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Culture 2 Go 

Filling the hole
Superior Donuts
Through April 18 at Mad Cow Theatre
105 S. Magnolia Ave.

Arthur Przybyszewski (Sam Hazell), the pothead proprietor of the titular trans-fat trading post in Mad Cow's new production of Superior Donuts, is too stunned by grief over his ex-wife's recent death to open his struggling Chicago shop most mornings. Why bother, when the Starbucks across the street is stealing all his business? Not even the vicious vandalism of his property can shake him out of his stupor, despite the best efforts of the investigating Officer Randy Osteen (Marty Stonerock) and her Tuvok-esque Trekkie partner, Officer James Bailer (Paris Crayton III). Neighboring video-store owner Max Tarasov (Joe Wyatt), a casually racist Russian immigrant, tries to nudge Arthur into selling out. But with no friends or family to turn to, Arthur clings to his sinking shop like a life raft.

Enter Franco Wicks (Michael Sapp), a street-smart but sunny African-American adolescent who is the polar opposite of the burnt-out Przybyszewski. Franco talks his way into a minimum-wage job, then keeps on talking, spinning stories in an attempt to penetrate Arthur's taciturn persona. Sparring over black poets ("I'll give you Langston Hughes … Nipsey Russell doesn't count") and sharing notebooks in which he has scribbled his "Great American Novel," Franco's charisma cracks Arthur's emotional walls, letting a little light in. But behind the youth's optimism lurks something ominous: He's $16,000 in hock to Luther Flynn (Stephan Jones), a sympathetic sports bookie with a bleeding ulcer and a cigar-cutter-snapping henchman (Joe Coffey).

With its sitcom-ish setup — grumpy patriarch, smart-aleck kid, wacky neighbors, et al. — and brutal violence banished offstage (though there is some climatic comic combat, choreographed by Jones), Superior Donuts seems miles apart from playwright Tracy Letts' acclaimed works Killer Joe and Bug.

Mad Cow's "Southeastern Regional Premiere," directed by Rob Anderson, boasts a nicely naturalistic set (by Cindy White with Abdul Delgado) and a superior cast. Wyatt, warmly remembered from Angels in America at the old Civic Theatres of Central Florida, is wonderfully moving as the abrasive but empathetic entrepreneur; Stonerock glows as a Marge Gunderson—style straight arrow who turns into a giddy schoolgirl in Arthur's presence; and Doreen Heard nails her quippy cameo as an adorable elderly alcoholic. Hazell is credible (if a bit too clean) as a pony-tailed ex-hippie, though he struggles to make his awkwardly inserted expository soliloquies sound integral.

But it's Sapp who serves as the show's heart, brain and spine: His outsized yet authentic presence burns so bright that everything else seems slightly dim in comparison. When that light is inevitably extinguished, the pain in his eyes is as heartbreaking as anything I've seen on stage this year.

— Seth Kubersky

Black pearl
55 West: A High Rise Church
Street Comedy
Through April 3 at Footlight Theater
The Parliament House
410 N. Orange Blossom Trail

Playwright-performer Michael Wanzie has returned to the P-House with 55 West: A High Rise Church Street Comedy, the fourth installment in the (as Douglas Adams would say, if he weren't dead) increasingly inaccurately named Ladies of Eola Heights Trilogy. No worries if you missed one or three of the earlier editions, the self-consciously expository opening scene is explicitly written to "get the audience up to speed."

Several months after the events of Court Ordered Therapy: Ladies of Eola Heights Part 3, the dysfunctional sisters have finally split up. Opal is off on an around-the-globe cruise, wasting her vaginal reconstruction fund exploring foreign fast-food franchises, and Ruby has run off to be the world's oldest Broadway baby, bravely auditioning for the role of Anne Frank, crows feet be damned.

That just leaves Pearl (Wanzie) behind in her new corner-unit condo in Church Street's real-life, mostly abandoned 55 West building, a monument to downtown Orlando's wretched real estate market. Deprived of television, Pearl stands in her living room (wearing a hummingbird muumuu and Elsa Lanchester fright wig), peeping from her "fishbowl" down on patrons of Hamburger Mary's bingo bar. When Pearl prods her roommate, Ruby's anxiety-wracked psychiatrist husband, Dr. Robert Burroughs (the ever-entertaining Frank McClain), to face his feelings about his wife's departure with a little whiskey on the rocks for lubricant, the resulting revelations may ruin his career.

Director Kenny Howard does a fine job keeping things moving, bringing on Miss Sammy (Sam Singhaus) between blackouts to lip-synch through a retro record while tossing candy and carnations whenever things get slow. But the presence of actors Tommy Wooten and Doug Ba'aser is sorely missed, despite Wanzie's best efforts to keep their character's present through a protracted series of phone calls. Without them, the show becomes a setup for a long series of slams on notable names in the local community. I'm sure Orlando Weekly's Billy Manes can brush off the Blister-bashing, but the mauling of former Orlando Sentinel theater critic Elizabeth Maupin borders on mean, and a liquor-laced lance at lawyer-happy Daisy Lynum might be considered libelous.

Between barbs, there are so many shout-outs to sponsors like the Closing Agent, 903 Mills Market and Shear Madness that it passes beyond "inside jokes" into product-placement pornography. With so many Orlando subculture snipes, I can't see this script traveling as well as the more universal earlier chapters. I got a solid 60 minutes of laughs from this 75-minute show, but I'm glad I'm not important enough to attract Wanzie's ire.

— Seth Kubersky

Cracking up
Stafford Hiroshi Smith and
Dennis Schmalstig
Through April 8 at SSC Fine Arts Gallery
Seminole State College, Sanford

Here we are in the second decade of this new millennium and portraiture — one of the oldest art forms — is being reinvented again; in this exhibit, it's by Dennis Schmalstig and Stafford Smith. Both are educators and have accomplished careers, and both use portraits as vehicles to suggest the rapid changes underway in our culture. Local artist Schmalstig and Michigan photographer Smith absorb cultural shifts and present the human figure de-centered, deconstructed and destabilized to produce disturbing, yet engaging images for contemplation.

Schmalstig, trained in old masters' techniques, fractally alters faces and bodies, rearranging and recomposing them as commentary on contemporary split-second attention spans. "Jodi," with a nod to portraitist Lucian Freud, celebrates the imperfect body in a mass of folded heavy flesh; the subject's comfortable gaze phase-shifted, her venerable breasts tripled for emphasis and her Shiva-like arms and hands suggesting movement.

Schmalstig's kaleidoscope cubism references a syncopated perception, bringing us closer to the subjects, yet also pushing us away for we understand them less as a whole and more as a cluster. We are only able to complete the image mentally, and each viewer comes away with a different conclusion. This is the link to Smith, for he does something similar with the concept of families.

Smith's "family" portraits are oddly alienating, although the subjects pose in domestic comfort. He carefully splices individual photos together, overlapping the backgrounds to create endlessly repeating patterns of sofas, carpets, wallpapers and other domestic accoutrements. Uniformly spaced individuals float inside these edgeless patterns that tend to appear as haunting, computer-screen-like images.

In "The Beedes," the mother and two children pose in front of a picture window, and their individual expressions interact with the camera instead of each other. Spliced together, their individuality overrides a sense of unity. The viewer is left to mentally construct the relationships between the subjects, searching for clues here and there to put the pieces together that Smith has carefully separated out.

Both artists are getting at something larger, using portraits to evoke the fragmentation of space and time in our culture. These pieces offer thoughtful commentary on how we are reinventing our own self-identity, as well as the definition of the family today.

— Richard Reep

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