A Journey Through Hell With Miami New Drama’s “Seven Deadly Sins”

In a way, I suppose it’s my sinful nature that saw me impulsively buying a ticket to the second of two opening night performances of Miami New Drama’s deliciously wicked Seven Deadly Sins at near to the last minute. There’s no denying I’m a glutton for theatre, and after a near-nine-month fast, I was positively ravenous.

Playing until this January 3, Seven Deadly Sins is the first full-scale theatrical production to open in South Florida since the catastrophic COVID-19 shutdowns. The sheer scope of the undertaking certainly brought us back in with a bang. Instead of scaling down to suit the requirements of the era, artistic director Michel Hausmann went massive. The loading dock of Miami New Drama and six spaced-out Lincoln Road storefronts became the “stages” in which seven separate short plays are performed, each inspired by one of the titular sins.

The result is an expansive, immersive experience that begins in “Purgatory,” an outdoor bar and waiting area where theatergoers could lounge and enjoy a themed cocktail or two before the performance began. We could also browse the show’s virtual program by snapping a picture of a QR code at the box office, which I hope catches on as an option in more traditional productions. Save the trees!

When showtime hit, Kareema Khouri set the evening scene as the crooning “mistress of purgatory,” seducing us with songs of sin as musical director Wilkie Ferguson ably accompanied on the piano. From there, the mistress instructed us to check our wristband tickets, which would tell us where we should meet our guide for the evening, which might be in Purgatory or at one of the sins. That the guides and even our bartenders were all actors themselves only added to the pitch-perfect atmosphere of the evening; I found myself in a group led by Paula Macchi, whose cheery demeanor made for pleasant and informative between-show interludes.

Since the order in which the plays are experienced will naturally affect how we perceive them, in a way, Seven Deadly Sins is essentially eight different shows, and even more since there was a point at which our groups were shuffled. The seven sin-inspired vignettes were also written by seven different acclaimed authors of impressively diverse backgrounds, meaning that they showcase a variety of styles and tones throughout the evening. I enjoyed the result as a bit of a masterclass by example in writing short plays and an entertaining night.

While no human gathering can be 100 percent virus-proof, the extensive safety procedures put in place for Seven Deadly Sins made it damn close. As attested to the fact that it is one of the few live productions Actor’s Equity has approved for. Audience members get a temperature check before receiving their wristband and are required to wear masks throughout the performance. I noticed our guide diligently step in to remind one theatergoer who had let hers slip beneath her nose to pull it back up. Hand sanitizing stations were also available throughout the performance area, and they wiped down the seats after each group transitioned to the next “sin.” Finally, should any COVID incident occur, Miami New Drama also requires ticket buyers to list everyone’s names and numbers in their party at check out for potential contact tracing.

My night began in Wrath, with a one-woman play called Memories in Blood by Dael Orlandersmith. Our guide explained that a number on our wristbands would instruct us which socially distanced seat we should take and then handed us each a set of headphones to connect to a receiver which we would find velcroed to the side of our seat. These headphones were the vehicle through which we would be hearing the live performance of actress Carmen Peláez, whom we could see through the plexiglass of the storefront.

Though one might think that such a set-up would create a sense of disconnection, I instead found that it created an experience that was in many ways more intimate than your average night of theatre. The small groups we traveled in ensured us all seats close to the “stage.” And since I was physically estranged from my fellow audience members, my connection with the performers felt all the more penetrating.

For an emotionally-charged solo piece like Memories in the Blood, the effect of this was almost unsettling. The fact that we find Peláez’s unnamed character at home and her somewhat awkward demeanor made me feel almost embarrassed to be a witness to her intensely wrathful reflections. But the play’s meditation on memory, confinement, and loneliness was ultimately worth the discomfort.

Next up was Greed’s All I Want Is Everything! Written Moises Kaufman, which finds Gerald McCullouch as a money-mad son at his father’s funeral. His character, Leo, can only see death as a harbinger of his long-awaited inheritance. Mia Matthews plays his sensitive sister Vivienne. This time, I was relieved to find that the characters’ primary tension was with each other instead of with the crowd, the actors conveying an impressive amount of contentious sibling chemistry even though they were encased in separate plexiglass playing areas.

In a unique and resonant touch by scenic designers Christopher and Justin Swader, the areas were separated by their father’s coffin. Some discussion of how Leo came to be the shallow swine he is served as a poignant reminder that sinners are at least as often made as born. Overall, though, I found this story’s trajectory relatively predictable and the plotless original or nuanced than in some of the night’s other offerings. But the excellent performances and crisp, well-written dialogue still made it a pleasure to watch. 

The third sin on my menu was Gluttony, though the character at its center was not one known to be a glutton in the traditional sense: Richard Nixon. Though this play, Itsy Bitsy Spider by Rogelio Martinez, takes place in a restaurant, Nixon’s insatiable hunger is instead for power and admiration. Nixon confides these ambitions in his butler, played with elegance by Christopher Wrenshaw, while Gregg Weiner makes for a compelling and surprisingly likable central player as the notorious president. It’s difficult to become much of a politician unless you know how to play to a crowd.

