Sixteen years after its original publication, Up for Grabs has been returned to print by the University Press of Florida, and it is as relevant as ever. As its author, John Rothchild, notes in the freshly written afterword to this enlightening local history, anyone pining for a more innocent era of our city's development needs to get a clue: "Miami rolled out the red carpet for Al Capone in the 1920s, became a playground for retired mobsters in the 1940s, was the target of a Senate crime committee in the 1950s, allowed bookies to operate openly in the lobbies of beachfront hotels in the 1960s, produced Watergate burglars in the 1970s, embraced the drug trade in the 1980s, and hosted the corruption epidemics of the 1990s." But forget about trying to pin all this chicanery on any one ethnic group or the elite. Rothchild offers a more compelling rationale for our hometown's ongoing loopiness: It's not nice to fool with Mother Nature. He reminds us that upon its founding, much of Miami was swampland, while Miami Beach was entirely manmade -- a strip of sand dredged from the ocean's bottom. Both common sense and the cosmos suggest that we just weren't meant to live here. Our city is a living testament to man's folly in the name of year-round sunshine and real estate speculation. And here you thought it was just something in the water.

Very early on in The Devil's Music, Miche Braden belted out a low blues note to let everyone know this woman is not just an actress; she's also a phenomenal singer. But Braden's acting was the real prize. The range of her characterization was sassy, wise, bitter, and flirtatious. She was inexhaustible, singing thirteen gut-wrenching tunes in 90 minutes with no intermissions or scene changes. Her stamina and heartbreaking blues lent so many dimensions to the character of Bessie Smith, giving her the stage presence of a diva and the theatricality of a broken woman. As rare as it is to find a talented actress who also happens to have a voice like Bessie Smith's, Braden's exceptional performance proves it is possible.

Miami theater is as alive and thriving en español as it is in English. From the reputable Teatro Avante to the burgeoning number of small theaters on SW Eighth Street, there's much to be said for local Spanish-language theater. But this season director Rolando Moreno's Spanish adaptation of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire took the prize. La Ultima Parada gave theatergoers a taste of what challenging theater can do when teamed with excellent acting. Transplanting Williams's streetcar of Southern decadence to Guantánamo, Cuba, circa 1970, La Ultima Parada turned decadence into misogyny and the tradition of Latin-American machismo into an intriguing pendulum of sexuality. Actors Carlos Caballero and Alexa Kuve stood out for their raw emotionalism as Guantánamo Bay's Stanley and Stella. The play was at times colloquially hilarious and at other times heartbreaking, but above all it provided Spanish-speaking audiences with an unflinching closeup of Castro's postrevolutionary wasteland. La Ultima Parada also featured Vivian Ruiz, Evelio Taillacq, Maria Hernandez, Hugo Garcia, Gerardo Riveron, and Ricardo Ponte.

