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Art and advertising collide unevenly in Heather Theatre's 'Billboard'

The cast of ‘Billboard,’ running through Saturday at Tampa theater Heather, includes Joshua Dupree, left, Ashaad Ferebee and Simone Farrell. [Darren Constantine]
The cast of ‘Billboard,’ running through Saturday at Tampa theater Heather, includes Joshua Dupree, left, Ashaad Ferebee and Simone Farrell. [Darren Constantine]
Published May 14, 2019

TAMPA — The Tampa Bay area's hidden theater jewel lies tucked away in a nondescript office park off W Hillsborough Avenue. The Heather Theatre Company has no sign, other than a single sheet from a color printer taped to a door that says Performance Studio 120, a number that does not correlate with the theater's address.

The sign, if it's there, may or may not be on the door during performance runs, on a crackerbox set before a paying audience of two dozen. Some of the best theater you'll see locally happens here, the brainchild of Kathryn Laughlin, a former casting agent who runs an acting school at the Heather five nights a week. Many of her students have landed small television roles on shows such as Chicago PD, Chicago Fire or in films.

Those students typically return to Tampa to continue their training, and will often show up in future Heather productions. So will students with far less experience. Thus the output at the Heather, normally of a professional caliber, might also reflect a wish to give its students a chance to step forward.

Billboard, directed by DuJuan Cole, falls in the latter category. Listed credits among a cast of three mostly runs from high school and college to the Performers Studio Workshop, the Heather's school. That inexperience shows, but so does a certain raw promise as they work through a fresh script by Michael Vukadinovich.

The story centers on Andy, who, like a lot of young people doesn't think long term. The show opens with Andy showing off his new tattoo, a vaguely Japanese symbol in the middle of his forehead. Questa, a mysterious corporation, paid him to get the tattoo as part of its advertising campaign. Andy calls it a "strategic business decision" and argues that he is playing Questa, not the other way around. Neither Katelyn, Andy's girlfriend, nor his best friend Damon are impressed.

Katelyn's disbelief turns to shock when she realizes Andy has quit his job at a bookstore due to his anticipated check from Questa. The plot advances in counterintuitive ways, the camera zooming out and back in. Andy and Katelyn are having problems, but in between they might spend a rainy day in bed listening to every Beatles album or comparing their dreams. Ashaad Ferebee makes for an engaging Andy, believably overwhelmed at first by good fortune and then gradually by the consequences of the choice he has made.

Simone Farrell exudes a certain sweetness as Katelyn, the only real artist among the trio. As the play progresses she works on a portrait of Andy with his new tattoo. Joshua Dupree, the most seasoned actor in this cast, excels in the first act when playing the cautious friend who doubles as the show's intellectual voice. Most of the show's lengthier ruminations on art, capitalism and culture come through Damon.

All the actors have a tendency to rush through paragraphs of text. This wastes some of Vukadinovich's observations by treating them as throwaway lines. The script is also uneven, as increasingly messy in the second act as it was sharp and funny in the first. We never see Katelyn's painting, for example. Was it supposed to be a mystery? Damon's role becomes less clear in Act 2, and he has taken to wearing loud clothes. Is he also seeking to express himself? Are we not supposed to know the answers to any of our questions?

Maybe not. Art has become more self-aware, even self-conscious, at the same time as it becomes more abstract. As Andy notes in a closing monologue, "One day we'll go to a museum and all we'll see is cans of paint."

The show's humor is a saving grace, which about half the audience seemed to appreciate while others remained impassive. (I'm usually with the silent half in these situations; it was nice to be among the laughing.)

Its strongest aspect is the depiction of a creeping soullessness as corporations intrude into our private lives. Its weaker elements, including the relative rawness of the cast, are not without hope. They gave their characters a certain optimism, and there is every reason to feel good about where they are headed.

IF YOU GO

$25. Runs through Saturday at 8313 W Hillsborough Ave., Suite 250, Tampa (727) 709-5026. heathertheatre.org.

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