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`Two Sisters, a Piano,’ Shaded by Politics
This article by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on February 17, 1999. All rights reserved.
I’ll clobber him if he comes up with just one more
rewrite," announces McCarter Theater’s dramaturg Janice Paran.
She has championed and been closely involved with the development
of "Two Sisters and a Piano" by the 39-year-old Cuba-born
playwright Nilo Cruz, now ready to receive its world premiere on
It isn’t that anyone would really think that Paran would physically
assault Cruz or even consider placing him under house arrest. Over
the past two years Paran has mentored Cruz with both a hands-on
and a respectful distance, which ever seemed right at the time. She
has a strong feeling that "Two Sisters and a Piano" will be
Cruz’s "breakthrough play." Opening night is Friday, February
19, for the play that runs to March 7. On March 10 the play moves
to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark for six
through March 14.
At the very core of "Two Sisters and a Piano" is the reality
of house arrest and political repression. The idea for Cruz’s play
came to him after reading about the experience of Cuban writer Maria
Elena Cruz Varela, who, together with other artists, sent a manifesto
to Castro in the late 1980s asking him to embrace
After being forced to eat the manifesto in front of a crowd of
outside her home, Varela was sentenced to two years in prison.
during the Pan American Games, she was then placed under house arrest
so that she could not speak about the regime to foreign reporters.
Cruz has set "Two Sisters and a Piano" during those Pan
Games. Its protagonists, Maria Celia, a writer, and her younger
Sofia, a pianist, have just served two years in prison. They are under
house arrest during a time Cruz calls "the special period in Cuba
when the Russians were pulling out." Passion infiltrates politics
when a lieutenant assigned to their case becomes infatuated with Maria
Celia, whose literature he has been reading.
"In my play, although the sisters can not leave their house, the
two sisters maintain their individuality and live like queens. They
create a different environment, their own political environment,"
says the playwright.
Cruz acknowledges that "a breakthrough" play
would be a welcome accomplishment considering that his previous plays
have not been as successful as he would like. He says that,
for the very emotional expatriate Cuban population in Miami, he has
"to create a whole new vocabulary on how to expose the political
situation without being too graphic. But like Puccini, I want my
to wear their emotions on their sleeves."
"From my first memories, my life has been shaded by politics,"
he says. "I always ask what are the political surroundings of
my characters." Cruz also quotes at length from Marguerite Duras’
essay on the devasting effects of "political loss," from
of self" to "loss of one’s faculty for hatred as much as one’s
faculty for loving." These are sentiments he understands only
"How people escape from their oppression is a recurring theme
in my plays," says Cruz, who draws keenly from his own experience.
His family came penniless from Cuba to Miami’s "Little Havana"
when Nilo was 10. His father found work in a shoe store and his mother
in a purse factory. Cuba and its people, nevertheless, remain firmly
implanted in Cruz’s heart. "Cuba is so full of drama, there are
endless things to write about," says Cruz. He also considers the
present situation of his sister who still lives in Cuba and is only
permitted to leave if her husband, who is of military age, remains
It was five years ago that Paran first came across a play by Cruz
called "Night Train to Bolina." She says it was "the
that was linked with the deprivation of its characters, two children
who love each in a war-torn Latin-American country," and "the
depth of feeling and intimacy that wasn’t about a physical
that arrested her. On the strength of that play, Paran commissioned
Cruz to write a one-act play for the debut 1995 season of McCarter’s
Second Stage Onstage Festival. Cruz so impressed McCarter with his
short play, "Madrigal," that he was asked to expand it,
on the spot, into a full-length play. The result, "A Park In Our
House," was born at McCarter and later produced at the New York
In 1996 Cruz wrote a 30-minute work called "Two Sisters and a
Piano" for another McCarter series devoted to radio plays.
enamored of the radio-style, Cruz, encouraged by Paran, would once
again see a short play of his more fully realized in an expanded
form. I asked Cruz if he found it difficult to expand a play written
in a short form or for a different medium. "No, because even
the style of `A Park In Our House’ was very fragmented and `Two
more linear, I just let the additional writing find its own form.
