Theater / Film
Miami New Drama’s ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ finds a way back to live theater
Jessica Farr and Caleb Scott star in Nilo Cruz’s “Amsterdam Latitudes,” one of the plays of Miami New Drama’s “Seven Deadly Sins.” (Photo courtesy of Roberto Mata)
Envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, wrath.
Since ancient times, these vices have been known collectively as the seven deadly sins.
Now, nine months into the country’s battle against COVID-19, Miami New Drama and its boundlessly imaginative artistic director, Michel Hausmann, have figured out a way to turn vice into virtue, exploring the seven deadly sins in an ambitious return to live theater beginning Nov. 27.
“During the summer, I’d walk up and down Lincoln Road, and I saw a lot of empty storefronts,” says Hausmann, whose company was about to open the world premiere musical, “A Wonderful World,” at its home in Miami Beach’s Colony Theatre when the pandemic forced March’s abrupt shutdown. “I thought the seven deadly sins could be a great organizing principle to talk about our country through those sins.”
And he thought about those vacant storefronts, and about the fact that the often-glorious South Florida weather in November, December and January would allow for theater to move outside the box of the Colony Theatre.
The result: “Seven Deadly Sins,” a collection of short plays, will be presented through Jan. 17 in six storefronts along the 1100 block of Lincoln Road, as well as at the Colony Theatre’s loading dock.
For all of the effective ways arts groups have sustained themselves and their audiences with digital productions, Hausmann and managing director Nicholas Richberg have remained focused on how to return safely to live performances.
“We knew we couldn’t be a company that just does Zoom plays,” Richberg says. “We produce theater, with humanity mixing in person.”
Adds Hausmann: “We’re in the business of live storytelling. When you think of it through that prism, a huge freedom opens up.”
As a first step, Hausmann commissioned 10-minute plays from seven celebrated playwrights – four men and three women, five of them Latinx writers and two Black – asking each to list a first-, second- and third-choice sin. Nilo Cruz, Dael Orlandersmith, Carmen Peláez, Moisés Kaufman, Hilary Bettis, Aurin Squire and Rogelio Martinez, most of whom have a history with Miami New Drama or Hausmann, all said yes to the project.
What the company got back, says Richberg, is a group of “exciting, unexpected stories. They’re definitely not the obvious takes on the sins. And they all have the depth of full-length plays.”
The plays are as eclectic as their authors.
Nilo Cruz, the Cuban-American, Miami playwright whose Pulitzer Prize-winning “Anna in the Tropics” premiered at Coral Gables’ intimate New Theatre in 2002, got lust as his subject. His new play, “Amsterdam Latitudes,” features Caleb Scott as Mirian, a lost soul in Amsterdam’s red light district, and Jessica Farr as Ludmila, the prostitute upon whom his attention is riveted.
“The moment Michel told me the design, I immediately [imagined] the brothels of Amsterdam. I saw an image,” Cruz says. “It would be in Amsterdam but with references to Miami, to water, to the fluidity of water and memory … Just the physical wasn’t enough. It had to be emotional and spiritual too, to transcend the body.”
“Amsterdam Latitudes,” one of five plays Hausmann is directing, has already been a fulfilling experience for Cruz.
“It’s exciting to work with actors again … And this piece is so cinematic. We’re going to be like voyeurs watching them,” he says. “There’s a desire to go back to the theater, to be part of that ritual, to experience something together.”
Scott and Farr feel that excitement. too.
“It’s been so long since we’ve been able to be in a room working with our bodies vs. just our faces,” says Scott, referring to what he calls the “horror box” that is Zoom. “The limitations of intimacy feel very right at the moment … [yet] this is very heightened. There’s no slow build. It opens at the apex of Miran’s conflict. It feels very charged.”
Adds Farr: “Nilo’s work is so poetic, elevated and challenging … A common theme is peeling away the veneer of ghosts to get to the person in front of you. It’s beautifully lyrical.”
Another of the plays, “Blackfish,” is the work of Aurin Squire, a co-producer for the CBS series “Evil” and “The Good Fight,” who has several other plays and an Amazon project pending. The piece tackles sloth and will be performed by Sandi Stock, who plays Regina, a successful artist and professor of African-American culture. There’s more than a little of Rachel Dolezal, a White professor who famously pretended to be Black, in the character’s artistic DNA.
