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By John Thomason
Juan C. Sanchez’s Paradise Motel begins in the clouds and ends in the sewer. Charting five decades in the devolution of a fictional motel on Calle Ocho—and the parade of lovers, hustlers, sharks and addicts that have occupied its rooms—this collection of seven playlets presents an uncompromising vision of urban decay that will ring wincingly true for its Miami audience. Sanchez, his cast, and his director, Margaret Ledford, manage to find humor within each piece, but Paradise Motel is a fundamentally depressing work of regional criticism through the ages. It’s not always pleasing to absorb, but it’s a bold and fascinating conceptual experience—a dose of bitter historical medicine that’s worth taking.
Each of the short plays is preceded by a video montage projected onto the back wall of the performance space, Miami Theater Center’s intimate SandBox. The images that forecast the first play are from a vintage tourism film, touting Miami as “a land that knows no winter,” a glamorous utopia full of perfectly tanned frolickers. We’re in the sexist ‘50s, where married couple Dennis and Linda (Matt Stabile and Niki Fridh) are vacationing, though only Dennis seems to be enjoying the respite. Linda can’t seem to let loose—Fridh’s performance is as rigid as an ironing board—but we soon find out that she has good reason to be wary of her husband’s elevated enthusiasm about this developing town and their future in it. This is the most unnatural piece in Paradise Motel; both performers stage the scene like actors in a play, speaking their lines with affected archness and switching emotional gears with bipolar immediacy. They get away with it, sort of, because at least one of them plays an avaricious sociopath. And if Sanchez’s goal was to cut through the myth that the golden-hued ‘50s were any less disturbing than the up-front degradation of modern times, he succeeds.
Next, we’re in the Vietnam era for the play’s most powerful work—a tremulous love story between Michael (Jeremiah Musgrove), a guilty, shell-shocked soldier fresh off his participation in the My Lai massacre; and Ileana (Gladys R. Benton), the charming motel maid drawn to this tortured soul. Ledford punctuates the short, staccato scenes with blackouts and cracks of lightning that may only exist in the soldier’s mind; and when he’s wracked by PTSD nightmares, we remain inside his head, with projected war videos showing us what he sees. Musgrove plays Michael as a ball of fist-clenched, wall-hugging paranoia who explodes at any perceived affront. As you watch him lose touch with reality and contemplate suicide, your heart breaks.
This bit of visceral, pure theater is followed by the funniest playlet in Paradise Motel, set in the late ‘70s. Clad in a fashion-backward burgundy sport coat and slacks, and donning a impressively cultivated ‘stache, Stabile returns as Larry, an archetype of sleazy machismo—think Burt Reynolds, American Hustle and the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” video. He’s brought a streetwalker named “Peaches” (Kitt Marsh) to the motel, but his actions increasingly indicate that he’s not the average john. Marsh is exceptional at playing these sort of uncouth, toilet-mouthed trollops, and she’s terrific here as well, but she also impresses in the playlet’s climax, where her vulnerability and honesty win us over; it may be the only play in this collection that ends on a note of hope.
After intermission, Paradise Motel gets really seedy. The glamour of ‘50s Calle Ocho has given way to the drug-addled excesses, racial conflicts and economic hardships of the ‘80s, and its rooms have become flophouses of vice, sin and shame. Married father Raul (Andy Quiroga) has abandoned his child’s birthday party to sleep with his mistress, Gloria (Vanya Allen). The sexual energy between them smolders, and as the story turns into a lusty neo-noir, we begin to feel like voyeurs to a criminal plot. This foray into the Theater of Discomfort only intensifies in the next two pieces.
Next, in the early ‘90s, Quiroga returns as a do-rag-sporting, gold chain-wearing Cuban drug dealer who has lured a fidgety, wayward musician (Rayner Garranchan) to the Paradise for a night of crack cocaine and unwanted sexual provocation. Sanchez uses this playlet to explore the stigma of homosexuality in the Latin community and the harrowing consequences of repressing one’s identity, and it’s played to disquieting perfection. Garranchan’s work is the best I’ve ever seen from him, and Quiroga once again shows us that he’s one of the most underrated actors in this community.
Sanchez concludes with the least appealing work in his series, but that’s probably the point; we’re now firmly entrenched in Sarah Kane nihilism, with no foreseeable exit. Garranchan’s gender-bending Raulito wants to drown his birthday sorrows with a heroin jag, but he’s interrupted by Hannah and Charysse (Fridh and Allen), a pair of zombified tweakers receding into oblivion. Hannah is pregnant—who knows what godforsaken creature will emerge from her womb, if it’s unlucky enough to see the light of day—and she’s just stolen a Mercedes from a john after jamming a needle in his eye. Fridh and Allen, lovely people offstage, portray these strung-out junkies, their faces pockmarked with scabs, with so much learned accuracy that’s it scary. Be prepared to squirm in your seat and take a bunch of showers when you get home.
Most of the playlets tie in specifically with Miami news and cultural figures of the era, from mobster Meyer Lansky to the Liberty City race riots, Hurricane Andrew and the Elian Gonzalez media circus. Characters from some pieces reference or descend from characters in others, but there is not a consistent through-line bridging all of the generations, leaving a couple of the pieces feeling orphaned. I would have liked to have seen these connections either enforced throughout the piece or abandoned altogether.
But the main character, of course, is the motel, an appropriately shabby and spartan set design by Ledford and David Rudansky. Only in the first playlet do the words “Paradise Motel” shine proudly from one its walls, a neon marker just waiting to be lit up. By the next segment, the signage is gone, the motel already beginning to go to seed; by the end, it’s nothing more than a crack house, a repository of broken dreams, a way station en route to its inhabitants’ early graves. Is this really what Calle Ocho has become? Don’t expect this work to be touted by Miami’s tourism board, but for locals, this ghastly catalog of decline may be seen as a bold slice of life whose stories that need to be told, whether we want to hear them or not.
Paradise Motel runs 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through April 12 at Miami Theater Center’s SandBox, 9806 N.E. Second Ave., Miami Shores. Tickets cost $20. Call 305-751-9550 or visit mtcmiami.org.