I’m a more character-driven than a plot-oriented writer. My language
is very lyrical and I try to find poetry in all my characters."
That’s not an unreasonable quest coming from the young man who has
taught playwriting at Brown University, where he also earned his MFA.
Latin American literature has enjoyed international renown through
such masters of Magic Realism as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos
Fuentes. Now, it seems, Hispanic playwrights are expected to emulate
this style. Cruz says that while he doesn’t shy away from the term
"magic realism," he prefers to understand it as "realism
that is magical."
With another commission from McCarter in hand, Paran
remained Cruz’s primary dramaturg through two years of readings of
"Two Sisters" that included the New York Theater Workshop
Lab, South Coast Rep., New York’s Public Theater, and finally the
1998 Sundance Theater Lab. Cruz admits that the many readings and
workshops were overwhelming at times because "each theater wants
you to re-write your play the way they see it. I had to be like a
horse with blinders in order to continue seeing my own vision."
While Paran acknowledges the inherent dangers in getting too much
input from too many sources, she feels that Cruz reacted in a positive
way. For Cruz, the benefit of seeing the various drafts of his play
done over and over with professional actors is not to be minimized.
Because a play has to be heard and seen, Cruz says, "it was the
actors, the musicality they find in the language, and the succeeding
communion that in the long run was the most important part of the
Paran and Cruz acknowledge that they developed a compatible way of
working together. "He likes to talk things out with me," said
Paran. Through this process Paran feels that she has helped Cruz fully
realize the play he had in mind. Nevertheless, Cruz maintains how
important it is to have enough room for the play to write itself.
Even as the trust and the input of a dramaturg are necessary during
the initial readings, a workshop production eventually becomes
Although McCarter’s artistic director Emily Mann had spent the
summer at the Sundance Festival as a sort of roaming mentor, she was
pleased when McCarter got approval from the theater lab at the
Festival to develop both Mann’s play "Meshugah" and Cruz’s
"Two Sisters" there. The goal at Sundance, now directed and
newly re-organized by former La Jolla Playhouse dramaturg Robert
is to offer a creative environment for a productive collaboration
between playwright and director. And unlike other play development
groups, it is the director, not the playwright, who applies to
Despite the fact that Cruz did not approach Sundance through a
his project was accepted. Brian Kulick, artistic associate of New
York’s Public Theater, a director familiar with a previous Cruz play
produced there, "Dancing On Her Knees," accepted the workshop
production. At the conclusion of what has been described as a
long three weeks," the director has the option to have the play
given either as a sit-down reading, a concert reading, or a staged
reading. This is followed by a round-table discussion between
and participating theater professionals.
Cruz sees the agenda at Sundance as clearly one of process over
In this safe environment, "without critics," Cruz confirms
that the collaboration was successful. Cruz admires Kulick’s work
("A Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds" for the New York
Festival) and he is directing the McCarter production.
The four-character play features Marissa Chibas as Sofia, a role she
played at Sundance; Ivonne Coll, recently seen on Broadway in
of a Death Foretold," as Maria Celia; Bobby Cannavale, who appears
in the Sidney Lumet film "Gloria," as Lieutenant Portunondo;
and Gary Perez, a member of the cast of Cruz’s "A Park in Our
House," as Victor Manuel.
Paran contends there is a tendency for regional theaters to put the
plays of the newer young writers on small second stages for a small
audience. When "Two Sisters and a Piano" plays for an audience
of 1,000 on McCarter’s main stage, it will demonstrate the faith of
a dramaturg, the power of the playwright, and the force of a director.
No one knows the importance of workshops and rewrites better than
Cruz, who will attest that he has come through the process without
a clobbering. There is no order placed for house arrest when Cruz’s
umpteenth draft arrives for Paran’s perusal. It reads "Final
— Simon Saltzman
Place, 609-683-8000. $25 to $36. Opening night is Friday, February
19, 8 p.m. To March 7.
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