Theater / Film

Review: Miami New Drama’s ‘Museum Plays’ merges art forms at the Rubell

Written By Christine Dolen
February 27, 2024 at 3:17 PM

In one of six of Miami New Drama’s “The Museum Plays,” Jovon Jacobs sits in front of Kehinde Wiley’s masterpiece “Sleep” in Aurin Squire’s play “Maybe Love” at the Rubell Museum. (Photo courtesy of James Jackman)

For those who are passionate about the visual arts, a museum is a repository of treasures, a place to ponder the end result of an artist’s vision.  Miami’s Rubell Museum is, as always, full of works that nourish the eye, the intellect and sometimes the soul as they invite personal interpretation.

For the month of March, the Rubell is also home to a different kind of art, thanks to Miami New Drama’s cofounder and artistic director Michel Hausmann.  As commissioner and curator, Hausmann worked with six playwrights to derive short pieces inspired by works in the vast collection of Don and Mera Rubell, key players in the transformation of Miami into an international art hub.

“The Museum Plays” are as different as the writers who created them.

Margery Lowe and Carlos Orizondo haggle over art and bitcoins in Harley Elias’s “Pump and Dump,” one of Miami New Drama’s “Museum Plays” at the Rubell Museum. (Photo courtesy of James Jackman)

Although this project is somewhat in the spirit of “Seven Deadly Sins” —  Miami New Drama’s pandemic-era production that saw actors performing in Lincoln Road storefronts as small groups of masked-up audiences watched from seats outside each space — that leap into a different kind of creativity came from necessity.

“The Museum Plays” is an exploration of collaborative possibilities for institutions specializing in different art forms.  Though it has some structural similarities – guides lead five groups of 30 from one play to the next, with each guide told via an earpiece when to move from one space to another – seeing art-inspired plays in a museum setting is a singular experience.

For one thing, you react to a work of art and the playwright’s creative reaction to it. For another, although the plays are carefully placed throughout the museum, its spacious galleries weren’t created with sound, sets and lighting effects in mind, so sometimes acoustics are less than ideal, and the sets are mainly the inspirational pieces of art.

Still, Hausmann, who directed all six plays, chose his writers wisely. These playwrights know precisely how to fashion impactful short theater with a clear beginning, middle and end.  The entire 150-person audience gathers only for the final play; otherwise, the order in which you see the others is determined by a color-coded wristband given to each ticket buyer. So if your wristband is orange, you’ll see the short plays in a different order than the blue group, and so on.

Caleb Scott portrays playwright Rogelio Martinez in “Bedfellows,” one of Miami New Drama’s “Museum Plays” at the Rubell Museum. (Photo courtesy of Josh Aronson)

Rogelio Martinez has crafted a clever, moving piece of meta theater in “Bedfellows.”  Inspired by the late Kaari Upson’s 2014 work “Rubells” – which looks very much like a worn-out mattress hanging on the wall of the museum’s library – the play features Caleb Scott as Martinez. He initially butts heads with  Hausmann (played by Hannah Benitez, who wrote “Mousa” for “The Museum Plays”) as the artistic director sends back early drafts of a script and pushes Martinez to do more, see more.

Martinez teaches playwriting, and he intersperses information and examples about various aspects of the craft – a call to action, stasis, obstacles, intrusions, withholding information – expertly into the script. A recording of Upson’s voice is heartbreaking, as is the play, performed with expert rhythm and intensity by Scott.

One opening-night group got a unique insight into the artwork when a moved Mera Rubell stood after the play to share that she and her husband had commissioned the piece for their 50th anniversary. Although what hangs on the wall is made of silicone, spandex and fiberglass, the work is based on the couple’s own mattress – described by Martinez in “Bedfellows” this way: “Where I once saw a mattress now I see folds, small gaps, depressions, grooves…all things to indicate that a person once inhabited that space and for a long time they rose.”

Carmen Pelaez wrote “Waiting for America,” in which she plays a Rubell Museum guard named Celeste.  In a gallery showcasing Glenn Ligon’s buzzing, blinking neon sign “America,” she is showing the ropes to Darwin (Carlos Fabian Medina), young Venezuelan who is trying to figure out his new job – and the country itself.

Carlos Fabian Medina ponders his future in Carmen Pelaez’s “Waiting for America,” part of “The Museum Plays” at the Rubell Museum. (Photo courtesy of James Jackman)

Celeste, who seasons her English with Spanish words here and there, sets Darwin straight about his illusions, from her perspective.  She’s a straight shooter, intense yet expert in the art of dealing with museum visitors and asserting her authority in a low-key way.  The performance space, however, is dimly lit to keep focus on the “America” sign, and the acoustics are sometimes problematic. A good, thought-provoking play should be seen and heard better.

