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Babylon Takes the Stage for Art Basel PDF Print E-mail
Written by Anne Tschida - BT Contributor   
November 2010

A new play about Miami artists asks: Can you sell without selling out?

Art_Feature_1The inaugural play from the newly formed Zoetic Stage will be performed during Art Basel Miami Beach, in early December, at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. The play, which follows five South Beach artists during the run-up to Art Basel, was written by a local, award-winning playwright who is part of a new repertory theater that hopes to become a driving force in the arts scene by producing homegrown productions and taking them national. What a neatly wrapped and timely cultural present.

South Beach Babylon was written by Michael McKeever and directed by Stuart Meltzer, the former artistic director of City Theatre, the company behind the popular Summer Shorts Festival. The two are the founders of Zoetic, a collaborative of local actors, designers, playwrights, and directors, which will emphasize developing new, South Florida-generated plays and musicals to tour or be performed elsewhere, something that has rarely happened in the past.

It all sounds pretty exciting, and even more so when talking with McKeever, whose energy and enthusiasm fly like sparks as he speaks, and also when he writes. McKeever has penned numerous plays, often heavy on humor and some, like Melt, very specific to culturally diverse Miami. But he has also plumbed darker realms, such as life in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich in The Garden of Hannah List. He has won several of Florida’s prestigious Carbonell Awards and is an actor and designer to boot.

Art_Feature_2The origins of Babylon sprout from the writer’s own time spent living on South Beach in the 1990s, back when Lincoln Road was the epicenter for visual arts in the area, when it was just becoming the subtropical destination for hip and cool that would seal its reputation in the years to come. “It was funky, and the people were funky,” says McKeever, “and I decided to base some characters on those people I knew, although they became their own personalities as they developed in the play.”

It is a comedy, but not lighthearted. The play addresses an issue that becomes starkly illuminated every year for the past decade in that first week of December: The artist’s struggle of conscience between making art for art’s sake, and making art for the market’s sake. McKeever sums it up this way: Can you make art to sell without selling out?

To dive into this eternal conundrum, McKeever sketched out six characters -- a photographer, two painters, a performance artist, a model who is the muse, and of course, a public-relations master. They grapple with “what is hot and what is not,” he says, and whether that matters.

The characters inhabit South Beach not just because McKeever himself had done that very thing, but also because of heightened dramatic conflict: the tension between the sexy glitz of SoBe, with its Babylon image of debauched party animals in a self-obsessed world, versus a serious, artistic one. The sets, appropriately, will depict local landmarks such as the Sagamore Hotel, which boasts a huge collection of contemporary art in its lobby and restaurant, and hosts A-list Basel parties; along with less glamorous spots such as a McKeever favorite, the dive bar Club Deuce.

Babylon’s tension -- and humor -- are not necessarily provincial. They can just as easily apply across Biscayne Bay in the new art hubs of Wynwood and the Design District, as artists try to define themselves during what is considered the biggest contemporary art fair in the world, where money speaks with a deafening roar.

Art_Feature_3As the play unfolds, we see the photographer “come into his own and bloom,” explains McKeever. He is creating a “Face of Miami Beach” poster campaign. But how commercial has he become? The photographer embodies the play’s theme: When you make art more accessible, do you also diminish its integrity? More fundamentally, is it still art?

In a twist of the plot, someone is mysteriously cutting out the faces of the “Face of Miami Beach” art posters hung all over town prior to Basel, making the image “faceless, a little like South Beach.”

One of the most intriguing threads in the play involves the performance artist, who is developing a real work-in-progress -- a piece within the piece. The eight-minute segment will be performed and choreographed by Miami’s own cutting-edge dance innovator Rosie Herrera (her much anticipated Various Stages of Drowning: A Cabaret will make its debut at the Arsht Center in January). Herrera will be joined by another well-known performance artist, Octavio Campos. Very cool, and very much Miami.

Also in the cast: Mad Cat Theater alum Erik Fabregat; Zoetic Stage company members and acclaimed actors Stephen G. Anthony, Elena Maria Garcia, and Amy McKenna; and the playwright himself. The more this present is unwrapped, the better it gets.

Zoetic Stage landed at the Arsht Center for its debut for fairly obvious reasons, says McKeever. It is the new nexus of cultural activity, energetically courting the arts world. That’s the kind of artistic commotion Zoetic Stage would like to create as well.

Art_Feature_4Art_Feature_5McKeever says he and Stuart Meltzer had talked for years about starting a theater company that broadened Miami’s horizons, both at home and abroad. “You can get stuck, in a resort town that we are, in forgetting about the culture all around,” McKeever observes. “So about eight months ago we just said, ‘Let’s do it!’”

According to director Meltzer, Babylon is the perfect premiere for the infant Zoetic Stage, as it represents the “commitment to produce and develop daring and exciting new work, bring together the best of South Florida theater artists, and produce a great evening of theater. I feel like I have to pinch myself. We’ve worked so hard over the past year, and it’s all finally coming together.”

For the time being, Zoetic Stage will be nomadic, as “rent is what kills theater companies,” says McKeever. But eventually Zoetic (from the Greek zoe, meaning pertaining to life) wants to find a permanent home so that it too can be a center of creative activity. “We don’t want to be gypsies forever, and things are happening so fast it’s amazing.”

Back in Babylon, the artists might be struggling with materialism, identity, and integrity, but they are still artists after all, so the play comes with a warning that it contains adult themes, language, and nudity. Just as it should.

Not coincidently, the premiere of South Beach Babylon will be December 2, the same day Art Basel Miami Beach opens. It will run through December 12 at the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are $40. Go to www.arschtcenter.org or call 305-949-6722 for tickets.

 

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