Jordan Levin

Here & Now performance festival a mixed bag

Alexis Caputo performs in Hattie Mae Williams’ ‘Snatched,’ part of the Miami Light Project’s Here & Now festival.
Alexis Caputo performs in Hattie Mae Williams’ ‘Snatched,’ part of the Miami Light Project’s Here & Now festival. Miami Herald Staff

Miami Light Project’s Here & Now festival is always a gamble. Its admirable premise of giving young artists their first shot at a fully produced performance, or more experienced ones a place to try out new works, necessarily means not all pieces are ready for prime time. The festival has been a crucial venue for important Miami voices such as Teo Castellanos, Rosie Herrera, Rudi Goblen and Natasha Tsakos.

But the format also results in the conundrum of evenings like the opening of this year’s festival, which runs through Saturday at The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse in Wynwood. Two of the four works were rewarding, sometimes significantly so. Another needed an outside eye, and a fourth was so amateurish and disjointed it didn’t belong in a professional performance at all.

Most satisfying was Hattie Mae Williams’ Snatched, a conceptually ambitious work that, though sometimes rambling, was frequently compelling and inventive. Williams, a Miami native who recently returned after years working in New York as a dance filmmaker and site-specific choreographer, invokes three historical figures whose African origins made them into exotic displays for white Western audiences: cabaret artist Josephine Baker, the exoticized darling of jazz age Paris; Sarah Baartman, an African woman exhibited as the “Hottentot Venus” in early 19th century Europe; and Ota Benga, a Congolese Pygmy shown at the Bronx Zoo in the early 1900s. Williams uses them to look at issues of racism and sexism; at how women, and black women in particular, are classified; at how the way we are seen can define our identity to ourselves as well as to others.

Dense, yes. The regal actress Alexis Caputo summons the audience on stage, separates them into men and women, guides them out into the hallways of the Lightbox — forcing us out of a comfortable observer role to think about watcher and watched. Statuesque Loni Johnson, majestic in piled on necklaces and ruffled bustle, represents Baartman — we’re invited to examine her via peepholes into a large painted box. A film shows a nude Williams covering herself with “Hello My Name Is” stickers with derogatory names for women. Live, in a flame-red dress, she dances a wild Josephine Baker-style Charleston. Later, Caputo commands us to “fix our gaze” on Williams, cavorting with bananas in a small office, like a live figure in a diorama. The audience is lined up along a hallway, men against one wall, women on the other, while the mesmerizing Shaneeka Harrell, who represents Ota Benga, tells a chilling African folk tale.

There is so much going on in Snatched that the ideas, and the impact of the participatory action, can get blurred. It’s hard to shift focus when Johnson and Caputo declaim long poems. Much of the piece’s meaning would be lost on those who don’t know the stories of Baker, Baartman and Benga (there’s no information in the program). But Snatched, and Williams, offer a potentially exciting new vision to Miami.

Also rewarding was director and playwright Michael Yawney’s Exile Jesus Starbucks, which tells the story of Iranian theater and visual artist Assurbanipal Babilla, or Bani, forced into exile after the Iranian Revolution for his homosexuality and radical work. This is a play as short story — Yawney portrays Bani (played with jumpy, comic charisma by Carlos Orizondo) in three scenes, deftly and humorously showing the artist’s vital, defiant spirit. We meet Bani hiding under a bed from government police, cheekily commenting on the charms of one of his pursuers; railing at New York’s obliviousness as he directs an absurd-sounding play about Jesus Christ; stubbornly making art huddled in a Starbucks storeroom at the end of his life. Rebecca Covey is terrific as his aggravated, loyal friend Niloofar, and Danny Leonard and Brandon Hoffman are also fine as befuddled actors.

Dancer/choreographer Lazaro Godoy’s dance-theater piece Harmonium Accordion/Act 1 had four terrifically accomplished performances and some vivid, pungent imagery. But despite a long period of development, it was also incoherent. Though it was described as a “dysfunctional family portrait,” the nature of and relationships between Harmonicum’s four characters remain a mystery. Sangode Lowe is a grotesquely scuttling, malevolent figure — perhaps a patriarch? — simultaneously scary and ridiculous. Melanie Martel and Carlota Pradera are a twin-like duo, in nude-colored ruffled briefs and tops that make them look like naked dolls, who dance a rapid, limb-crumpling duet that goes on for a very long time. Godoy, in ornately flowered pajamas (Belaxis Buil did the striking costumes), is mostly limp, until he’s pulled into a trio by the two women. The performers’ intensity and commitment were impressive, as was the physical inventiveness and idiosyncratic virtuosity of the movement. But all this striking material didn’t take us anywhere theatrically or emotionally. Godoy needs a director.

Unfortunately, Underwater Opera, the evening’s first piece, was gruelingly self-indulgent, a galumphing, cluttered mess vaguely evoking a cartoonish sci-fi post sea-level rise apocalypse. Though credited to Liz Ferrer, three additional directors, Kalan Sherrard, Poncili Creacion and Jen Clay, were listed. They and several other unidentified performers, wearing big colorful, smushy sea-creature costumes (the designer was not credited) thrashed about the stage, while a film showed a fish tank cluttered with dolls and detritus and three musicians played Ron Shalom’s shrill, irritating, vaguely ominous score. Underwater Opera felt like a child’s idea of an avant-garde performance.

If you go

What: Here & Now: 2015.

Where: The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, 404 NW 26th St., Miami.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday.

Cost: $10-$25.

Information: 305-576-4350 or miamilightproject.com.

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