“Mousa” by Benitez, inspired by a Jenna Gribbon painting, is styled as a lecture by a highly educated Docent (Timothy Mark Davis) on what he and other experts believe is the most important element in all art: the female body.  His accompanying slides slip through the centuries, as he makes awkward jokes and comments – until he notices that a well-dressed Woman (Kelly Pekar) has positioned herself near the Gribbon, staring at it as she inches closer.

Timothy Mark Davis as the Docent gives a lecture in Hannah Benitez’s “Mousa,” one of Miami New Drama’s “Museum Plays” at the Rubell Museum. (Photo courtesy of James Jackman)

Flustered, he tells her to move back, even using a tall red stool like the ones holding some of the theatergoers to create a line of demarcation. Her response is to strip down to her bra and let her wavy hair down. Horrified, the Docent runs off in search of a guard.

But the Woman restarts the slide show and explains each image from her perspective – as the muse behind the artwork.  Davis’s haughty, jittery Docent is quite funny, and Pekar exudes the kind of mystery and strength that could inspire many an artist. Benitez’s flip into a feminist view of the art we have just heard described quite differently is clever indeed.

Aurin Squire, who wrote the book for Miami New Drama’s world premiere Louis Armstrong Musical “A Wonderful World,” has crafted a wonderful (albeit much shorter) play in “Maybe Love.” Surrounded by three magnificent Kehinde Wiley paintings – the massive “Sleep,” “Triple Portrait of Charles I” and “Equestrian Portrait of the Count-Duke Olivares” – Regina (Renata Eastlick) and Terrence (Jovon Jacobs) have a first date in that very room in the Rubell.

Jovon Jacobs and Renata Eastlick try to navigate a first date at the Rubell Museum in Aurin Squire’s “Maybe Love,” one of Miami New Drama’s “Museum Plays.” (Photo courtesy of Josh Aronson)

She’s interested in how Terrence reacts to Wiley’s paintings of Black subjects against intricately patterned, colorful backgrounds. He’s interested in what she wants for dinner at which Miami hotspot – and the sooner the better.  Though the two seem to have zero chance at a future, Squire expertly takes them through arguments and conflicts to a point where each is cautiously taking in the other’s perspective.  Eastlick and Jacobs are so good, so vibrant that you feel you need to root for them.

In Harley Elias’s “Pump and Dump,” inspired by the work of Los Angeles artist Alfonso Gonzalez Jr., an art and bitcoin Dealer (Carlos Orizondo) is pitted against a Buyer (Margery Lowe) who seems to be an eager-to-please mom.  As we learn before she arrives, he’s ruthless and foul-mouthed.  He changes his tune – or maybe partially mutes his true nature – once the red-haired dynamo arrives.  They haggle and try to make a deal, then do so, only to have the Dealer’s world explode.

Getting every nuance of the play requires at least a passing knowledge of the world of bitcoin, and if you don’t have that, good luck.  But Elias has created two fierce competitors, each played ravenously by Orizondo and Lowe. Would you have sympathy for either one? Nah. But they leave an impression.

Margery Lowe savors her impending triumph over Carlos Orizondo in Harley Elias’s “Pump and Dump,” part of Miami New Drama’s “The Museum Plays.” (Photo courtesy of James Jackman)

The final play, Marco Ramirez’s “Body of Work,” is the show everyone watches together, performed by all 10 actors.  A gallery is set up ostensibly for a funeral service – right there, front and center, is a shiny lipstick-red casket.  A Eulogizer (Pelaez) speaks of the deceased, an artist who called herself Vivian Nameless.  But things take a turn, and as it happens, the service turns into an art auction

Totally Ramirez’s invention (in other words, not linked to specific art at the Rubell), “Body of Work” audaciously, sometimes hilariously skewers performance art and art world pretentions (theater has those too, by the way).

Scenic consultants Justin and Christopher Swader, costume designers Olatz Zanguitu and Saul Mendoza, and lighting designer Leo Urbina worked within the art-bedecked surroundings of the Rubell to make this collection of theatrical art come to life.

“The Museum Plays,” a collaborative experiment that pays off, is bringing theater lovers to a place not known for drama and visual arts lovers to an environment where smart playwrights are commenting on the works that are right there in front of each audience. Creative risks can have many pitfalls, but they can also bring inspiring rewards. “The Museum Plays” does the latter.

 WHAT: “The Museum Plays” by Marco Ramirez, Aurin Squire, Carmen Pelaez, Hannah Benitez, Rogelio Martinez and Harley Elias

WHERE: Miami New Drama production at the Rubell Museum galleries, 1100 NW 23rd St., Miami

WHEN:  8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, through March 31

COST: $81.50 or $91.50 for premium seating, $45.50 for standing room

INFORMATION:  305-674-1040 or miaminewdrama.org

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