Ever since Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) joined the nascent arts community blooming near Biscayne Bay, the area has rapidly become a favorite among local arts lovers eager to experience a more laid-back art walk than the boisterous Second Saturday version that transforms Wynwood into a jam-packed spectacle a few miles away. From PAMM's home off the MacArthur Causeway to Flagler Street on the south end, downtown Miami is home to some of South Florida's cultural heavy hitters, including the MDC Museum of Art + Design, CIFO, and Cannonball, plus a tightly knit cadre of artist-run spaces and a growing gallery scene. At the DWNTWN Arts House, some of the Magic City's venerable alt spaces, such as Dimensions Variable and Bas Fisher Invitational, hold sway in the 20,000-square-foot creative depot that also houses the TM Sisters' studio and Turn-Based Press. Just a few blocks south, Primary Projects offers some of the region's edgiest programming at its new space, while the Aluna Art Foundation on West Flagler Street and HistoryMiami offer a raft of equally intriguing exhibits at the area's southernmost fringe. There's plenty of parking and easily accessible public transportation, including the free Metromover, while watering holes and eateries such as the DRB, the Corner, and Will Call provide the grub and spirits without visitors having to queue up at a food truck rodeo to fill the gullet after feeding the soul. Check it out beginning at 6 p.m. every first Friday of the month.

The Bass
Photo by Zachary Balber

Between the usual Art Basel madness and the gala opening of Pérez Art Museum Miami, the Magic City enjoyed more than its fair share of fantastic exhibits in 2013. Only one, however, featured Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage dressed in drag portraying a 17th-century German dwarf. That honor goes to Eve Sussman's "Rufus Corporation," a blockbuster at the Bass Museum that not only reaffirmed Sussman as one of the most important contemporary artists working today but also marked the museum's growing profile on the local scene. The stellar exhibit boasted a series of films, photos, installations, and videos, including the star turn by Dinklage. Sussman cast him in her 89 Seconds at Alcázar, a 12-minute film that garnered international attention when it debuted at the 2004 Whitney Biennial. Dinklage took the part — as Mari Barbola, a German dwarf made famous in Diego Velázquez's enigmatic opus Las Meninas, a scene from the Spanish court of King Philip IV in 1656 — before he catapulted to Hollywood fame. The movie re-envisioned what transpired among the Spanish royal family, their servants, a dog, and the painter at their summer palace more than 350 years ago, transporting Bass visitors to an opulent age. But for all of Dinklage's star power, the show stealer was Sussman's feature-length video-musical The Rape of the Sabine Women, which reinterpreted the founding of Rome in an unforgettable way. Originally shot for the big screen, the 80-minute movie was transformed by Sussman into a five-part installation that turned spectators into actors in an epic production. Sussman presented the haunting imagery shot in the Mediterranean with modern actors on 30 screens, including sprawling wall projections; a stand-alone, house-like construction near the rear of the museum; several postcard-size video monitors; and a massive installation of TV sets piled randomly on the floor, reminiscent of a technological junkyard.

Pérez Art Museum Miami
Photo by MannyofMiami.com

Let's face it: Baselites are damn hard to impress. Each year, the jaded international art-world cognoscenti flock to the 305 for Art Basel, an aesthetic winter bacchanalia where the latest contemporary trends and talent compete for attention with the über-exclusive VIP list for over-the-top private soirees. But in December 2013, for once that wasn't the case. That's because everyone from locals to the visiting glitterati were all left agog by the new Pérez Art Museum Miami. When PAMM opened on Biscayne Bay with a raft of blockbuster exhibits, including a survey of Chinese star Ai Weiwei, it was the 21st-century museum's stunning building that left tongues wagging. Designed by award-winning Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, the stunning cultural showcase was inspired by "Stiltsville," the tiny village of shacks rising from Biscayne Bay. The result is a bleeding-edge shrine to PAMM's growing collection that anchors the east end of the 29-acre Museum Park. The site will also be the home of the nearby Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, designed by Grimshaw Architects and scheduled to open in 2015. From the moment visitors enter PAMM — which boasts 200,000 square feet of space — they're left with the sensation they've stepped into a sculptural artwork. Outside, hanging gardens tower 60 feet overhead beside views of the water and Miami's skyline shimmering in the languid breeze. Destined to remain the Magic City's creative hub for years to come, the museum has already made an impact through its series PAMM Presents, taking place every third Thursday, when it delivers internationally acclaimed talent and performers for an eclectic range of dance music and experimental sounds on the bay.

