Photo courtesy of Ernesto Sempoll
Jessica Farr and Caleb Scott appear in the sultry Amsterdam Latitudes in Miami New Drama’s production of Seven Deadly Sins.
By AARON KRAUSE
MIAMI BEACH — You’ll rarely find people celebrating in purgatory.
Then again, you probably won’t find elsewhere the kind of theater taking place on Lincoln Road, an outdoor shopping and dining promenade in Miami Beach. True, it’s not the type of live theater we might have taken for granted before the pandemic. But it’s sure close. At the very least, it is a happy medium between no theater and normalcy.
Miami New Drama Artistic Director Michel Hausmann and his team deserve the highest kudos for creatively bringing South Florida safe, stirring, and sinful live theater.
So, back to Purgatory. It’s an outdoor bar/nightclub-like setting where theatergoers, at a safe distance, listen to live music, drink, and hang out before the shows begin. Specifically, they are seven short plays, each revolving around one of the seven deadly sins: Lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. Hausmann commissioned seven high-profile, successful playwrights to pen one play each about each of the sins.
For Seven Deadly Sins, Miami New Drama is using six empty storefronts, as well as the Colony Theatre’s loading dock, to stage these plays. During a time of limitations, Miami New Drama has found a fresh, creative way to use unconventional spaces to create compelling, relatable theater. By the way, Purgatory only exists for the duration of Seven Deadly Sins, which runs through Jan. 31.
The actors perform inside each space, behind glass. Meanwhile, audience members sit outside, socially distanced, and masked. They watch the action and listen to the dialogue with ear phones. Miami New Drama divides audiences into groups of 12. Each group visits the seven settings on a rotating basis.
The plays are taut, timely, relatable, and conflict-driven pieces. Their authors draw us into their works’ settings, and make us look inwardly at our own imperfect selves.
For instance, we might see some of ourselves in the characters populating Moisés Kaufman’s commissioned piece, All I Want Is Everything. The play is about greed. Immediately following their wealthy father’s burial, siblings Leo (an impatient and competitive Gerald McCullouch) and Vivian (a subdued yet patient Mia Matthews) discuss inheritance. Leo has not been careful with his money; for some time he has anticipated receiving a fortune from his father. However, Vivian, who has cared for their father, has something to say that will surprise her sibling – and it’s not a pleasant surprise.
Playwright Kaufman, directing his own piece, establishes an appropriately tense tone. And the performers use telling facial expressions and body postures to communicate their characters’ traits. An appropriate addition to the production is “The Money Song” from Cabaret. The song reinforces the notion that, for some people, money is everything. And the play contains at least one stinging line. “He said that his coffin would land in the ground and a minute later, you would be talking about the inheritance,” Vivian tells Leo.
The characters, appropriately wearing dark clothes, stand in elegant spaces on either side of a lily-sporting, vertical buried casket.
The coffin in All I Want is Everything is not the only thing to come down in Seven Deadly Sins. Amid Black Lives Matter protests, the statue of John C. Calhoun is coming down in Carmen Peláez’s Strapped, the play representing pride. And if his statue could talk, or revert back to human form, what message would the late former vice president, southern statesman, and political theorist from South Carolina have for us?
In the play, Stephen G. Anthony skillfully transitions from southern charm to haughtiness as his character, Calhoun, defends the south’s ways (including slavery), praises his home city, Charleston, S.C., and talks about what he feels is the north’s hypocrisy. Anthony, his face painted grey (to suggest, perhaps, his rising from the dead?), stands in front of the statue’s pedestal. Protest signs, such as one reading “No justice, no peace, no racist police” surround him. Meanwhile, we hear sounds of protests, thanks to sound designer Matt Corey.
There’s no protesting in Itsy Bitsy Spider, the play by Rogelio Martinez focusing on gluttony. However, two controversial figures are the main characters. The piece takes place in 1987. Former President Richard Nixon has been out of office for 13 years, yet he is still power hungry – and he intends to do something about it.
