As reflected in the simple yet telling title of the current production at MetroStage, Be Careful! The Sharks Will Eat You!, the story depicts a family’s struggle to cross the dangerous waters to escape 1960’s Cuba. This autobiographical tale opens with the writer/performer Jay Alvarez as a little sniffling four year-old being herded against his will into the boat that will get his family to America.
Thanks to the keen direction by Theresa Gambacorta and the sound of splashing waves and the beams of roving flashlights, (sound and lighting by Kelly Ericson Harnett and Jessica Lee Winfield respectively), we all seem transported into the boat with scared little Jay, wondering what the future will hold and hoping we don’t become shark food.
Alvarez embodies all of his characters with a loving physicality that is a joy to watch—moving with grace and ease, he channels his parents, Humberto and Chiqui, and other loved ones with irrepressible excitement. They are all right there in front of our eyes, talking to each other, assessing the situation, considering options, finding a way.
The heartbeat of the story is that Alvarez puts a personal face on the history we’ve read about. Through him, we feel the power and urgency of the charismatic revolutionary Castro liberating the country from oppressive Fulgencio Batista, sweeping allegiance from young idealistic Humberto, and in another heartbeat, how the table turns on those hard-fought ideals and brings treacherous hardship to even the most loyal followers.
When threats and rumors run rampant, word of mouth is often the only way to stay alive, and when word leaks that the regime threatens to corral the children into boarding camps, Humberto ships the eldest two children to the states just before visas are halted.
Despite the well-known dangers of the open seas, he plots the rest of the family’s escape by boat in one of the most harrowing episodes you’ll experience. Because with Alvarez as our guide, we’re all in this together terrified of being discovered, leaving behind everything you’ve known, whispering, praying for safety with no idea of what lies ahead. It’s a daunting episode, well told. After the ordeal of getting to American soil, his father indicates that there is no way to repay the debt his family now owes to this land, an expression that Alvarez relays from the very depth of his soul.
Once they get to America, now what? Not a spoiler alert, that’s simply how the story ends– at the beginning, with everybody in the boat. Only by this time, we know and care for the characters, are familiar with each one’s quirky mannerisms. Alvarez has made us care.
The once impersonal story of refugees from Castro’s Cuba has been made hauntingly real. And that’s another beauty and wonder of the piece, that in a few moments Alvarez is able to establish and sustain an emotional connection between the audience and the characters that he portrays—his parents, his dear abuela (grandma), desperate friends and relatives.
Part of the magic comes from the sound design which commands the mood swings from the splashing water waves, the bellowing warning of a Coast Guard vessel, and of course, the ubiquitous Cuban music with its hip-swerving signature rhythms at the legendary Tropicana nightclub. There’s even a quick nod to Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, the ambassador of elegant Cuban style and songs to white-bread 1950’s America.
Gambacorta also has a role in the magic with her keen sense of the pacing needed to establish the characters, set up the scenarios, keep the audience engaged as the text ebbs and flows with funny characterizations and humor. But the mastermind of the magic is Alvarez himself, who tells a compelling story with sparkling eyes that dance with joy, pierce through trepidation, and bring a legacy to life.
More than a road show, Be Careful!, is an excursion to a time when our grandparents were hip-shaking and booty popping, making life and death decisions to make a way for us. The show is an homage to all of those who escaped from bondage and any assortment of “sharks.” reminding us that we’re here thanks to those who have bravely gone on before us.
Be Careful! The Sharks Will Eat You! runs thru April 22, 2012 at MetroStage, 1201 North Royal St, Alexandria, VA.
Be Careful! The Sharks Will Eat You!
Written and Performed by Jay Alvarez
Directed by Theresa Gambacorta
Presented by MetroStage
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes with no intermission