Nilo Cruz’ exquisite verbal symphony about the transforming power of literature simmers with surprising moment-to-moment vitality, thanks to this new Spanish interpretation of the 2003 Pulitzer winner Anna in the Tropics and an inspired GALA ensemble. As directed by Jose Carrasquillo, this Washington D.C. premiere heightens Cruz’ celebrated poetic dialogue.
Set in 1929 Tampa, Florida, Ana en el Tropico opens with a split-reality. As a spotlighted cock fight escalates, an electrifying Jose Guzman, as Eliades, explodes with high-charged cry, “kikiriki!” Santiago, flamboyantly portrayed by Hugo Medrano is gambling away his dominant control of his cigar factory to his street-smarter, wily, half-brother, Cheche (Manolo Santalla).
Cheche, embodying rebellion against the Old World, crosses off days on the calendar before he has lived through them, a wonderful telling detail that sums up the futility he feels. Lectors are hired to read masterpieces out loud to raise the morale of assembly-line cigar rollers. Cheche lost his wife to a former lector. He doesn’t want to suffer one more day at the cigar factory. He wants to fire the next lector, and replace the hand rollers with machines.
Meanwhile, a mother and two daughters breathlessly await the seaport arrival of their new lector from Cuba. Marian Licha is radiant as Ofelia, the cigar factory matriarch with a mission to safe-guard an endangered custom. Monalisa Arias, projects an endearing innocence as Marela, Ofelia’s youngest daughter, who is so infatuated with the lector’s photo, she has written his name on a piece of paper and dipped it in water mixed with brown sugar and cinnamon to instill a sweet spell on him. Veronica del Cerro, as the down-to-earth, married older sister, Conchita, conversely breaks a rule of propriety later in the play.
When the lector Juan Julian (Oscar Ceville) is introduced to the cigar makers, his impassioned reading from Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” transports them into a lush dream world of marital infidelity and deceit. From this point on, the workers’ imaginary world, inspired by the novel, is set against the raw-edged, real world of the factory.
There’s a genuine aura of reality to Tony Cisek’s dusty sweatshop, up to the grimy, smoke-smudged windows and leisurely-turning ceiling fans against a surreal backdrop of brownish-rose reproductions of cigar-box labels. Authentic-looking work tables are lined up center stage.
Oscar Ceville, costumed in a tropical cool white suit , the “Persian canary,” is superb in the catalyst role. Ceville projects an urbane and serene charm, as he perches from a throne-like platform and reads the Russian novel because a hot love story in an icy climate is a good read in a sweltering summer. When several workers get swept away by Anna’s passionate, extra-marital love affair, we gradually see the sweatshop workers inebriated by the word power. And we witness the characters cross lines of propriety and their lives change. At several points I wanted to ask: Is life imitating art or does art imitate life?
Monalisa Arias is a stand-out as the ultra-romantic Marela, who like some of Shakespeare’s characters seems to be so filled with youthful yearning, she’s in love with love. Life is one big dream. She goes bonkers imagining Anna waltzing with her lover, Vronsky, in an elegant ballroom. Marela is so starved for romance, she sweeps the stage apron with rhapsodic grandeur, broad gestures, and bursts out in a blaze of Cruz’ surreal imagery: “…. A bicycle dreams of becoming a boy, an umbrella dreams of becoming the rain, a pearl dreams of becoming a woman, and a chair dreams of becoming a gazelle and running back to the forest.” This is how Marela tells her older sister to shed her sense of self, and to allow her dreams to run as wild as Anna’s uncontrollable passion.
That passage works so well in Spanish, with its open-vowel endings, that English by contrast, may sound hyperbolic, even bizarre. In Spanish, such exaggeration flows like a pulse. It’s part of the expressive style and the way a wistful, young girl might speak. Later, it makes perfect sense for Marela’s father, Santiago, to ask her to be the model to dress-up in a plush black hat and floor length, fur coat for the box label portrait for the factory’s new cigar, “Anna Karenina.” But as intensity heats up, when despondency sets in, the playwright doesn’t pull his punches. What’s heartbreaking to see is Marela stripped of her flowery illusions when she is sexually harassed and ultimately subdued.
A stunning revelation about the power of art that must be pointed out comes when Conchita and Palomo, (Jose Guzman) confront their unhappiness by discussing Anna’s marriage. Both Conchita and Palomo want a divorce but their families disapprove. The only difference is that Palomo is more like Anna because he is cheating on Conchita and has a secret lover. At the close of Act I, without physically touching her, Juan Julian reads to Conchita as if casting a magic web over her. Overpowered by the seductive sway of his voice, Veronica del Cerro, standing center stage), spontaneously transforms into Anna. Conchita takes on the stature of a more statuesque, full-bodied woman who allows real passion to well up inside her. Thereafter, Conchita becomes a seductress in control of her relationship with Palomo and teaches him how to love her. Absolutely memorable!
There are many satisfying, light-hearted moments throughout that provide variation on a theme, as in music. Santiago (Hugo Medrano) and Ofelia (Marian Licha), for instance, offer a delightful variation. Santiago expresses his panic about midlife crisis and loss of virility, in imagistic language: “And I see a line of little ants carrying breadcrumbs on their backs. But the crumbs they are taking away are my pride and my self-respect. My dignity.”
When Santiago falls under the lector’s spell his self-esteem also benefits from the influence. What is fascinating is the way two veteran actors, Hugo Medrano and Marian Licha work together, even dance a salsa step or two, and endow Santiago and Ofelia with a convincing reconciliation, a theme, that keeps surfacing. Ofelia, who straight-out loves Santiago, conveys a soothing blend of sensuality and maternal instinct, as she struggles to keep her family from falling apart. When Santiago realizes his marriage is solid, he stops gambling and drinking, listens to his workers, and makes some heroic decisions.
In the last scene of the play, I’d like to think the glances exchanged between Conchita and Palomo signify the healing power of love and the hope for reconciliation. Carrasquillo reinforces that impression with a touch of magical realism by placing the lector, still in a white linen suit, upstage like the hovering spirit. It’s a brilliant directorial touch that conveys to us that the tradition of the lector will not die.
The strong characterizations and beautiful, musical language make this play a must-see. (Cruz reminds me of Chekhov.) Director Jose Carrasquillo makes sure the actors are in-your-face front and center by placing the intimate scenes on the apron. Each member of the seven-actor ensemble organically understands and connects with a real person and we can see it. The commitment is mesmerizing, and enlivens Cruz’ complexity.
Nilo Cruz confesses that when he writes in English, he hears his characters talk to him first in Spanish. He thinks in Spanish; but I still opine that this play can work well in any translation.
On opening night this impressive troupe brought a full-house crowd at the Tivoli to a standing ovation. Go and experience it to the fullest. Don’t let this masterpiece disappear like a puff of smoke.
Note: GALA follows its usual custom of performing in Spanish with projected surtitles, which are this time are overhead and center stage. It’s still a good idea for non-fluent Spanish speakers to sit further back.
Ana en el Tropico (Anna in the Tropics) runs thru March 4, 2012 at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th Street, NW Washington, DC.
Ana en el Tropico (Anna in the Tropics), a Washington D.C. premiere
by Nilo Cruz
Translation by Nilo Cruz and Nacho Artime
Directed by Jose Carrasquillo
Produced by GALA Theatre at Tivoli Square
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running Time: 2 hours with 1 intermission.