Vizcaya Museum & Gardens
Courtesy of Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau

Yeah, we know Miami is the only urban metropolis wedged next to two national parks (that's Biscayne and the Everglades, you rube). But that doesn't mean it's easy to find a jewel of urban quietude amid that concrete jungle. That's why Vizcaya is such a miracle in the Magic City. Nested in the heart of Coconut Grove, the estate was built by agricultural magnate James Deering in the years after World War I and modeled on an Italian Renaissance villa. Elaborate gardens spill through mangroves to the edge of Biscayne Bay, while the house itself is a stunning faux-European masterpiece. Yet the place exudes pure Miami charm, from the local limestone and native subtropical foliage to the regular stream of weekend quinceañera photo shoots along the water's edge. Next time your urban fervor spikes, there's no need to flee an hour and a half into the midst of the Glades — simply head to the mystical respite in downtown Miami's backyard.

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For a perfect ensemble cast, actors' responsibilities are twofold: They each have to create a character that is distinct and three-dimensional, and they have to collaborate to create a fictional world that is, in most cases, as plausible as the one beyond the proscenium. If there's one bit of miscasting, the audience becomes conscious of a "performance" — and then the simulacrum crumbles. This was never the case in the Alliance Theatre Lab's unforgettable Savage in Limbo, in which director Adalberto Acevedo's five actors played together with the harmonic richness of a musical quintet with decades of experience. The setting was a broken-down bar where a handful of broken-down lives converged. These desperate, frantic, rootless barflies included Shira Abergel's 32-year-old virgin, Valentina Izarra's hooker-attired sparkplug, Curtis Belz's romantically scattered lunkhead, and Breeza Zeller's professional drunk, slumped in melancholy perpetuity over the bar. Christian Vandepas' barkeep presided over this carnival of lost souls with weary disillusionment while clinging onto a thread of hope that quietly unfurled. Collectively, these actors formed the emotional nucleus of a place in which no one ever wants to wind up, but it must have struck many viewers as painfully familiar.

Miami Theater Center

A year ago, Erin Joy Schmidt took home New Times' honors for Best Actress thanks to her searing, tear-stained portrayal of an author learning a life-altering secret in Actors' Playhouse's Other Desert Cities. This year, she's won Best Supporting Actress thanks to her latest tear-jerking part — only this time the waterworks are the audience's alone, and they're born of comedy, not tragedy. Schmidt's presence contributed to the finest live-theater entries of Mad Cat Theatre Company's Mixtape 2: Ummagumma Forza Zuma!, "a typically eccentric compilation of playlets, poems, short films, and music videos at Miami Theater Center. It was a showcase for her range, which encompassed everything from a confused focus group participant who acquiesces to the demands of a convincing controller (in Blind?) to one of four siblings grieving for their dying mother in the precise and cerebrally moving Unearthed. But her piece de resistance was in Theo Reyna's The Scottish Play, a geopolitical satire in which her character stood in for the country of Scotland. Employing a deliberately overwrought, scarily committed Scottish accent that bordered on parody without ever succumbing to it, her work in The Scottish Play was funnier than anything she's ever done. And like a true pro, she played every ridiculous line as if her life and, of course, her national sovereignty depended upon it.

