Corrections or additions?
This review by Nicole Plett was prepared for the September 24,
2003 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Review: `Anna in the Tropics’
The world of the Hispanic immigrant and manual laborer
collides with an epic romance of 19th-century Russian aristocracy
in Nilo Cruz’s latest play, "Anna in the Tropics." The drama
raised the curtain before a full house at McCarter Theater’s
380-seat Roger S. Berlind Theater on Wednesday, September 17.
"Anna in the Tropics" has already won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize,
making Cruz the first Latino playwright to win that award.
by the New Theater in Coral Gables, Florida, the play had its world
premiere there last October, and this month it is being produced by
no fewer than three prestigious regional theaters — at McCarter,
Victory Gardens in Chicago, and at South Coast Rep in Southern
McCarter has already sold out its entire run, which continues to
Last Friday, September 19, McCarter management announced that the
play will reach an even wider audience when it moves to New York in
November, produced by theater benefactor Roger Berlind and Darryl
Roth. Although actors’ contracts have not been finalized, and there
is some question whether television star Jimmy Smits will move with
the show, the production is expected to open at New York’s Royale
Theater on November 16.
Set in 1929 in a Cuban-American cigar factory in Tampa, Florida, in
a town called Ybor City, Cruz’s play concerns a community of factory
workers who still roll cigars by hand. Led by the tall and charismatic
Smits, the McCarter production features a dazzlingly accomplished
Hispanic acting ensemble. Every one of the show’s eight players
a powerful, nuanced characterization of people whom we come to care
about. Director Emily Mann brings a deft touch to the spoken and
communication between characters and to Cruz’s drama, rooted in
about the power of literature to expand human consciousness.
"Anna in the Tropics" opens with a cockfight. The raucous
gambling scene is as old as culture, as is the gambling debt
that imperils everything that the factory owner Santiago has worked
for. Simultaneously we see his wife, Ofelia, and their daughters
waiting at the docks to greet a new employee, a "lector" she
has imported from Cuba to read aloud to the workers while they work.
Safely arrived, the lector announces his plan to read the workers
Tolstoy’s romantic and turbulent novel of love and adultery, "Anna
Thus the "Anna" of the play’s title is not a Cuban or Hispanic
beauty but Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina — a name its characters
"Kare-NEE-na," the last two syllables resonating like
the Spanish "nina," as if to claim the Russian young woman
as their own.
The power of Tolstoy’s story soon stirs up all its rapt listeners,
from the young Marela, who starts dreaming of snow and
sleighs, to Santiago, who is attracted to the novel’s Levin, the
admirable landowner. But to the factory’s most unhappy listener, the
young married daughter Conchita, the novel stirs her to action and,
like Anna, she decides to take possession of her own sexuality.
Like the men of Tolstoy’s day, these cigar workers have been brought
up to regard their wives as their personal property. And for the young
women, the graphic 19th-century novel seems to provide the first
of what sexuality can mean to them. Fortunately, as a 21st-century
playwright, Cruz spares us the traditional narrative arc whereby the
female principal — be she Anna or Carmen, Lucia or Nana —
was put on display and then condemned, like Anna Karenina, to a
and vulgar death." Cruz gives the old story a new twist. Dare
we say Conchita enjoys her crime without punishment?
Smits plays the role of the tall, dark, handsome newcomer, the lector
Juan Julian, as something of a cipher. The magnetic personality who
introduces the powerful product of Tolstoy’s imagination into a
community of workers plays Julian as the displaced stranger he has
Victor Argo is wholly effective as Santiago, the rumpled 50-something
factory owner in a mid-life crisis; Priscilla Lopez is his strong,
intelligent life partner, his wife Ofelia. Vanessa Aspillaga and
Rubin-Vega play the sisters, Marela and Conchita. As the younger
Marela, Aspillaga is a marvel of energy and mood swings. Radiant with
her sense of the future, she simply brims with joy and imagination.
The petite Rubin-Vega rises to her pivotal role as the brooding calm
at the eye of the storm, the character most transformed by the
that has come into her life.
John Ortiz plays Conchita’s faithless husband as a man
comfortable with the status quo, while David Zayas is the
Cheche, a man struggling to find his way.
Although Cruz’s language tends toward the sensual imagery of nature
— violet petals, juicy guavas, fresh rainwater — the single
set, by designer Robert Brill, verges on the austere. Even the ornate
signage "Flor del Cielo Tampa" — Flower of the Tampa Skies
— painted across the wall does little to temper its harshness.
Playwright Cruz has loaded his script with historic verisimilitude,
yet aside from the tropical whites and beiges favored in the
stylish dress, Mann’s production provides only general suggestions
of locale, and a slowly rotating overhead fan is the only real
of tropical heat.
We’re told it’s the end of an era: specialized machines are beginning
to replace hand work and, given the din of the machinery, radios will
soon replace the respected "lector." From the characters we
learn that the public is moving to the "quick smoke" of a
cigaret, the same smoke they see their Hollywood matinee idols
The majority of "Anna’s" characters are Cuban expatriates
like the playwright himself. Cruz was born in Matanzas, Cuba, a year
after the revolution began. His father, who opposed the communist
system, spent two years as a political prisoner there. In 1970 the
family managed to immigrate to Miami where Nilo, who was then nine
years old, was raised. Two of his powerful memory plays — "A
Park in Our House" (1994) and "Two Sisters and a Piano"
(1998) — also displaying the strength and fortitude of the Cuban
people, have been previously produced at McCarter, where Cruz has
been a playwright in residence.
This is a provocative play in which competing ideas, themes, and
imagery swirl like smoke through its paths and crevices. We ask
how and why Santiago and Ofelia are making a last-ditch stand against
the industrialization that we know will win out. It’s as if, in the
imagination of playwright Cruz, tradition makes its last stand in
the New World in the form of a 10-cent cigar.
— Nicole Plett
91 University Place, 609-258-2787. $30 to $48. Performances continue
to October 19. www.mccarter.org
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