Review: 'Miami Motel Stories: North Beach' Tries Something Different

Feb 13, 2020

“Miami Motel Stories,” Juggerknot Theatre Co.’s immersive gift to a theatrically diverse South Florida, is back for another round. This time, resident playwright Juan C. Sanchez has interwoven historically inspired short plays with an overarching concept, pushing boundaries yet remaining true to the immersive style that has won Juggerknot so many loyal fans.

Titled “Miami Motel Stories: North Beach,” the show begins in the inviting lobby of The Broadmoor Hotel on Miami Beach’s Ocean Terrace.

Before its Feb. 8 opening, the company kept the conceit of this edition of “Motel Stories” under wraps, but the idea is so deeply integrated into the production that it’s impossible to review the four-part show without going into particulars. So, spoiler alert: They’re making an indie movie about North Beach and we, the audience, are “volunteers” who have come to watch the final rehearsal before shooting begins the next day.

JC Gutierrez as a bartender has an encounter with Kevin Veloz as a young Hasidic man in 'Miami Motel Stories: North Beach.'
Credit Pedro Portal

With 2017’s “Miami Motel Stories: Little Havana,” 2018’s “Miami Motel Stories: MiMo” and 2019’s “Wynwood Stories” under its belt, Juggerknot is better than ever at organizing and intricately timing the four different themed tracks of the show’s short plays, which are performed simultaneously. The pieces in the yellow track are dubbed “home,” the pink track is “glamor,” the orange track “outsiders” and the blue track “crime.”

The fun begins when Lenny (Alex Alvarez), the excited director of the “movie,” bustles into The Broadmoor’s lobby to greet the “volunteers.” Theatergoers are divided into color-coded groups of 18 each, with each color further divided into three groups. Sometimes, you experience the action with everyone in your group; sometimes, just the six in your subgroup enter a hotel room to watch a play.

Actors playing production assistants (PAs) lead each group outside and a few doors down to the old Ocean Terrace Hotel, which almost looks boarded-up and abandoned, except for the colored lights visible in the upper windows. Then the PA knocks, the wooden planks standing in for proper doors swing open, you pass through a tiny lobby where several characters are dancing, and you’re taken to your color-coded area to be guided through 90 minutes of plays and encounters.

In its physical setup, “Miami Motel Stories: North Beach” is reminiscent of the first edition at Little Havana’s Tower Hotel. You walk or squeeze through narrow hallways to go from room to room, and once you enter to watch one of the 15-minute plays, you grab a seat or stand, trying to stay out of the way of the actors.

This time, though, the more improvisational-interactive part of the experience, which usually followed watching the plays, is woven throughout. Thus, as a fictional volunteer, you might be asked to place props around a room before a scene begins or to carry sponsor Perrier’s drinks from one room to another. (Truth? Not only are you not getting paid for the get-involved gimmicks, you’re actually paying almost $70 a ticket to serve as free “labor” – not that anything is burdensome or strictly required.)

Susie K. Taylor portrays a Hasidic woman in 1980 in 'Miami Motel Stories: North Beach.'
Credit Pedro Portal

Some of the improv is fun, particularly if you wind up in the hilarious clutches of the yellow track’s PA, Robert (Jeff Quintana), who has decided he should be called Axel. Quintana is quick and funny and impossible to resist when he tells you to read for a replacement casting and gives you ridiculous direction.

Even some of the scripted scenes involve bits of improv, as actors playing actors break out of their formal characters to ask the volunteers for advice on career choices, how to end a scene and more.

Tai Thompson and Ana Margineanu split directing duties, but the plays and performances in all four tracks are cohesive. Each track has haunting pieces and ones that don’t quite land, so it’s tough to recommend one over the others.

In the yellow track, Susie K. Taylor is heartbreaking as Deb, a Hasidic woman in 1980 who has left her community and, unwillingly, her children. Making a video for her beloved children to watch when they’re older, she radiates love and copes with life-shattering loss.

In another yellow-track play, Jeff Jean plays Leroy, a black student in 1972 who is bused from Overtown to attend a North Beach high school. He is studying at the home of his naive white classmate David (Pedro Urquia), and as their conversation progresses, it’s clear their differences haven’t yet been bridged by physical proximity.

