Like a fine cigar, Anna in Tropics smolders pungently
There's a dashing new employee at the family-run Fabrica de Tabacos. Only he doesn't sit with the other workers, rolling cured tobacco leaves into fine Cuban cigars. He stands on a platform reading, with almost comic gusto, Leo Tolstoy's epic tragedy ``Anna Karenina.''
``We learn things,'' says the factory owner's daughter in Nilo Cruz's ``Anna in the Tropics,'' set in a Cuban-American community in 1920s Florida. ``And the words he reads are like a breeze that breaks the monotony of this factory.''
But words can disrupt as they soothe and spark all manner of unhappiness, personal as well as political. That, in a nutshell -- or more precisely, a lovingly tamped Havana -- is the plot of Cruz's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, now having its Bay Area premiere at TheatreWorks. It's a languorous, luxuriantly written piece that rides and caresses the night air, like the fragrance of an expensive cigar, which, with apologies to Freud, is in this case more than a cigar.
The danger in staging such a show is that it can make a pleasant impression without lingering much beyond the drive home. Director Amy Gonzalez and her mostly first-rate cast have seen to it that this doesn't happen. They've delivered an ``Anna'' that's as lusty and funny as it is heartfelt and, finally, unlike the Tolstoy novel, almost reassuring.
Cruz, best-known for ``Lorca in a Green Dress,'' specializes in dreamy, descriptive dialogue. Here, he has taken a little-known aspect of the Cuban-American cigar trade -- that factories once employed lectors or readers to help ease the monotony -- and he has rolled it into a metaphor for that eternal struggle between art and progress. The irony, as he sees it, was that the lector educated as he entertained, and thereby hastened the end of the smaller, family-run businesses.
Cruz's lector, just off the boat from Havana, is Juan Julian Rios (David DeSantos). The so-called ``Persian Canary,'' who dresses in white-linen suits and mops his brow with a cologne-scented handkerchief, has been hired by the Alcalar factory, run by Santiago and wife Ofelia (Apollo Dukakis and Alma Martinez). He arrives not a moment too soon. Santiago's conniving half-brother Cheche (Tommy A. Gomez) wants to mechanize the operation to keep it competitive, and Santiago, who has gambled away some of his share of the business, has taken to his bed in shame.
Marela (Isabelle Ortega) and Conchita (Vilma Silva), Santiago's daughters, swoon over the lector's every recitation, sometimes absent-mindedly caressing the cigars they're meant to be rolling or banding. Conchita, to the horror of her unfaithful husband (George Castillo), goes a step further -- participating in steamy warehouse assignations.
Director Gonzalez, at home with Cruz's unapologetically florid style, enfolds us in the action from the opening cockfight clear through to the not-so-celebratory danzon. Her casting is darn-near perfect. Dukakis and Martinez (who teaches at University of California-Santa Cruz) are right on the money as the amiably antagonistic Alcalars. Dukakis' speech about ants carrying his dignity away, crumb by crumb, is particularly poignant.
As the always lurking half-brother, Gomez pulls off the difficult transition from factory clown to pathologically jealous suitor. The versatile Castillo does double duty as cockfight promoter and Conchita's cuckolded husband. One character is as comic as the other is confused.
Though saddled with some of the show's most rhapsodic lines -- about shells that shout ``with the voice of the sea'' and lovers who swap clothes -- Silva throws herself into the role of the older sister who teaches a lesson by playing out Tolstoy's triangle romance for real.
DeSantos as the Valentino-handsome interloper and Ortega as the younger sister who literally pees her pants when she meets the lector will, I'm sure, improve as the run continues. At the moment, however, he's too much the stock Latin lover and she's all squeals and sighs, closer to a dreamy-eyed adolescent than the 22-year-old Cruz had in mind.
Adding immeasurably to the hothouse tone of the piece are Duke Durfee's dark-pine set and Michael Palumbo's lighting, which sometimes is so hot you'll feel like mopping your brow, with or without a scented hankie.
Source: Mercury News