On Centro Cultural Español's rambling patio, guayabera-clad men, well-heeled matrons, and curious theater lovers are gathered shoulder-to-shoulder beneath ropes of twinkling lights.
Nearby, a work crew is busy hammering placards to a wall, raising a din that sounds like the stomping of flamenco dancers and the staccato of castanets. Suddenly a young man dressed in a suit and tie rings a bell. "Blue Jellyfish! Blue Jellyfish!" he chirps, and the swelling crowd rushes toward him with raised, waving hands.
Last week's frenzied launch of Centro Cultural Español's (CCE) Microtheater Miami felt a bit like speed dating for theater lovers. It also obliterated the concept of the fourth wall and placed viewers onstage with the actors — at times engaging the audience in the action in an unexpected and cozy fashion.
Microtheater Miami: Through April 29 at Centro Cultural Espaol, 1490 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-448-9677; ccemiami.org. Tickets cost $5 for each play.
For example, while watching migrant couple Antonio and Adela eking out an existence in their ramshackle apartment, you feel like an intruder in the kitchen. Both young actors, Sergio Lanza and Vanessa Benavente, are excellent in their roles in We Can Always Dream.
But watcher beware: Those averse to riding packed elevators or uncomfortable making eye contact with strangers might find this level of intimacy overwhelming or even panic-attack-inducing.
The microtheater concept offers audiences an intensely intimate way to experience short plays in genres ranging from musicals to comedy, drama, and thrillers in a rapid-fire format. Theoretically, spectators can see up to nine performances in one evening. It's a grand idea that has enjoyed rave reviews in Spain, where it originated as Microteatro por Dinero in 2009 and draws upward of 150,000 spectators each season. But it needs a few kinks ironed out in its stateside debut.
CCE's monthlong event, presented in conjunction with Ritmo Producciones and Espacio USA, employs nine shipping containers as microtheaters. Nine 15-minute plays are staged simultaneously in continuing sessions before a maximum audience of 15 spectators.
The performances I saw were provocative, and the acting and directing for the most part were absorbing. However, organizers have some logistical issues to address with their premise. More on that later.
Seven of the plays are in Spanish and two — the musical We Can Always Dream and the thriller Blue Jellyfish — are in English. Viewers can also enjoy works such as the drama La Hipoteca, depicting a working-class family's foibles brought on by the housing crisis, and the psychological drama Otra Fábula, in which a woman who murders her mate is confronted by God in the form of her resurrected lover.
Otra Fábula is deftly directed by Yoshvani Medina of Little Havana's ArtSpoken Performing Arts Center and features stellar turns by actors Omar Germenos and Laura Ferretti. The set design is bare-bones minimalist, composed of only a sawdust carpet. Adding to the unusual and immersive nature of the production, Medina gives spectators hand-cranked flashlights, enlisting the entire audience as lighting technicians.
When the charge on the flashlights dies down at different intervals in the darkened container, the buzzing of hand cranks can be heard. Full of shadows that distinctly add to the sense of mystery, the place makes spectators feel like accomplices at a crime scene. Actors even brush against audience members as they walk through the spooky space.
It's also a reminder that at a time when funding for the arts is being massively scaled back, many cultural organizations are at risk of getting their lights cut off.
Not surprisingly, Medina says that in the current financial climate, money is an underlying theme that unifies the diverse works presented in the project. "In these economically difficult times, the presentation of these works may appear austere in means, but they are rich in imagination, he says. "The challenge is that theater has no form; the form is given to theater by its creators and is part of the Zeitgeist."
Medina says Hispanic theater in South Florida is enjoying a boom that he attributes to Miami's role as the "Hollywood of the telenovela" and that more than 80 local theater productions were inaugurated last year alone. "If you look at the cast in these productions, you'll notice at least one familiar personality from Spanish television. Omar Germenos, who is the protagonist of Otra Fábula, will be familiar to audiences as the presenter of Levántate, Telemundo's popular weekday morning show," he says.
"I think that many of the Spanish TV stars performing here are doing so to connect with their roots and for a soul-enriching opportunity to work in close proximity with an audience in a very avant-garde way," Medina adds. "Also, this type of experience invites risk-taking by the actor and, in the container setting, has a trashy cachet. That's part of the force behind Otra Fábula."
Ropa Interior, Laberinto sin Salida, Mujeres y Voyeurs, Palabra de Honor, and La Última Pregunta round out the first edition of Microtheater Miami.
The nine plays run through April 29 and will be performed six times a night in continuous sessions Thursdays through Saturdays from 8 to 11 p.m. and Sundays from 6 to 9 p.m.
Best of all, you can speak with the actors and directors after the productions. Many of them are willing to talk about the project and connect with the public.
After exiting We Can Only Dream, Sergio Lanza, who plays the jobless fruit picker in the musical, leaned against the wall of a container to wipe the sweat streaming from his face. "Everything we do, everything that happens on this type of stage, we have to control — from the lighting to the movement and interactions with the audience," the exhausted actor said. "This is an intense theater experience for the public, but it is also somewhat cinematic for them as well."
Jesus Quintero, who wrote and directs Blue Jellyfish, agrees that the audience plays a pivotal role in the microtheater experience and that the nature of the productions draws the public into an actor's world.
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"There is no fourth wall, so the actor is in direct communication with you and the piece becomes very organic, evolving in your mind and in your heart," Quintero says. "The work seduces and seduces you until a part of you is inside it. These actors will be performing the plays over a hundred times during the next month, and each time, the people and the environment will change. We offer audiences a unique journey that transports you to a whole other place."
One quickly apparent problem, though, is that the containers are located too close to each other. This is a hindrance because the walls are thin enough that actors' voices and play soundtracks often bleed through, causing distractions. CCE could have avoided this issue by simply placing the containers farther from one another in the expansive patio setting.
Also, during my experience, the ushers taking tickets and coordinating the audience groups were disorganized. Although each play runs no more than 15 minutes, you must realistically expect to wait at least a half-hour to amble from production to production. And if you plan to take in the works in a predetermined order, you might have to wait even longer. Last, remember to bring water, because the temperature inside the containers can be sweltering. This is Miami, after all, and the containers act like giant convection ovens.
Other than those quibbles, not only does this event make for a cheap date and a theater experience unlike any other, but also chances are that adventuresome types will clamor for more. Perhaps we can even look forward to CCE staging a porta-potty peephole monologue marathon in the near future.