Performing Arts

Seven decades of life in Little Havana unfold in ‘Paradise Motel’

In theater, related stories can be tied together in numerous ways, including theme and characters. Miami playwright Juan C. Sanchez uses place to link the half-dozen gritty, intriguing tales he tells in his newest work, Paradise Motel.

The latest offering in Miami Theater Center’s developmental SandBox Series reflects the evolution of a particular slice of Miami over seven decades. Paradise Motel begins in 1955 in a motel room off Southwest Eighth Street in Little Havana. A different story for each decade plays out in the same spot, until the play ends with a touch of mystery and romance in the present day.

Dark humor courses through Paradise Motel. So do varied kinds of sex, sudden violence and an evolving drug scene, from marijuana to cocaine to crystal meth. Using bridging archival footage to highlight the history unfolding between scenes, Sanchez aims to paint a picture of a place whose bizarre real-life stories have sparked the imaginations of countless authors and filmmakers. And with crisp writing that runs the gamut from tender to shocking, he does.

Sanchez gets an artful assist from his collaborators in the play’s first production. Director Margaret M. Ledford, lighting designer David Radunsky (both are credited with the minimalist set), and actors Matt Stabile and Niki Fridh are his colleagues in a new theater-film venture called Mangrove Creative Collective, which developed the play. Thanks also to the work of costume designer Dario Almirón, music by DJ Le Spam, and uniformly strong performances from Andy Quiroga, Jeremiah Musgrove, Gladys R. Benton, Kitt Marsh, Vanya Allen, Rayner Gabriel Garranchan, Stabile and Fridh, Paradise Motel marks the debut of a promising company.

In ‘55, the motel room is the scene of a marital battle between the ambitious, ruthless Dennis (Stabile) and his nervous wife Linda (Fridh), a couple with strikingly different visions of their future. In ‘69, it’s a temporary refuge for Michael (Musgrove), a Vietnam deserter with horrible post-traumatic stress disorder, and Ileana (Benton), the flirtatious daughter of the motel’s Cuban exile owner. In 1978, Saturday Night Fever wannabe Larry (Stabile) has a hilarious, ultimately touching encounter with Peaches (Marsh), a tough-talking older hooker.

The 1980 Miami riots are the backdrop for an adulterous, possibly murderous encounter between black single mom Gloria (Allen) and married dad Raúl (Quiroga). The raging winds of Hurricane Andrew thunder outside the room in 1992 when Alberto (Quiroga, here charismatic, menacing and oh-so-memorable) and Otto (Garranchan) share coke, crack, misogynistic rants and more. In 2000, meth-addicted prostitutes Hannah (Fridh) and Charysse (Allen) barge in on suicidal transvestite Raulito (Garranchan) with an odd request.

Like all SandBox Series offerings, Paradise Motel has a short run over three weekends with just six performances. Ticket sales are strong, so if you want to experience this engrossing slice of Miami life, don’t dawdle. Here’s hoping Mangrove will figure out a way to give Paradise Motel a second, longer run.

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