The Project [theatre] doesn’t create or present theater the way most companies do. The small Miami troupe, whose members include former classmates from the New World School of the Arts, devises site-specific pieces using improvisation and theater games, creating both a script and a thematically appropriate venue in just a few weeks.
That’s how Urban Apparel, The Project’s newest work, came to be.
The crisis-filled comedy unfolds in a welcoming little hipster boutique in downtown Miami. The store is the work of company member and designer Elayne Bryan, who created warm wood walls for the merchandise displays and even recycled discarded Art Basel shipping crates into the central checkout counters. Actor Jackie Rivera collected the merchandise (vintage clothing, warm knitwear, jewelry, plates with sassy slogans), all of which is really for sale.
How convincing is the store? Before Friday’s opening performance, a few passers-by who had no idea a play was about to take place came in, did a little holiday shopping, then left. Others got primed for the show at a little bar tucked into one corner, where craft beers, wine and water are on the menu.
Once Urban Apparel begins, it’s clear that the play -- written by artistic director David Hemphill, Rivera and actors Gladys R. Benton, Jeremiah Musgrove and Marquise Rogers -- is an example of immersive theater rather than interactive drama in which patrons get dragged into the action, sometimes unwillingly. Interactivity happens in spare, tiny doses in Urban Apparel, but otherwise, the piece is a simple and somewhat predictible comedy laced with conflict.
Absentee Urban Apparel owner Joe Reaves (voiced by Gregg Weiner, who’s appearing in the flesh in Making God Laugh at Actors’ Playhouse these days) unloads a bombshell via voice mail as the play begins: He has sold the store and is on his way in to close the deal. The boutique’s loyal staff -- assistant manager Astrid (Benton), blissed-out sales gal 6 (Rivera) and display designer T’eb (Musgrove) -- don’t get this news until later in the evening, so they and new hire Morris (Rogers) just go about their business. Though Morris, as it turns out, does possess some insider information.
Urban Apparel succeeds best as a character study, which isn’t so surprising since the actors create and flesh out characters, then cook up their dramatic and comedic interactions. Each of the four performers creates a memorable, watchable personality. Benton’s Astrid is lovely and driven, yet stuck in a rut. Musgrove’s introverted T’eb suffers from a years-long, unrequited crush on her. Rivera’s 6 is a joyful, out-there force of nature. Rogers’ charismatic Morris is a man of intriguing mystery.
Although the crowd inside the store clearly digs the experience, if The Project wants to give its shows a longer, deeper life, the writers should spend more time crafting their scripts. Yes, Urban Apparel contains some very funny, insightful lines, but others come off as conversation just taking up space. And the “shoppers” who make up the audience, at least the ones with much of a theatergoing history, will see most of the plot “twists” coming.