While Nixon’s charisma made him more fun to spend time with than the narrator of Memories in the Blood, he was unsettling for entirely different reasons, including his resemblance to another notorious president who need not be named. Though this Nixon entertains delusions of running for office again even after his monumental fall from grace, hopefully, both he and his modern-day counterpart will be remembered by history as the crooks they are.

Especially given the nontraditional interpretation of Gluttony, I had begun to reflect on the tendency of one sin to blend into the next; on the Wrath that comes when greed goes unsatisfied, the spiritual “hunger” that underlies an endless pursuit of “more.” I wasn’t surprised by our guide’s assertion that the sin of Pride is revered as a precursor to the others. It takes a certain sense of superiority to justify thinking you deserve to have your desires satisfied at any cost, which is what most other sins boil down to. So maybe it’s not entirely surprising that the play representing Pride was probably the one I had the strongest emotional reaction to, or that this reaction was itself a sin: Wrath. 

Strapped, written by Carmen Peláez (whom we’d previously encountered as an actress in Memories in the Blood), also had one of the more inventive premises of the evening. The speaker of this solo piece is a statue of the seventh vice president and vocal pro-slavery advocate John C Calhoun come to life. The solo piece indicates the characters’ costuming and makeup and another ingenious set design touch, which brought us as his background the base of this statue, covered in Black Lives Matter protest signs.

This reanimated Calhoun, played with terrifying verisimilitude by Stephen G. Anthony, then delivered a manifesto on his racist beliefs. Though this raised my umbrage, Calhoun was no wrathful madman; his prideful certainty allowed him to calmly reason his way through his beliefs instead of lashing out, hiding his hatred behind a civilized veneer. His chilling analysis of white supremacy eventually implicates all who benefit from it, an indictment that will stick with me long after the play’s end.

Next door at Sloth, this meditation on race continued with Blackfish by Aurin Squire. This vignette also took a nontraditional interpretation of the sin it explored by harkening back to Sloth’s historical precursor acedia, which translates variously as the distance from God or as a kind of spiritual apathy. Sandi Stock starred as Regina, whose specific crime I’m going to avoid spoiling here; let’s just say that it involves a brazen act of deception. Stock’s portrayal brought depth and sincerity to a character who easily can appear two-dimensional villain; we get the sense that her desire for justice is genuine, but the slothful shortcut she takes in an attempt to bring it about is still unforgivable.

Regina’s story underscored my takeaway from Strapped; that honestly acknowledging your privilege is perhaps the first step to dismantling its underpinnings. In Shakespeare’s words, the best theatre can hold a mirror up to nature, which occurred to me when I caught a glimpse of my reflection in this piece’s plexiglass post-show. When characters share our sorrow, these mirrors can offer us solace, but in the case of Seven Deadly Sins, perhaps we’d best behold a warning.

Then there was Envy, a sin which here applies to both titular characters of Andre and Erica by Hilary Bettis. Andhy Mendez’s Andre is warming up before his Carnegie Hall debut when Renata Eastlick appears as his ex-girlfriend Erica. Both are talented piano players, and the magnetic confrontation that ensues is both steamy and fraught, complicated by romantic and professional jealousy. Sin, here, is destructive to others and self-defeating; the bitterness of nursing the green-eyed monster and the doubts that Andre and Erica instill in each other may well stop either from ever finding a happy ending.

After a brief stop in Purgatory, where our bartender Nate Promkul ably entertained us with a tale of a lost soul, last up was lust, which found us, appropriately, in a brothel. Amsterdam Latitudes by Milo Cruz featured Jessica Farr as the prostitute Ludmilla and Caleb Scott as Mirian, who has come to her searching for answers about a client of hers: his dead ex-lover.

While Farr’s performance sometimes struck me as a tad too affected next to Scott’s more realistic enactment of grief, both actors shone in this scorching examination of how passion unchecked can wreak havoc on a soul and a life. And though it is only by chance that this sin was my seventh, watching Mirian and Ludmilla don their masks to face the plague-filled world outside at the play’s end felt like a resonant conclusion to the entire night.

Well, near-conclusion, there was still a closing number from our Mistress of Purgatory to enjoy as she guided us through our curtain call. Kareema Khouri also provided God’s voice in the play Blackfish, a fitting role for someone capable of such powerful and enchanting vocals. I was stunned by her sheer talent and found myself getting surprisingly emotional, reeling from the effect of the night as a whole. It is awe-inspiring to see theatre persisting in such an elegant form despite all the obstacles COVID has sown. It felt as if the unique presentation of these seven plays had turned them into something far more special, thought-provoking, and excoriating than the sum of their parts. My head was spinning with overwhelm in the best possible way; having been through hell, I felt truly transformed. However, needing to work out a few kinks with the logistics of this new type of theatre. For example, our plays’ endings were occasionally interrupted by the sound of applause from a nearby play that had already wrapped up. I also missed the first minute or so of Amsterdam Latitudes because of a malfunctioning receiver. Despite these hiccups, I’m sure Seven Deadly Sins would have amazed me even in a more “normal” theatre season, and I hope it inspires other companies to experiment with unconventional forms both during the pandemic and beyond.

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