The void left by the passing of local set designer Tommy Mangieri will be filled by his many students, but upholding his legacy of kindness is up to all of us

The void left by the passing of local set designer Tommy Mangieri will be filled by his many students, but upholding his legacy of kindness is up to all of us
Photo by Bonnie Sprung

"Tommy created worlds." Many true and tearful things were said when the members of Orlando's theater community gathered at the Orlando Repertory Theatre last Saturday night to say farewell to Tom Mangieri, the beloved stage designer who passed away on May 15 after a shockingly brief battle with brain cancer. But none better summed up the effect Mangieri had on Orlando's arts family than that simple phrase from actor Rus Blackwell's opening remarks. In his 25 years in Central Florida's theaters, Mangieri did much more than make some of the most imaginative, meticulously detailed playgrounds that area actors and directors have had the privilege to ply their craft on; he also fostered networks of friendship across our often fractious arts community, uniting everyone in their love and admiration for his flawless artistic eye, florid sense of humor and eternally open heart.

Like so many others, I first met Mangieri around 2000 at Theatre Downtown's old venue on the corner of Orange Avenue and Princeton Street. Over the early years of the decade, we collaborated on a series of shows, first as volunteers for Theatre Downtown, and later as members of SoulFire with John DiDonna and Rus Blackwell. As stage manager and assistant director on shows like Killer Joe and Lonesome West, I watched in awe as Mangieri transformed a drab office space into a disgustingly authentic white-trash trailer (complete with chicken-wire fence to protect the audience from the actors) or a rustic Irish cottage built using real rubble, because Tommy thought the styrofoam stones he carved were insufficiently realistic. A decade and a half later, those shows remain among the high points of my career, thanks in large measure to the immersive environments Mangieri made for my cast to live in.

Mangieri was best known as a prolific set designer and scenic painter, whose perpetually packed schedule kept him bouncing between the Dr. Phillips Center, the Lowndes Shakespeare Center, Lake Highland Preparatory School, the State Theatre in Eustis, the Garden Theatre in Winter Garden and countless other venues. Despite being eternally in demand, Mangieri worked for insanely low fees in order to help companies he cared about execute their visions on stage, often working miracles on minuscule budgets (like the multi-story barrio he designed for GOAT's In the Heights). Nearly every producer in town can tell a tale about a time Tommy saved their tail by painting a set at 4 a.m. While his reluctance to ever say "no" inevitably created conflicting commitments that drove technical directors insane, he never let a show down, even continuing designs for Beth Marshall's The Whale after becoming ill.

But I also knew Mangieri (who originally performed under the stage name Tommy Girard) as a sensitive actor. When Empty Spaces Theatre produced Martin Sherman's Bent in 2007, we cast him alongside David Lee and Daniel Cooksley as Rudy, a pacifist plant-lover who is brutally murdered by Nazis. Mangieri approached the short but crucial role with unguarded honesty, allowing himself to plumb depths of agony far more experienced actors struggle to access. At the time Orlando Sentinel critic Elizabeth Maupin recognized Mangieri's performance, saying his character "matched" Cooksley's and Lee's and lauding his "fretful, careworn" portrayal.

Of course, the most important character Tommy Mangieri played was himself – loyal friend, devoted son, loving soul – which he always embodied with his unique aesthetic style, sans artifice or pretense. I'll never forget Tommy, spattered head to toe in paint ("like a living, breathing Pollock painting," as Paul Castaneda put it) and sometimes nothing else, spinning unprintably salty stories while his paintbrush magically transformed plain plywood into brick and marble. The artistic void Mangieri leaves will eventually be filled (at least in part) by the many students he selflessly mentored, but his legacy of kindness and caring is up to all of us who knew him to uphold in our everyday lives.

After the memorial service, I skipped the potluck reception and sprinted across Loch Haven's lawn to the Shakes for We Don't Play Fight, a one-night-only production from Conquest Pro Wrestling. Written by wrestler Jason "Static" Calabrese and directed by fight choreographer Jason Skinner (creator of the 2016 Fringe dance/combat show Shatter), the show fused 30 minutes of expository dramatics with five WWE-esque matches inside a full-sized ring, including an all-female fight and an impressively athletic tag-team bout featuring a Sid Haig-style clown and a flamboyant Haitian fighter.

While an honest exposé about the pain pro wrestlers endure in and out of the ring (à la Mickey Rourke's The Wrestler) would make a ripe subject for the stage, this play's dialogue was constructed entirely of hackneyed sports clichés. And though Joey Mayberry and Gary Bell injected some welcome humor, the slender, sluggishly paced plot had little impact on the actual matches, causing me to lose interest long before the main event. But none of that really matters, because the show featured multiple well-muscled boys getting sweaty in tight, shiny shorts ... and that's exactly the way Tommy would have wanted it.

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