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Review: `Two Sisters and a Piano’

This review by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

February 24, 1999. All rights reserved.

A powerful new drama by Nilo Cruz, set in Castro’s

Cuba of the early 1990s, pits two women, or more specifically two

educated and accomplished artists, against the all-consuming brutality

of authoritarian rule. Set in a single room of a home that was once

the site of intellectual and artistic inquiry, the play opens —

and closes — with its occupants cowering on the floor together

like hunted animals.

Cruz’s disturbing and persuasive vision of the many guises of power,

deftly directed by Brian Kulick, opened at McCarter Theater last week

and continues to Sunday, March 7. Placing us in Havana during the

Pan American Games of the summer of 1991, a time that we know in hindsight

coincided with the breakup of the Soviet Union, Cruz gives us a plot

charged with verisimilitude yet rife with nuance and ambiguity. The

harsh realism of the action is tempered by the evocative, magic realism

of designer Mark Wendland’s layered, sky-swept set that is home to

flights of seagulls, their papery bodies inscribed with furtive texts.

Maria Celia, brilliantly portrayed by Ivonne Coll, is an influential

author, a woman in her mid-40s, still beautiful, and still burning

with the courage of her political convictions. Imprisoned for two

years for having the audacity to express her political views in writing

to Castro, she has now been placed under house arrest, presumably

as a public relations gesture in connection with the international

games.

If Maria Celia’s passion is of the intellect, her sister Sofia’s is

a passion of body, heart, and instinct. Delicately portrayed by Marissa

Chibas, Sofia is the musician who brings the sweet sounds of the piano

into the home and longs for love — or at least sex. Emerging from

jail into the limbo of house arrest, Sofia’s yearnings are palpable.

Her incandescent features light up when she gets so much of a whiff

of romance. Unlike her sister, she’s no political animal. As she herself

admits, "I haven’t lost the habit of saying things the way they’re

meant to be said." Although reckless and childlike, Sofia is ultimately

more clear-sighted than her politically engaged sister.

The sisters now live amidst the decaying furnishings of the family

home, the most extravagant of which is the aging grand piano that

stands under a crystal chandelier in the center of a neo-classical

living room. While Maria Celia praises house arrest for the simple

pleasure she can take in walking from kitchen to living room —

so much farther than the meager dimensions of her cell — she now

suffers from having her vital correspondence with her husband and

supporters confiscated. She has not received a letter in three months.

Entering the sisters’ lives to the sound of gunfire and shattered

glass is Lieutenant Portuondo, a handsome cipher of a man who is the

linchpin of the play’s political and romantic intrigue. Flawlessly

interpreted by Bobby Cannavale, this country-boy turned revolutionary

is an avid reader — like everyone else on the island apparently

— of Maria Celia’s passionate stories ("I’m probably your

Number One fan"). He now takes sole control of the sisters’ home,

replacing the various military bullies who had regularly intruded.

Letters — three bundles of confiscated letters written

from abroad, primarily by her husband Antonio who is lobbying for

her release — are the lieutenant’s most powerful weapon against

Maria Celia’s personal and political convictions. These silent markings

on paper provide the ammunition with which he tantalizes the suffering

author. By offering to read parts of the seized letters aloud to her,

the lieutenant conspires to seduce Maria Celia in her own husband’s

voice.

The lovely sound of the piano is the play’s abiding metaphor. Now

a coveted treasure, pianos once populated the parlors of Havana purely

as a symbol of wealth and social class. This we learn from the welcome

arrival of the piano tuner, Victor Manuel, an ordinary guy, who will

try to rescue the sisters’ instrument from the ravages of time and

humidity. Genially played by Gary Perez, the piano tuner relieves

the household tension sufficiently for the sisters to let down their

guard.

"Dear Antonio," says Maria Celia, dictating a letter to her

husband at the opening of the second act, "Sofie has invited to

dinner the man who tuned our piano." She speaks in a room now

transformed by dozens of candles in silver candelabra, a burning sign

of Sofia’s romantic desperation and a canny parody of "The Glass

Menagerie’s" gentleman caller.

But the unexpected appearance of the lieutenant in a white linen suit

(was the piano tuner another Castro agent?) sets in motion seduction

and the sisters’ downward spiral of peril. Now, rather than simply

reading to Maria Celia the discouraging contents of her husband’s

letter, he places it in her hands, undermining her last defenses.

The multitude of candles is replaced by multitudinous plants —

ferns, bromeliads, birds of paradise — as if nature were rejoicing

at Maria Celia’s self-deceiving state.

As the play closes, Maria Celia is beginning yet another letter to

her husband abroad. There is banging and shouting outside the door.

They fear the worst.

— Nicole Plett

Two Sisters and a Piano, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-683-8000. $25 to $36 ($10 for under 25). To March 7.


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