There is no such thing as a "typical" Karen Stephens part. Like the best actors anywhere, she's an invisible conduit for a playwright's unique creation, which, paradoxically, we cannot imagine existing without her. Thus, if Christopher Demos-Brown's world-premiere play Fear Up Harsh, which debuted in Miami courtesy of Zoetic Stage, receives productions elsewhere, Stephens' masterly lead performance sets a seemingly untouchable benchmark. Her lesbian army corporal — physically and emotionally bruised, desperate, and probably alcoholic — is as convincing a portrayal of a military veteran as we've seen onstage, with Stephens infusing her character's tortured memories and wry wit with lived-in intelligence. A few months later, she flawlessly inhabited another complex character — a brash, funny, Southern-bred maid with a heavenly secret — in GableStage's The Mountaintop. That secret torpedoed an otherwise provocative piece, but Stephens remained truthful even during its descent, culminating in a powerful soliloquy encompassing the past 40 years of African-American history that ebbed and flowed with the oratorical gusto of The Mountaintop's immortal subject, Martin Luther King Jr.

South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center

Once viewed as a construction-delayed, $51 million albatross, the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center (SMDCAC) has already done plenty since it's 2011 grand opening to prove its worth to taxpayers. It has delivered a winning combination of jazz, classical, and dance shows with a heavy emphasis on Latin American and Caribbean troupes. But no one could have predicted that one of its greatest contributions to Miami's arts scenes would be providing an itinerant theater a permanent home. That's just what happened, though, after the rightly acclaimed New Theatre lost its longtime space in Coral Gables and then bounced around a few other locations before landing at SMDCAC. Their combination has been the Jay Z/Beyoncé hookup of the South Florida arts world — a powerhouse arts marriage made in heaven. New Theatre's premiere in-house production, Visiting Hours, told the story of an older lesbian couple and their estranged son, who barges back into their lives following charges of aggravated assault. Written by frequent New Theatre collaborator and Miami native David Caudle, the work gave the company a refreshing and memorable new start. Weaving innovative pieces from New Theatre into a season filled with crowd-pleasing events — the Miami Symphony Orchestra, jazz singer René Marie, and flamenco star Jesse Cook, to name a few — has solidified the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center as an exciting and worthy enhancement to Miami's theatrical stage.

Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts
Justin Namon

The touring production of Elf didn't make its way to Miami until December 31 — after many Christmas enthusiasts had already pulled the lights off their palm trees and bundled away the inflatable lawn snow globes for another year. But that doesn't mean the Christmas spirit didn't live strong at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. In fact, when it comes to eternal holiday cheer, Elf probably gave the year-round local favorite Christmas Palace a run for its money. The production, based on the instant classic starring Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel, brings the film to even grander and sillier heights by not only keeping all the fan favorite lines and scenes but also adding infectious songs, even more heart, and so much holiday fun that Santa might OD on cheer. Even better, Elf delivered snow to Miami, dusting the stage with the kind of white stuff that's all too rare in the 305. By the musical's end, you'd be hard-pressed not to agree with Buddy the Elf when he proclaims, "Smiling's my favorite!"

Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts
Justin Namon

It's worth remembering that before John Wilkes Booth became the first successful presidential assassin, he was a Shakespearean actor, and apparently a damn good one. Early reviews of his plays referred to his "natural genius" and his status as "the most promising young actor on the American stage." So it takes an equally brilliant actor to bring this fascinating monster to life, to convey both his misguided sense of vengeance and his imposing theatricality — his demons and his dramaturgy alike. In this regard, Nicholas Richberg exceeded all expectations in his embodiment of Booth, one of a number of presidential killers explored in Stephen Sondheim's offbeat musical Assassins, from Zoetic Stage. Resembling the real Booth with frightening attention to detail in hair, makeup, and costuming, Richberg anchored a show that is, by its nature, all over the place — providing, in the character of this talented racist, its panache and its fire and even its soul. Barbara Bradshaw, a former New Times Best Actress winner, recently told a reporter that even if she were playing the biggest villain in a show, she needed to play her with the knowledge that she didn't know she was a villain. This was certainly the case with Richberg's Booth, who achieved the unlikely feat of making us genuinely care about the man who murdered our greatest president.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®