It sounds like the setup for a joke, though it isn’t.
Question: What has 6,000 gallons of water, (necessarily) waterproof lighting, actors who “dance” in the air and a dress code so casual that, yeah, you could show up in your bathing suit?
Answer: H2OMBRE, the splashy immersive summer show at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
And when the H2OMBRE folks say “splashy” and “immersive,” they aren’t reaching for descriptive language. At H2OMBRE, the more adventuresome you are, the soggier you may get.
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Like the Arsht summer hits Fuerza Bruta in 2009 and The Donkey Show in 2012, H2OMBRE is as much a spectacular happening as a piece of theater. Devised by Pichón Baldinu and Gabriella Baldini, two of the founders of Argentina’s De La Guarda (whose Villa Villa played to more than 3.5 million people worldwide), the new show is being created under the banner of the duo’s Ojalá Entertainment in partnership with the Arsht Center. If H2OMBRE flies (literally and figuratively), the Arsht’s name will be attached to it during a future the creators hope will take it on a national and world tour as well as to an extended run in New York.
H2OMBRE began as a short show titled Hombre Vertiente (Watershed Man), created for the water-themed Expo 2008 in Zaragosa, Spain. Expanding through workshops and developmental productions in Buenos Aires, Mexico City and Tel Aviv, the hour-long show — rechristened H2OMBRE to reflect its dual themes of water and man — will preview Thursday and get its official world premiere at the Arsht on Friday.
Driven by imagery and sound rather than language, H2OMBRE follows the journey of an artist as he travels into the world of the imagination, encountering beings and creatures that just may wind up in his work of art.
“The character is a universal artist, representing every artist and every man,” Baldinu, the show’s director, says by phone from Buenos Aires. “He follows his intincts to create his own world with its own rules. … He gets lost and has to fight to get back on the path. His journey is a fantastic one as a physical, visual and emotional experience.”
As for the water theme, producer Baldini notes that “water makes up 60 percent of our bodies.”
Baldinu adds, “Water means creation. It’s necessary for life. For the artist, the water in his body is creation. And sometimes it causes a lot of trouble.”
Scott Shiller, the Arsht’s executive vice president, has been behind the push for immersive summer spectacles at the performing arts center, with its diverse audience of South Florida residents and visitors from so many countries. He thinks that the journey of H2OMBRE will be in the eye of each beholder but that the show’s style and structure will get just about everyone to invest in the outcome.
“We’re pulling the audience through the looking glass. The show builds in energy as the audience lets its inhibitions down,” Shiller says. “So when the hero wins, people feel they own it … [but] everyone in the audience will interpret the story in a different way.”
Creating a show like H2OMBRE, crafting it as a full-length piece that works impressively enough in its world premiere run to thrill audiences and sell itself to future presenters, is neither simple nor inexpensive. The Arsht is a full producing partner, with Shiller credited as “producer and special artistic adviser.”
“We knew that for a project of this scale, we didn’t want to be just a checkbook,” Shiller says. “Gabriella and Pichón were willing to have us as a producer in the creative process, where collaboration is key. … And looking beyond Miami is central to our mission.”
All involved estimate that the tab for H2OMBRE thus far is $1.8 million. The costs extend far beyond the dozen cast members and crew required for each performance.
“We develop a lot of the systems we use in the show. We need to create our own machines to bring it to life. It’s not something you can buy in the market. You need to sculpt those elements,” Baldinu says. “We are always developing new ways to use the system to improve how we can play with and manipulate the water.”
Adds Baldinu, “The water has to be very precise and automated, with water pumps that open and close when you want them to. You cannot run a show by pressing buttons.”
Giant inflatable “monsters” are part of the show, as are projections and animation that blend with the work of actors performing aerial choreography, action devised by Baldinu and the production’s choreographer/creative consultant, Sergio Trujillo.
“Pichón and I worked together on Tarzan eight years ago,” says Trujillo, whose Broadway credits also include Jersey Boys, Memphis and Next to Normal, with Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s musical On Your Feet! among his upcoming projects.
“When he approached me about this, I was excited about working on it. As you establish yourself, you become restless about finding ways to grow. This is about me discovering a vocabulary in a way that feels right for this piece. Some of the cast has danced before, and some are aerial specialists. The way they move and approach choreography is different and exciting.”
Argentine actor Leo Kreimer, who is also a director and playwright, is playing the artist in H2OMBRE. He has worked with Baldinu and Baldini since the De La Guarda/ Villa Villa days, and Baldinu says of him, “He knows what we want to express. He has a brilliant mind, is funny and dramatic, with a great range of acting.”
Working with the duo “gives me the opportunity to create work on a scale I never imagined,” Kreimer says by phone from Buenos Aires. “Pichón comes up with ideas that at first look unfathomable. … The truth is, I’ve been doing this type of character for many years, and at this point it’s a pleasure. I have overcome the technical aspects of performing it.”
Nonetheless, what Kreimer does in H2OMBRE looks dangerous and daring. After a performance during the show’s Mexico City developmental run, a woman came up to him in the lobby, stared and said, “You’re crazy!”
“So I said, ‘If we were crazy, we’d be dead,’ ” Kreimer says, laughing.
As it did with Fuerza Bruta and The Donkey Show, the Arsht is transforming the stage of the Ziff Ballet Opera House into a hybrid of theater and club. The audience will enter from the theater’s loading dock to party pre-show in the onstage Bubble Lounge, where drinks and easily portable food will be available. Music by DJ Sama and guest DJs will surround H2OMBRE, which features its own driving electronic score by Gaby Kerpel.
Those who don’t dig standing or getting too wet can opt for VIP tables or reserved seating, though ponchos will be for sale and the VIP tickets come with a waterproof cellphone cover so they (well, anyone at the show) can shoot videos, take selfies, post to Facebook or Instagram, tweet or otherwise communicate their experience to their heart’s content. The party continues after the artist’s journey ends, sometimes for a couple of hours.
Those 6,000 gallons of water do make for a different environment. Except for backpacks and bags with cross-body straps, purses aren’t permitted (check them or buy an inexpensive backpack at the theater). Shiller suggests wearing rubber-soled shoes and clothes that won’t get ruined if they get wet. A bathing suit? Why not?
“This is Miami, so people are welcome to come in bathing suits,” he says.
“Our role is to take the audience in from the sidewalk and to make people leave whatever worries they have outside. … We want to get them involved. We want the audience to feel pulled into the dream.”