Then there are 2018 squatters Patrick (Roderick Randle) and Jorge (Laurie Tanner), who are living in the most horrifying two rooms at the Ocean Terrace – scenic designer Li Milian went crazy on this one – and are locked in perpetual war. And the other yellow-track PA, Danny (Rayner Garranchan), is hamstrung as he scurries around, worrying and waiting for his wife to go into labor. 

The glamorous pink track features a disparate crew. Sandi Stock plays a makeup artist named April, a talented woman who’s so incensed that Lenny hasn’t cast her in the movie that she proceeds to complain for a good hour before she comes up with a dramatic solution. Real-life spouses Robert Fritz and Amy Coker play 1956 honeymooners Harold and Marion, fussing in their kitschy pink-dominated room about whether to relocate to Miami Beach.

In another pink space, Luckner Bruno is Gibbs, a magical soul whose gift for restoring shoes is layered over his lifelong insight into North Beach’s racist past. The award for creepiest play of “Miami Motel Stories: North Beach” goes to the one about Gianni Versace assassin Andrew Cunanan. Set in 1997, the play about a killer’s unraveling features Charles Sothers as a man whose soft-spoken attempts at charm and his clear ego give way to an action that will send you fleeing from the room.

Jeff Jean plays a teen bused from Overtown to North Beach in Juggerknot's 'Miami Motel Stories: North Beach.'
Credit Pedro Portal

The orange track, overseen by likeable assistant director Ramona (Liana Martell), is devoted to people who have found their way to North Beach without quite fitting in. A 1960 domestic worker named Mary (Maggie Maxwell) kneads pie dough as she spouts a series of cliches about her nice white Jewish employers, then the actor drops her character in frustration as she wonders why she couldn’t have played a more glamorous role.

Circa 1991, a charismatic South Beach bartender named Emilio (J.C. Gutierrez) and a quiet, young Hasidic man named Jacob (Kevin Veloz) are having an awkward yet enlightening morning-after conversation in Emilio’s room. As 1995 Argentine exes Ricardo and Cecilia, Mitch Lemos and Hannah Ghelman loudly perform a frequently vulgar two-level play about the sex-crazed former couple and how actors at odds deal with intimacy in a scene.

The highlight of the blue track – and arguably the entire production – is June Raven Romero’s performance as Madge, an impassioned undercover reporter in 1933. She’s a tough Southern gal crusading against vice, and when Romero drops that character to become the actor playing Madge, she’s a presence wherever she goes.

The other blue track plays feature Fernando Guillen as a menacing mob guy in 1969; Aubrey S. Kessler and Phillip Andrew Santiago as a pair of 1991 thieves waiting to go through suitcases of stuff they’ve taken from someone notable; and Stephen Kaiser as a man whose horrific 1995 beating in a park has left him unable to go on with life. Also in the blue track, Alvarez as director Lenny is crazed because it’s not at all clear if he’ll have a camera on set by the time the shoot is supposed to begin. But he has been given little to do but storm around, scream and drop f-bombs, a severe underutilization of a fine actor’s abilities.

Juggerknot’s all-woman team – producers Tanya and Natasha Bravo; scenic designer Milian; lighting designer Ana Maria Morales; sound designer Sarah Vingerhoedt; props designer Stephanie Debrecht; costume designer Lee Harrison; and choreographer Sandra Portal-Andreu – has accomplished the monumental task of transforming the spaces within the Ocean Terrace into distinctive worlds that help tell the stories. Stage manager Michelle M. Lavergne and her four assistants keep the action flowing precisely – not one but two times each night.

The let’s-play aspect of immersive theater, plus the regular post-show party, makes “Miami Motel Stories” a draw for younger audiences more likely to end up in a club than a traditional theater when they’re making weekend plans. Because the idea has been around for a bit now, it’s no longer novel, and this batch of plays has fewer clear standouts.

Yet what Juggerknot reliably delivers – a dramatic deep dive into a neighborhood’s changing character throughout time – shines through again.

Maggie Maxwell plays a domestic worker in 'Miami Motel Stories: North Beach.'
Credit Pedro Portal

If you go

  • What: “Miami Motel Stories: North Beach” by Juan C. Sanchez
  • When: 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays, through March 28 (the original run has been extended a month)
  • Where: Juggerknot Theatre Co. production starts at The Broadmoor Hotel, 7450 Ocean Ter., Miami Beach
  • Cost: Separate orange, yellow, pink and blue tracks cost $69.99 each (orange track is accessible to theatergoers with disabilities)
  • More information: 866-441-9962; miamimotelstories.com

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