environment that arises from the mists of nothingness every now and again like a dipsomaniac's Brigadoon. It first materialized during last April's Orlando International Fringe Festival, opening its doors to adventurous theatergoers and affording them seven separate chances to hobnob with a gregarious barkeep named Gabriel and his stable of regular customers. (Shhhh! They're actors.) The place is back in business for eight more performance/participation sessions that begin Friday, Dec. 7.

Following a loosely scripted blueprint provided by writer/co-director Christian Kelty -- a Brooklyn native and Florida transplant who worked at SAK Comedy Lab for a few years -- the denizens of Joe's behave as real bar patrons would: They make small talk, they argue and they engage in endless debates on issues from the crucial (the true nature of love) to the trivial (which cartoon characters would be the most fun to sleep with). Audience involvement is actively courted: Cast members routinely call out to strangers like old friends, inviting them to play along by contributing an offhand comment or two. At this bar, if everybody knows your name, it's usually because one of them gave it to you.

The project is a creation of Temenos Ensemble Theater, a troupe of actors and improvisers with a nontraditional approach to drama. Since taking up temporary residency at 300 W. Church St. during Fringe 2001, the group has treated crowds in Pennsylvania and New York state to such productions as "Pinocchio Rex," a fusion of the Pinocchio and Oedipus Rex legends. But a return to Joe's was practically inevitable, Kelty says, particularly in light of the events of Sept. 11. The conceit that Joe's is actually located in Manhattan's East Village is one of the few immutables of the franchise; revisiting that environment post-tragedy -- at Christmas, yet -- was ground too fertile for Temenos to resist.

"The theme of the show is hope, I think," says Kelty, who also plays Gabriel. And while the eight new, all-different performances -- presented under the umbrella title "Joe's NYC Bar: So This is Christmas" -- won't exploit the familiar images of the World Trade Center's collapse, we will see how the lives of the bar's clientele have been forever altered.

Responding to audience feedback, Temenos also has made several seeming improvements to the concept. The cast has been reduced from 12 to seven players, and the list of topics to be dealt with "streamlined" to make the performances run a bit shorter. (How many hours do you really want to spend in a "bar" with no bathrooms?) Most important, Kelty has upended the ratio of scripted elements to improv, with the latter now outweighing the former by a wide margin. Last time, few folk felt comfortable enough to interrupt obviously preordained speeches with their own observations.

Sounds like the friendliest spot in town just got friendlier. No matter what impromptu opinion an attendee offers, Kelty promises, "Some character will agree with your point of view." Can you say that about every bar you've been to?

Mystery meet

Dec. 17 at Sleuths Mystery Dinner Show, four-fifths of the recently dormant Discount Comedy Outlet reconvene for their last area performance of the foreseeable future. The troupe's Brian Bradley and Audrey Kearns are moving to Los Angeles early in 2002, with Peter Hurtgen Jr. due to follow come spring. But first, the three will team up with DCO's Todd Schuck in a production of "Squire's Inn," a Sleuths mystery comedy set in a bed-and-breakfast establishment. Sadly, Anitra Pritchard, the only DCO member who is not a Sleuths employee, cannot take part in this farewell-for-now laugh-off. Still, any show that casts Hurtgen as an innkeeper's semiretarded nephew has to be worth our holiday dollar. Or maybe I just like saying "semiretarded nephew."

Dolby your pleasure

Patrons of Maitland's Enzian Theater will receive an unexpected Christmas gift this year: The house is being equipped with Dolby digital sound, which should be up and pumping sometime before the holiday. And while we're all enjoying our newfound ability to decipher the quietest of art-movie whispers (provided, of course, that said whispering takes place in a film with a digital soundtrack), we can begin to keep our eyes peeled for further improvements to the theater, which will follow in the ensuing months. ... The Valencia Community College film "Killing Time" has been accepted as a dramatic-competition feature in the upcoming Sundance Film Festival. Directed by Anthony Jaswinski, the film tells the story of a young kid's spiritual journey to New York City. Does a Sundance award lay at his road's end? ... A winter ritual expands at the Orlando Science Center, as six of the most popular IMAX films ever screened in the venue's Dr. Phillips CineDome return for encore engagements beginning Dec. 26. (Last year's retrospective was limited to four films.) The "OSC Film Festival's" 10-week schedule will include reprises of the Academy Award-nominated "Dolphins" (Feb. 11 through 24) and the extreme-sports documentary "To the Limit" (Jan. 28 through Feb. 10). The latter film invites us to "find out what happens to the human body when it is challenged to its limit!" It has nothing to do with Carnie Wilson.

A film festival of an entirely different nature begins Sunday, Dec. 9, at the Bodhisattva Social Club with a screening of the 1999 Troma classic Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV. Another Troma puke-jerker will follow each week, including the mirthfully melodic "Cannibal! The Musical," which has long been my favorite film about flesh-eating. Hannibal may have cost more, but let's be honest: That Dr. Lecter, he couldn't carry a tune with a co-signer.

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