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A Distant Fire

By James Yeara

Anna in the Tropics

By Nilo Cruz, directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill

Capital Repertory Theatre, through Nov. 23

Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics is a brilliant play. The 2003 Pulitizer Prize-winning drama embraces multiple conflicts and tensions between family members, lovers, husbands and wives, actors and characters, modernization and tradition, the future and the past, all at a moment of great societal change in America: 1929. The struggles of Santiago’s (Jose Ramon Rosario) family cigar factory in Ybor City, outside of Tampa, Fla., mirror the greater struggles soon to burst on the nation; the intimacy and the particulars of hand-rolling cigars in the heat of Ybor City echo far beyond the walls of the Santiago’s factory. Anna in the Tropics is a beautiful play, at times romantic, poetic and earthy all at once.

The opening split scenes sharing the stage underscore the richness at play here: The men, Santiago and his half-brother Cheche (Louie Leonardo), gamble on cockfights downstage right, while downstage left, the women, Santiago’s daughters, Marela (Devon Jordan) and Conchita (Clea Rivera), wait with their mother Ofelia (Elise Santora), for the arrival of Juan Julian (Alvaro Mendoza), the new “lector.” Traditionally hired by the workers in cigar factories to read aloud from classic literature to elevate the boredom of stuffing and rolling cigars, the lector is eagerly prized by the women, especially youngest daughter Marela. When Juan Julian walks down the dock, recognizing Ofelia by the romantic white gardenia in her hat, Marela literally wets herself.

Anna in the Tropics is full of such antitheses. Santiago uses superstition to gamble, trying to recall the exact patterns of clothing and events to repeat his elusive past success, while his younger half-brother Cheche eschews sentiment and gambles based on logic. Cheche’s success brings Santiago deeper into debt, until he has to literally write his bond on the sole of Cheche’s shoe: more shares in the cigar factory.

Cheche’s disdain for sentiment and tradition—heightened by his wife’s affair with a lector—sets up one conflict for Juan Julian as he sets out to read Tolstoy’s tragic masterpiece Anna Karenina to the workers in Santiago’s factory. They handmake cigars as he reads, measuring them, stuffing them, rolling them, cutting them, banding them. While Freud supposedly said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” in the deft hands of Ofelia, Conchita, and Marela, as Juan Julian reads of Anna’s passion for Count Vronsky, a cigar is most definitely something symbolically more special.

Equally special is the power of art. Juan Julian’s reading of Anna Karenina begins to affect the characters of Anna in the Tropics uniquely. Conchita’s distant husband Palomo (Luis Moreno) is at first indifferent to Juan Julian’s reading, then jealous, then obsessed with it as he revels in his wife’s affair with Juan Julian. Soon Conchita is the living embodiment of Anna Karenina’s illicit passion. When she recounts to Palomo how Juan Julian’s passion and empathy lead him to dress and act like Conchita—“it was like I was making love to myself”—Palomo insists that Conchita show him how. Thus is meta-theater rounded: with characters in this play stating “We became like actors in a play,” while acting like characters in a novel being read aloud to characters in the play.

Anna in the Tropics raises such heady matter, but there is plenty in it for the heart and the loins, also.

Curiously at Capital Rep, it is always 1:29 in the factory as the clock on the wall upcenter reads, and while the calendar underneath may change, time doesn’t, either as a brilliant nod to the timelessness of art, or a subtle mirroring of the moment Anna Karenina leaps to her death underneath the grinding wheels of a train, or possibly for some other more mundane reason. Also curiously, while this rich play is titled In the Tropics, the setting, lighting, and acting seem to be in a much cooler clime.

While there are individually flashes of connection between actor and character—most notably by Jose Ramon Roasario as Santiago, Luis Moreno as Palomo, and Devon Jordan as Marela—the words and the characters usually seem beyond arm’s length of the performers. The breathing is off, the words stilted, the action tepid and timid, the lusting reds muted to a blanched blush.

There is little sweat and spit here. There’s a bit of theater apocrypha about William Shatner that popped unbidden into my head as I watched Sunday’s matinee: As a budding actor, Shatner was Henry V’s understudy at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, and with two hours’ notice he had to go on as King Henry one day. His underprepared performance was full of odd stops, starts, and sudden bursts of words, but the critics supposedly raved about it, starting the Shatner school of acting. This is the type of mirroring that does not serve the excellence of Anna in the Tropics.


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