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

brand-new,

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.

Commissioned

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

California.

McCarter has already sold out its entire run, which continues to

Sunday,

October 19.

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

delivers

a powerful, nuanced characterization of people whom we come to care

about. Director Emily Mann brings a deft touch to the spoken and

unspoken

communication between characters and to Cruz’s drama, rooted in

history,

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

Karenina."

Thus the "Anna" of the play’s title is not a Cuban or Hispanic

beauty but Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina — a name its characters

pronounce

"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

horse-drawn

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

inkling

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

"low

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

lackluster

community of workers plays Julian as the displaced stranger he has

recently become.

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

Daphne

Rubin-Vega play the sisters, Marela and Conchita. As the younger

sister

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

"literature"

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

troubled

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

characters’

stylish dress, Mann’s production provides only general suggestions

of locale, and a slowly rotating overhead fan is the only real

indication

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

enjoying.

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

poetic

imagery swirl like smoke through its paths and crevices. We ask

ourselves

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

Anna in the Tropics, Berlind Theater at McCarter

Theater ,

91 University Place, 609-258-2787. $30 to $48. Performances continue

to October 19. www.mccarter.org


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