Live Active Cultures

Last week I remarked on the scarcity of live shows in south Orlando. This weekend I encountered someone who came to the same conclusion and decided to mount an ambitious new endeavor in response. The result is FantasyLand Theatrical Productions' newly opened home, the Pointe Performing Arts Center at Pointe Orlando on International Drive.

It's 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, three days before the theater's official opening, and Christian St. John is understandably exhausted. When you consider that he isn't just co-founder and artistic director of the company, but the director and star of three of the four shows in their inaugural summer season, you've got to worry about for his health (mental and/or physical). But the spark in St. John's eye as he surveys the enormous room is obvious. Pointing out the load-bearing steel pillar that the landlord paid to relocate (it interfered with sightlines), or the lobby area that will become a lounge once back-ordered leather furniture arrives, it's evident he's invested in the place's potential. Perhaps nothing symbolizes FantasyLand's big plans better than the Summerstock 2010 series: quartet of productions — Greater Tuna, Tuesdays With Morrie, Nunsense and Nunsense A-Men — all premiering simultaneously and rotating nightly in repertory through Aug. 29.

If you're into edgy theater, those titles might not sound tempting. But St. John's target audience isn't urban hipsters or Winter Park elites, but south Orlando's "transient" population that turns over frequently, like snowbirds, tourists and residents of Hunter's Creek. Similarly, if you're involved in the downtown-centric theater scene, the name FantasyLand Theatrical may be unfamiliar; that doesn't mean they're untested. Founded in 2002 by St. John and his producing partner, Lowrie Fawley, FantasyLand produced a couple dozen shows (such as Driving Miss Daisy, Crimes of the Heart and The Rocky Horror Show) in the Gainesville area before relocating to New York City. They put up a couple of off-Broadway productions, including Ian Mairs' Our David and an original bio-drama about Edgar Allan Poe, but St. John said they found NYC expensive and difficult to work in without Actors' Equity union membership. So they returned to Florida a couple years ago, settling in Orlando, where St. John had once performed as one of Disney's Kids of the Kingdom.

FantasyLand's first Orlando presentation was last October's reading of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later at the Lake Eola Amphitheater. If you missed it, maybe you were at Mad Cow's popular presentation of the same script, staged simultaneously a few streets away. When St. John began looking for a permanent home for FantasyLand, he decided to stay out of the backyard of the numerous theater companies clustered around the city center. Eight months ago, while visiting Pointe Orlando for a film, he was intrigued by the shopping center's empty storefronts and began cold-calling the real estate company. After months of negotiating with corporate owners in Philadelphia, they were offered a lease. The space was formerly occupied by the Metropolis nightclub; when they first entered the venue, St. John says they found it filled with "cobwebs and cigarette butts."

In advance of the grand opening, I saw a preview performance (tickets were sold at full admission price) of Greater Tuna directed by St. John. The 1982 comedy, which started as a quadrilogy about the tiny Texas town of Tuna, has aged remarkably well: rednecks are the last socio-economic group that it's still acceptable to satirize. All that was needed to update it was for Taylor Morgan (who plays the 20-odd characters along with co-star St. John) to wear a Sarah Palin T-shirt. While this isn't a formal review, FantasyLand's production quality appears to compare with other small nonprofessional theaters and community college black-boxes. St. John is at his best bellowing as a Baptist minister delivering a cliché-filled eulogy, and both actors score chuckles with their cosmetically criminal cross-dressing. I was frustrated by the long scene changes, unnecessary use of microphones and awkward pacing that gave the show an off-kilter, semi-improvised feel. The dozen-plus people in the audience who giggled throughout didn't seem put off, proving this type of theatrical comfort food is critic proof.

We may have different tastes, but I admire St. John's tenacity in pursuing his passion. While their 501(c)(3) corporation waits for the next grant funding cycle to start, he and his partner are paying for everything out-of-pocket. He's dedicated himself full-time to the theater, while his husband, Dan Doak, runs the box-office part-time and telecommutes to a job in New York. It may sound pretentious, but I believe St. John is sincere when he says. "I don't do it for myself, I do it for the audience." And I echo his observation that live theater should survive because "you can reach out and touch" this kind of 3-D, unlike that IMAX screen next door.

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