Miami Motel Stories – Wild History in Little Havana

(Actor Charles Sothers hosts Timeline Live 305. Photo Jordan Levin.)

Miami Motel Stories, the marvelously inventive blend of theater, history, and neighborhood invocation running in Little Havana’s deliciously dilapidated Tower Hotel, is a hit. Good reviews and lots of buzz mean that tickets to the second floor, and its intimate room by room scenes, are sold out through Nov. 12th, which is supposed to be the end of Motel Stories’ three weekend run.

While there’s a good chance that producers at the Juggerknot Theater Company will extend the show, you don’t need to wait. Even the first floor portion of the experience is a startlingly surreal good time, a time-surfing interactive funhouse with a Miami accent.

Tower Hotel sign
The Tower Hotel. Photo Jordan Levin.

The mood kicks in as soon as you walk up to the Tower Hotel, with its yellowing front and blinking neon sign (with an ironically winking little blue “dale” added) around a quiet corner from what’s become the honky-tonk section of Calle Ocho. The lobby, with its age-mottled plaster and faux Moorish arches, feels both Havana Vieja and crumbling Miami semi-slum (the soundtrack mixed Cuban rappers Orishas, jazz and El Manisero.) Last Saturday evening, the audience was a mix of ages and types that arts organizations fantasize about, with lots of 20-somethings and date night couples chattering around slightly puzzled looking older folks.

You plunge into Motel Stories as soon as you enter the narrow hallway, as actor/hosts burst out to invite you into the tiny rooms, each one a miniature piece of Little Havana and Tower motel history. Charles Sothers, in shiny green UM jersey, giant shades and heavy bling, is manic JC Santos, irrepressible host of Timeline Live 305, a Miami history game show, in a room covered with historic photos – the Mariel boatlift, the aftermath of the 1926 hurricane, Miami Vice’s Crocket and Tubbs. He packed us into the tiny space, had us shouting answers (I won a free drink – alcohol is a great incentive for education.) Cafecito Girl (Marcela Paguaga) shimmies up and down the hall, chattering in nasal, pitch-perfect Cuban Spanglish, inviting you to sample her coffee (do, it’s excellent.) Real musician Frankie Midnight played guitar and keyboard as he talked about the differences between music in Little Havana and his distant home in Miami Gardens, chatted Deep City Records and Sam Cooke’s Miami history with half a dozen people.

The Crime Room. Photo Jordan Levin.

The babbling, frizzy-haired Crime Room Lady (Lela Lombardo) scoured walls covered with newspaper clippings tracing murders and abductions, thrusting a magazine cover on the Versace killing into our faces. “You see this! He was shot in cold blood on Ocean Drive!” Debonair Ernesto Miyares roamed the hall, trying to lure people in to play dominoes.

Musician Frankie Midnight in Miami Motel Stories. Photo Jordan Levin

My favorite was the inspired Jeff Quintana, as the confidently psychotic motel manager, cursing, coaxing, provoking, improvising, and bantering with a dozen people simultaneously. “You leave here, it’s a murder zone! You die! Ok, $150 a week, no AC room. Single bed, you sleep on top of each other.”

Although the actors work off monologues by Motel Stories playwright/creator Juan C. Sanchez, and their performances are shaped by director Tamilla Woodward, most of what they do is improvised, responding to whoever is there. The result is wildly alive. The actors push to make you react, talk back, dance. You’re not just watching, you’re part of the event. It’s disconcerting and exhilarating and, if you go back, won’t be the same twice. That’s a Miami story.

Jeff Quintana is a manic motel manager. Photo Jordan Levin.

This has been a terrific autumn for theater here. In addition to Motel Stories, Miami New Drama’s visionary, multi-cultural and made-for-Miami version of Our Town (running through Nov. 19) has exhilarated those who’ve seen it, establishing the ambitious young troupe as a major original voice here. Both shows (both recipients of major Knight Arts Challenge grants) have the electrifying charge of creative ambition. In January, Zoetic Stage will have a world premiere, Christopher Demos-Brown’s Wrongful Death and Other Circus Acts. Here’s hoping that this kind of original work will create more excitement – and audiences who hunger for the new.

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