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NOVEMBER 15, 2014

Lab 9 crafts a comedic culture clash in ‘Voices of the Island’

THE MIAMI HERALD

One of the many cool things about Miami Theater Center is founder-artistic director Stephanie Ansin’s dedication to fostering new work.

by Christine Dolen

One of the many cool things about Miami Theater Center is founder-artistic director Stephanie Ansin’s dedication to fostering new work.

Through the SandBox Series in the company’s intimate black box space, and thanks to a $100,000 Knight Arts Challenge grant, South Florida theater artists get funds, rehearsal space and time, and a place to present their work for three weekends — all precious elements in the development of new plays and companies.

Lab 9, a diverse group of artists (many of them graduates of Miami’s New World School of the Arts), is currently presenting Voices of the Island: A Caribbean Fantasy in the SandBox.

Written and directed by Joshua Jean-Baptiste, the play is a comedy — and sometimes a stinging satire — about clashing cultures on the fictional Caribbean island of Baduum (pronounced “Badoom”). The show pits a strongman president, Kuzaa (Andres Maldonado), against a sizable populace practicing shamanistic magic. A young man named Kupe (Marquise Rogers) seems poised to inherit the powers of his eccentric father (Edson Jean), and in Kuzaa’s world, that legacy places him in grave danger.

Sounds dramatic and serious, and at times Voices of the Island does take on government corruption, the ruthless elimination of enemies and other things that are no laughing matter. But mostly, Jean-Baptiste and his Lab 9 collaborators emphasize the crazy absurdities of life in a place where the atheistic tyranny of the Modo District and magical power of the island’s bush people meet head on.

The audience plays an occasional small part in how the 90-minute play unfolds. Theatergoers are seated on stacked milk crates (with a cushion atop each one) in the center of the space, and the fast-paced action unfolds all around them. They turn as the actors race from one part of the room to another, and at times become the island “voices,” voting whether one character or another should take the story forward.

The twists and turns of the story at times make it a bit harder to follow than it should be. The script could benefit from judicious trimming and a few more clarifying lines. Still, the cast brings the world of Voices of the Island to vibrant life.

Maldonado is regal and smilingly chilling as Kuzaa, Rogers an initially reluctant but finally valiant rival as Kupe. José Ignacio Elósegui deservedly gets most of the laughs as Kupe’s scene-stealing sidekick Daak. Jean’s Papa, who wears his shredded tailored pants inside out (Estela Vrancovich designed the clever costumes), embodies the forces of magic. Maria Corina Ramirez brings wiliness, strength and emotional resolve to the role of Isla, Kuzaa’s “disappeared” wife. Sean Morin and Riiah Mitchell exude a menacing vibe as Kuzaa’s masked goons.

One of the principles of theater education at New World is that actors should create their own work — and opportunities. Thanks to the SandBox Series, the members of Lab 9 are doing just that.