Martinez creatively weaves the song Itsy Bitsy Spider, Donald J. Trump, and Nixon’s watch into the plot. Itsy Bitsy Spider is an intriguing, well-thought-out play. It demonstrates how power can corrupt, and how far some will go to attain or retain it.
Gregg Weiner, his arms often folded, imbues a scheming Nixon with arrogance and determination, without trying to impersonate the former president. Martinez neither lionizes or demonizes Nixon. However, he puts many of Nixon’s troublesome traits on display as the former President tries to boss around his new British assistant, Nigel (a formal, butler-like Christopher Renshaw.)
The action takes place inside an empty restaurant. There, a whiskey-downing, piano-playing Nixon plots his political come-back.
Elsewhere, will a relationship between Andre and Erica make a comeback? That’s the question you might ask while watching Andre and Erica, a play about envy by Hilary Bettis. Both characters are excellent pianists. And when the play opens, Andre is preparing for his Carnegie Hall debut inside the facility. Suddenly Erica enters.
Bettis provides enough information for us to imagine what could have led to Andre and Erica’s breakup. Andhy Mendez and Renata Eastlick are convincing as former lovers and there is a clear sense that both harbored feelings for each other.
Meanwhile, in Nilo Cruz’s Amsterdam Latitudes, which might call to mind Tennessee Williams, prior feelings for someone bother a man to the point that he seeks redemption. In this play about lust, the man, Miran, opens up about his vulnerability with a woman in the brothels of Amsterdam. However, Miran and the brothel worker, Ludmila, will have to talk quickly and leave. After all, the play takes place amid the pandemic; businesses are soon closing.
The pandemic also impacts a character in Blackfish, in which Aurin Squire examines sloth. Specifically, an artist and African American culture professor named Regina is the subject of a profile by an unseen journalist (Roderick Randle). However, the reporter is having difficulty locating the people who knew Regina. The voice of God (Kareema Khouri) also figures into the play. So, too, does cultural appropriation and the true definition sloth.
Perhaps the play examining wrath, Memories in the Blood, by Dael Orlandersmith, will prove more accessible to audiences. In the piece, a woman pretty much stays home during the pandemic. In this one-person play, the nameless character talks about her interactions during her limited trips outside her home. But she’s also suffering from emotional injuries from past incidents. And her isolation is only exacerbating her pain. Carmen Peláez, the author of Strapped, intensely and credibly portrays the unnamed character.
Of all the pieces, Amsterdam Latitudes, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cruz, is the richest and most theatrical. The piece, and the performances by Jessica Farr (Ludmila) and Caleb Scott (Miran) are haunting and poetic.
In addition to the performers in Seven Deadly Sins, props must go to the technical team. They include sound designer Matt Corey, for his clear, convincing sound effects; lighting designer Yuki Nakase Link for capturing everything from elegance to the harsh light produced by multiple cameras flashing; and costume designer Marina Pareja. She designed telling outfits, from clothes that a sex worker might wear to those in which mourners would dress.
No doubt, many of us miss live theater. Luckily, Miami New Drama’s Seven Deadly Sins comes admiringly close to the kind of intimate, live theater we cherished so much before the pandemic stopped the world.
Seven Deadly Sins continues through Jan. 31 along the 1100 block of Lincoln Road in Miami Beach. Pick up admission wrist bands at the Colony Theatre box office, 1040 Lincoln Road. Tickets are $60 and $75. Purchase them at miaminewdrama.org. In order to attend, patrons must wear masks and remain six feet apart from others. Miami New Drama will offer hand sanitizer. For more information, call (305) 674-1040, or visit www.miaminewdrama.org.
Photo courtesy of Ernesto Sempoll
Mia Matthews and Gerald McCullouch play sparring siblings in All I Want is Everything, part of Miami New Drama’s Seven Deadly Sins.