Anna in the Tropics
A Schubert Theatre
242 West 45th Street
By Nilo Cruz
Directed by Emily Mann
Produced by Roger Berlind, Daryl Roth, Ray Larsen, Robert G. Bartner, and McCarter Theatre Center: Emily Mann, Mara Isaacs, Jeffrey Woodward, and Janice Paran
Press Representative: Barlow-Hartman
Set Design: Robert Brill
Costume Design: Anita Yavich
Lighting Design: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Casting: Bernard Telsey Casting
Production Stage Manager: Cheryl Mintz
Company Manager: Elie Landau
Technical Supervisor: Peter Fulbright
Wig & Hair Design: Tom Watson
General Management: 101 Productions, LTD.
Starring: Jimmy Smits as Juan Julian, John Ortiz as Eliades, Victor Argo as Santiago, David Zayas as Cheché, Vanessa Aspillaga as Marela, Daphne Rubin-Vega as Conchita, Priscilla Lopez as Ofelia, and John Ortiz as Palomo
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
January 20, 2004
Set in a 1929 Tampa, Florida (Ybor City), handmade cigar factory, to the background of swaying and sultry Cuban guitars and aromatic Cuban cigars, a group of family and friends interact with the "lector", the traditional reader of evocative novels that educate and inspire the workers to create a sensual smoking sensation to be distributed worldwide. In this case, the new Lector is Juan Julian (Jimmy Smits of Star Wars and L.A. Law), and his novel is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Juan Julian brings the illustrative passion of Russian lovers to a small society of repressed and rejected Cubans, who now live in a newly industrialized America and long for meaning and physicality.
This was life imitates art, as Conchita (Rubin-Vega), the wife of a philandering husband, Palomo (Ortiz), begins a fiery affair with the lanky lector, Juan Julian (Smits), as she fantasizes about Anna Karenina, as do all the cigar workers, who had previously relied on cockfights for distraction and gambling. Now the women gamble with love and new ideas, as they had awaited the arrival of the lector so excitedly, like schoolgirls on edge. The men are volatile and predatory, but even they become entranced with the story of an icy, stark country, so far from their world, that generates such heated passion and driven emotions. Santiago (Argo) and Ofelia (Lopez) are the owners of the factory, who lose a bit of their turf to the steaming Cheché ((Zayas), whose wife disappeared with a lover, and who seeks revenge for his public and private rejection, because Santiago is a compulsive gambler on the cockfights.
The obvious star of this textured drama, so brilliantly conceived (It won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Nilo Cruz), was Smits as Juan Julian, as he psychologically seduced the women and physically seduced Ofelia, and their initial scene of passion catapulted heat and light from the immense stage, riveting the audience. There were other riveting moments, such as Cheché’ s attempted rape of Marela (Aspillaga), an extraordinary actor, who so wanted to please her factory owner parents, Santiago and Ofelia. When the parents created a new cigar, they called it Anna Karenina, and Marela posed for the cigar box, with a large rose on her hair and a Russian dress. Aspillaga pulled off the energy and excitement of the costumed model with refreshing purity.
Argo as Santiago was poignant and proud, as he could not face the factory, until he paid his brother, Cheché, his gambling debt. He and Lopez, as husband and wife, were role models for love, as Ofelia forgave the remorseful Santiago for his gambling tragedy, and the two walk offstage for private passion, after they have both referenced Tolstoy’s words. Zayas as Cheché was seething and vengeful. One could see the predatory, cuckolded husband as the metaphorical rooster in the bloody fight, and one could fear for the safety of Juan Julian, the lector, who reads of love and infidelity in an arena of vulnerability. Rubin-Vega as Ofelia unpeels her toughness as rejected wife and blooms as the rose on Anna Karenina’s hair, as she discovers her true sexuality with Juan Julian. Lopez as Ofelia has a high moment, as she smokes the new cigar, swaying her hips, and blowing circles of smoke into the rafters. Ortiz as Palomo, the other cuckolded husband, symbolically the Tolstoy counterpart, seems hard pressed to display the necessary rage and jealousy that would seem appropriate to the role.
The stage is large and minimally set, with barrels of tobacco leaves and cigar equipment, and with rotating wooden fans hung from the high stage top. There are large colorful cigar posters, and the earthy colors of sets and costumes, occasionally interspersed with brightly colored dresses and flowers, created a very effective ambiance. Although this production emanated from the smaller, Princeton, NJ McCarter Theatre Center, Emily Mann and Robert Brill have arranged just the right amount of starkness to suggest the emptiness of the souls of these Cubans in the changing world of a cigar factory in Tampa.
The music from the likes of Lecuona and Cachao is extremely effective and actually generates a tone of danceable rhythm throughout the evolution of this story. The romance of Tolstoy, the romance of the handmade cigars, the romance of the characters, and the romance of traditional music from Cuba all cohesively merge to present a lovely, seamless, and inspirational night at the theatre. I do suggest dressing warmly for this play, as the air conditioning amidst winter weather is strong, to offset visible cigar smoke onstage. I also suggest reviewing a bit of the theme of Anna Karenina for added literary enhancement.