“Michel mentioned this to me during the summer, and I thought of the history of plays during the plague,” says Squire, who grew up in Opa-locka. “Sloth actually means distance from God. It’s not a hard sin … but it supports all the other sins … These are morality plays by seven contemporary writers, reinventing that genre for now.”
Moisés Kaufman – a Venezuelan-American director and playwright whose New York-based Tectonic Theater Project devised the award-winning “The Laramie Project” – co-founded Miami New Drama with Hausmann. He is directing his short play about greed, “All I Want Is Everything,” which features Mia Matthews as Vivienne and Gerald McCullouch as Leo, a wealthy sister and brother at odds over their late father’s fortune.
“I immediately realized that this [project] was a brilliant idea. Everyone around the world is trying to figure out how to do theater in a pandemic,” Kaufman says. “There has been a great deal of attention to safety and to creating theater in these untenable times. There’s a hunger for theater.”
Inspired in part by stories of fights within families, Kaufman’s play explores more than the lust for money.
“Is greed only about money? Can you be greedy in love, in passion? We are all very, very greedy,” he says.
Longtime friends Matthews and McCullouch believe their extensive experience in film and television will be of benefit in this unconventional theater project, which requires actors to perform their plays seven times a night on single-show days and 14 times on two-show days.
“This merges the craft of acting for film and acting for live theater,” McCullouch says. “We have the experience [in film] of doing the same scene over and over. But in theater, we get to tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.”
“Moisés has been shockingly collaborative. He has a beautiful energy and excitement,” adds Matthews. “At one point in rehearsals, he had us switch characters. I feel like I’m getting a master class from a legend.”
Envy is the subject of “Andre and Erica” by Hilary Bettis, whose “Queen of Basel” (a fresh take on “Miss Julie”) had a developmental production at Miami New Drama in 2018. Bettis, one of the writers of TV’s “The Americans” and the upcoming Amazon series, “Rodeo Queens,” has crafted a play about two great pianists who happen to be former lovers. Andhy Mendez plays Andre, about to make his Carnegie Hall debut, and Renata Eastlick is his ex, Erica.
“I feel envy is very much my Achilles’ heel as a human being,” Bettis says. “I wonder why this has been in my psyche for most of my life, and I don’t know why. It made me take a hard look at myself. It has driven me as a writer – I feel like my work is never good enough …
“I wrote about two people operating from the same place but also loving each other. All the wounds are still there. I thought it could be big, grand, theatrical. That it could pertain to any passion or pursuit.”
Mendez, who appeared in Miami New Drama’s “The Cubans,” was in previews for the world premiere of Eduardo Machado’s “Celia and Fidel” at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., when the pandemic hit. He’s thrilled to be back at work after the hiatus and, though he wonders if performing “Andre and Erica” in a storefront will be like “acting inside of a snow globe,” he loves the play.
“This script is phenomenal. There’s so much subtext. In just 10 pages, there’s a clear beginning, middle and end,” he says. “Whenever there’s chaos, that’s when art becomes an innovative, transformative platform.”
Eastlick, a New World School of the Arts grad, says the “Seven Deadly Sins” project is “literally historic during a pandemic. Miami New Drama had the vision and insight to think outside the box. Zoom is not the same as having a live audience. This is avant-garde, rogue, the essence of theater.”
Miami’s Carmen Peláez will be one of the busiest artists involved in “Seven Deadly Sins.” She penned “Strapped,” a solo show about pride starring Stephen G. Anthony, and will be performing a one-person play about wrath, “Memories in the Blood,” by Dael Orlandersmith.
Orlandersmith’s piece centers on someone simply called “Character,” a role designed to be played by a 30s-and-up actor of any race or gender – after all, pandemic isolation “is hitting us all the same,” says the playwright. On the rare occasions that the person leaves home to go to the market, he or she exchanges more words than usual with others, while at the same time memories of unhealed emotional wounds come flooding back.
“Especially with the pandemic, a lot of time is being spent alone,” says Orlandersmith, an acclaimed playwright and actor who lives in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. “A lot of anger comes up. You think about things you could have said, but it’s not simply a revenge trip … Within this are aspects of loneliness, if you don’t know how to take care of yourself … After the vaccine, some people will go back to the same old, same old. They don’t know what to do with themselves.”
Orlandersmith feels Peláez, who wrote and starred in the world premiere of “Fake” at Miami New Drama in 2019, is the right actor for her piece.
“Carmen is open. She asks the right questions. She’s pliable and wonderful. And funny as hell,” she says.
Now in actor mode, Peláez finds “Memories in the Blood” deeply resonant.