Miami's Spanish-language talk radio all too often suffers from a conformity that ill serves listeners, and from analysis that could more accurately be described as propaganda. For these reasons Col. Matias Farias's shows on weekday mornings and Thursday evenings are so refreshing. Where else on Spanish-language radio could one hear Commissioner Jimmy Morales dissect the Marlins stadium deal or listen in to frank talk about who will really benefit from the Latin Grammys coming to Miami? Farias's life is the stuff of novels. He escaped Cuba in a stolen crop-duster. After the failure of the Bay of Pigs, he joined the U.S. Air Force. He served in Vietnam and Laos, teaching military intelligence. While with the Southern Command in Panama he struck up a friendship with Gen. Manuel Noriega. Farias retired from the air force a full colonel in 1990. In addition to his radio duties, he consults on political campaigns both here and abroad. When this background comes to bear on political events in Miami, the result is an insight on which listeners have to come to rely.
Broadcasting sports news to Cuba exclusively, which is Edemio Nava's job description, has to be a uniquely challenging task. Radio Martí's mission as a U.S. government station is to provide the people of Cuba with unbiased information not available to them in the state-controlled media. Often that information is about Cuban sports heroes who once were celebrated in the media but now are ignored because they defected. Yet they remain heroes on the island. Thus Nava works in a peculiarly two-faced world, bringing news to the island about figures who officially no longer exist in their own nation. He is well qualified for this unique job, having a broad familiarity with sports and sports heroes both inside and outside the island.
This past season, every time a set caught the eye as aesthetically pleasing or clever, it was inevitably one of Rich Simone's creations. Simone's sets always seem to help bridge the gap between the audience and the actors, using the stage not only as a meeting point but also as a point of departure. Most recently his specialty seemed to be setting the mood for licentiousness, adultery, and other forms of sexual high jinks, as he did in Miracle Theatre's Things We Do for Love, and GableStage's The Real Thing. In Things We Do for Love Simone created a three-story home perfect for the bawdy upstairs/downstairs humor that British playwright Alan Ayckbourn had in mind when he wrote this farce about a nympho, a soon-to-be spinster, a drunkard, and a vegetarian. Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing had a more sophisticated design (clean lines and streamlined contemporary furnishings) for this more erudite group of lovers (also British, come to think of it). Simone cleverly made use of upstage space to depict the playwright's play within a play.
This year Ray Lockhart proved that maybe you can trick the Devil, but you can't fool an audience. As Lem, the man who murdered Robert Johnson, Lockhart was not only pivotal to the play's denouement but also essential to the emotional chemistry onstage. Portraying a long-absent and embittered husband, Lockhart filled M Ensemble's tiny set with the emotional intensity and stage presence of a man who has spent the past few years splitting rocks and returns to find his wife bedding down with a handsome, mysterious stranger. Lockhart's raw physicality and confident stage presence elevated the quality of this drama immensely, without overshadowing the rest of the cast. Finding the balance between rage and passion, this quarry worker turned out to be the gem in this bitter tragedy.

To succeed in a supporting role, an actress must know her part within the context of the play as well as the character itself, and Tanya Bravo is one local actress who accomplishes this so consistently that her presence on the cast list always ensures an enigmatic evening of drama. She possesses the intensity and stage presence of an actress who always inhabits her character -- be it a punked-out band groupie in Caldwell Theatre's As Bees in Honey Drown, the young-girl version of Ruth in New Theatre's The Book of Ruth, or more recently as Chrysothemis in New Theatre's Electra. As the practical but ultimately vulnerable sister of Electra, Bravo showed her ability to channel conflicting emotions in relatively limited speaking parts. Her control and sharp instinct guarantee that her performance is never diminished by the size of the role she plays.

"Are you for real?" asks a caller to The Phil Hendrie Show. "You must be making this up." For Miamians who enjoyed Hendrie's satirical shtick during the two-and-a-half years he broadcast on WIOD-AM (610), the impressionist master's syndicated return this year on WINZ-AM (940) is the best thing to happen to Miami radio since he left, two years ago. Sure there are some changes. Stock characters such as steak house owner Ted Bell made the move west with him. Show-business columnist Margaret Gray no longer hails from Bal Harbour but from Pacific Palisades. (Recently she encouraged abortion as a way to generate fetal tissue that could be used to research a cure for the paralysis that cripples actor Christopher Reeve.) But like fans of a minor-league baseball team, those of us who heard Hendrie hone his act in Miami feel proud of his success and glad that he can now exploit an entire nation of gullible listeners, a never-ending supply of dupes questioning the credibility of, say, the recent guest who claimed to have invented solar power.

What made Coconut Grove Playhouse stand out this season is the same phenomenon that made the birth of the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup a hit -- the pairing of two things that normally don't go together. In this case two kinds of theater: the big-name, high-profile stars and full-scale productions the mainstage puts on, and the more intimate and diverse productions found in the Encore Room. This season each produced an outstanding show: Art and A Bicycle Country. Yasmina Reza's award-winning Art took satire beyond the limits of comedy into the hilarious drama of the human heart and its feckless sidekick, ego. The excellent acting and superb script transformed the Playhouse's mainstage into a blank canvas redolent with the gradations of comedy and drama essential to interesting theater. Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz made his Miami debut of A Bicycle Country, and the Encore turned out to be the perfect space for three balseros adrift at sea. The Encore's theater-in-the-round staging for the set heightened the sense of confinement, especially in the second half of the play, when the stage becomes a makeshift raft. (Set designer Steve Lambert used a hydraulic system to rock the stage as if it were on water in a subtle yet effective visual device.) While the playhouse has been teaming up its mainstage and Encore Room for at least a decade now, this season hit an especially winning combination.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®