“Between the Everglades and the fresh waters of the big cypress swamp, there’s a toll road called Alligator Alley.”
That long, lonesome road is the backdrop for “Alligator Alley,” the latest play by Key West playwright, photographer and filmmaker Michael Marrero.
Oscillating between bitingly funny and charmingly heartwarming, “Alligator Alley” follows childhood friends Mayar and Becca as they navigate the dystopian sprawl of Florida City and the wilds of the Everglades.
The headstrong Mayar wears a hijab, the traditional Muslim headscarf, and relies on both her sense of humor and Becca as she attempts to escape her surroundings and start a new life outside of Florida City. To Mayar, Florida City is “the kind of place where you can pick up a taxidermy alligator head for $20 at the BP Food Mart and where you’re never more than a hop, skip and a jump from a Popeye’s or a Walmart.”
The cast of “Alligator Alley” includes acclaimed New York City-based actors Nayem Cardenas-Lopez as Mayar, Jordan Puhala and Becca, and Julio Trinidad. Key West audiences have seen Trinidad perform Marrero’s work before, as he originated the role of Octavio in “Locura” in Key West (also starring in it at Repertorio in NYC and Guild Hall in the Hamptons) and also appeared in Marrero’s awardwinning short film, “Riley Was Here.”
Cardenas-Lopez and Puhala both attended the Performing Arts Project, a summer training program Juliet Gray helped develop and where Zachary Fine is on the faculty. Gray is the producer and Fine the director of “Alligator Alley” for The Studios of Key West.
“It’s wonderful to get to work with young, undiscovered artists every summer, especially when projects like ‘Alligator Alley’ come up and I think, ‘Ooh, who can I find out of this amazing pool of talent that would fit the bill?’” Gray says.
The characters Marrero developed in “Alligator Alley” are specific in regards to casting, she adds, and Cardenas-Lopez and Puhala “are fantastic to work with and perfect for the roles.”
Dramaturge and director Stephen Kitsakos, president of the board for The Studios of Key West, says the play “is saturated with quirky, eccentric characters, both realistic and absurd. Each voice (Marrero) has written contributes to the overall arc of the journey of Mayar and Becca, while simultaneously commenting on the landscape of contemporary American society.
“Themes of social isolation, violence, islamophobia, crass commercialism and cultural identity weave seamlessly throughout.”
As is the case with all of Marrero’s works for the stage, “Alligator Alley” presents a rich South Florida landscape for his characters to explore. But this time the playwright has deviated from the cock fights and square grouper of his youth in favor of a less familiar kind of culture.
“This story is different from his past work in that it’s told from the perspective of a young Muslim woman,” Gray explains. “The two young women at the center of the story live in Florida City and they are really trying to find their way in the world with each other. We’ve had a lot of fun creating this universe over the past few years.
“All of Mike’s plays exist in the same world,” she adds. “There are things we touch on in this play that audiences will recognize from past plays — no spoilers, though! — and that’s a fun thing we’ve been able to do. It’s kind of like an inside joke with a lot of our audience members.”
Fine, last seen on Broadway in David Mamet’s 2015 “China Doll,” has recent directing credits that range from numerous productions at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival and “Throw Me on the Burnpile and Light Me Up” at The Key West Theater to Grammy- and Tony-nominated actor Bryce Pinkham’s “Between the Moon and Me” at the Birdland Cabaret in NYC. Although Fine is a seasoned director and actor, every production presents its own particular challenges — especially when brand-new material is involved.
“Part of the process of a new play — if it’s never been performed before — is to help the writer fully realize what he is trying to do,” the director says. “We’re constantly making changes in the rehearsal process. I’ll give a lot of feedback to Mike and he’ll go away and write and make some changes and then we’ll try it out in the rehearsal room.”
Some changes work, and some don’t, he adds.
“There is a lot of collaboration as a director working on a new play, which is different, for example, from working on Shakespeare, where he’s not available to be in the room and willing to do rewrites.
“That part is really fun because you’re bringing a world to life for the first time ever. Nobody has ever seen this story, so it’s like giving birth to something new, which is really, really cool.”
“Alligator Alley” is being staged at The Studios of Key West, a far cry from Popeye’s chicken and taxidermy alligator heads.
“We do have aspects of that world on the stage — physical things — that help identify where we are,” says Gray. “We’ve included some things that will help the audience along this journey, but a lot of ‘Alligator Alley’ will be in the audience’s imagination.”
As Fine adds, “Theater is not about creating the real thing. It’s about a contract of the imagination. It’s meant to be that way. Audience members want to go there imaginatively … that’s why they come to the theater. They’re not expecting realism. They’re willing to take the journey, and I think the way you get an audience to buy in is when the story really, truly means something to the people who are telling it. Once it means something to the people who are performing it and acting it and they want to share that, that touches back into something ancient which is, ‘I want to tell you a story; I want to tell you my story.’ If that comes from the right place, people want to listen …
“Then it’s really about all the other elements that make it exciting: music and lighting help, smart choices around design help. Your job as a director really is to make sure it’s not boring.”
With Marrero’s talent attached, boring is hardly a concern for the cast and crew of “Alligator Alley.”
“The thing that I love about working with Mike is that he has a unique vision and ability to create rich characters,” Gray says. “This show in particular is full of a lot of heart. There’s still the fun Marrero sense of humor, but there’s also a lot of depth.
“Alligator Alley,” she adds, is also extremely relevant to what’s happening in the world today. “The story resonated with me on a personal level. Clearly, I am not a young Muslim woman in my teens living in Florida City, but I, too, have dreams.
“Anybody who has ever had a dream can relate to a story like this.”
Like his hit play “Locura,” which was recently staged at Guild Hall in the Hamptons, Marrero has created a world in “Alligator Alley” in which Florida is more than a backdrop or location where people happen to be. Florida is a main character woven into the very fabric of the story itself.
“Mike has an ability to dramatize in colorful ways a very specific part of the world,” says Fine. “He knows South Florida quite well, so he writes from direct experience observing a specific subculture of characters in America. And in addition, the story itself is relevant because it’s a portrait of a young person stifled by both economic and social cultural narrowness. The theme of people trying to break out of their circumstances is pretty universal.”
Part of what makes “Alligator Alley” so important is its homegrown roots. In a theatrical field saturated with prequels and sequels, remakes and adaptations, new and unique works are more rare — and more necessary — than ever, especially when those works speak to a time and a place that is typically outside the sphere of dramaturgical coverage.
“I think it’s a wonderful, amazing thing that The Studios is supporting new work and original work from local playwrights,” Gray says. “Coming to see an original piece can sometimes be daunting because you don’t know what to expect, but I think (audiences) will be drawn into the story from the start, and it doesn’t let you go until the play is over. It’s a fun ride to get on.”
Fine echoes those sentiments.
“The difference between a classic and a contemporary new work is that, as Shakespeare said, contemporary works hold the mirror up to nature,” he says. “New plays and new voices are able to reflect what’s going on in our world right now and create a space for us in our community to talk about those things.
“I think this play does a really effective job while also being funny.”
“Alligator Alley” is about a lesbian Muslim teenager coming to understand and explore her sexuality.
“Mayar is not your typical protagonist in a story,” he adds. “For that reason, even though the play has comedic roots, I think it is culturally and socially important.”
“Alligator Alley” runs Thursday-Friday, March 7-8, and Wednesday-Saturday, March 13-16. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets range from $35 to $60 and are available by calling the box office 305-296-0458 or by visiting www.tskw.org. ¦