“Dael’s work is amazing and super-challenging. As an actor, that’s what we live for … It’s an aria, once you get started,” she says. “Not gendering the character speaks to the universality of the piece. If you’re in touch with the human condition, it lays you bare. Every time I perform it, it pierces back.”
Peláez’s own play, “Strapped,” features Anthony as the come-to-life statue of John C. Calhoun, a pro-slavery South Carolina politician who served as the country’s seventh vice president from 1825 to 1832. In June, the statue was removed from its 115-foot-tall pedestal in Charleston, S.C., and her piece gives Calhoun some last words.
In writing “Strapped,” Peláez says she wanted to examine “the absolute banality and cruelty of these people … I can’t stand hypocrisy and injustice. They set me off like a rocket.”
Of Anthony, the playwright says, “He knows how to play the charm and banality of the man … He charms you, you see how heinous he was, then he calls you out.”
Another historical figure is at the center of Cuban-American playwright Rogelio Martinez’s “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” The sin in this case is gluttony, but the character’s voracious appetite isn’t for food. The man sitting at a piano, plunking out the tune of the children’s song that gives the play its title, is an out-of-office Richard M. Nixon, 37th president of the United States, and he is absolutely jonesing for a return to the spotlight.
“I wrote the play two months ago, before the election; you write a play that begins a conversation without knowing the result,” says Martinez. “I chose Nixon because I wanted to explore what it feels like to hold onto power, miss the spotlight, feel you’re needed. He had an appetite for it over four decades. They knocked him down, and he always got up again. There are all these levels. He’s Shakespearean.”
Gregg Weiner plays Nixon opposite director Christopher Renshaw as Nigel, the ex-president’s recently hired assistant.
“I felt intimidated about playing such a recognizable figure. He’s very layered and complex and fascinating. But even when you’re playing someone who’s perceived to be deplorable, you have to love them and advocate for them,” Weiner says. “I don’t want to play him like a ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch or caricature … I’ve been digesting interviews, documentaries, speeches. I want to give a flavor of him.”
Renshaw, doing a now-rare bit of acting in “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” sounds like the director he is when talking about Martinez’s play,
“This play is very dense. In 10 minutes, it’s very precise and clear and detailed,” he says. “There’s so much that’s pertinent to the world today, what we’re living through. It’s visionary, and the language is very rich.”
Looking at “Seven Deadly Sins” as a whole, Weiner reiterates the back-to-theater excitement shared by the actors, directors, creative team and anyone aching for the return of an art form they love.
“This has something for everyone,” he says. “It’s 90 minutes of high-end plays, fully produced, that no one’s ever seen before.”
Adds managing director Richberg: “It’s living art on Lincoln Road.”
With safety paramount, presenting the short plays of “Seven Deadly Sins” has required a complex and creative logistical plan from Miami New Drama. The company has taken over six empty storefronts in the 1100 block of Lincoln Road just west of the Colony Theatre, and it’s using the Colony’s loading dock as a seventh space.
HOW TO ‘SIN’ SAFELY
A dozen masked audience-members seated outside every space will watch each one- or two-person show, then move on to the next one, led from play to play by a guide. The total of 84 people per performance will see the actors performing inside the storefronts, and they’ll listen to the sound on souvenir earbuds that plug into each red audience chair (theatergoers who want to use their own earbuds can do so). Every seating area will have protective panels on either side. In the middle of the storefronts will be a bar dubbed Purgatory, which will also feature socially distanced seating.
“Seven Deadly Sins” is also among a relatively small group of Actors’ Equity-approved live productions nationally. To get that approval, Miami New Drama established frequent testing protocols and required the actors in two-performer shows to be housed together, according to managing director Nicholas Richberg. Every actor will have a private dressing room, and an elaborate ventilation system will ensure fresh air inside each space. All told, the production has 11 Equity contracts – part of more than 100 people, including designers, crew and others, who have been hired to work on the show.
WHAT: Miami New Drama’s “Seven Deadly Sins”
WHEN: Nov. 27- Jan. 17
WHERE: Along the 1100 block of Lincoln Road, Miami Beach; pick up admission wrist bands at Colony Theatre box office, 1040 Lincoln Road.
SAFETY PROTOCOLS: Masks and social distancing required (6 feet); hand sanitizer provided.
COST: $60 and $75; purchase tickets at Miaminewdrama.org/7deadlysins
INFORMATION: 305-674-1040; Miaminewdrama.org