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Two Sisters and a Piano
If there's one thing we can learn from all this knitting, it's that you have to go back where you left off. . .You have to pick up the lost stitches--Maria Celia
I've lost a whole life of stitches in this house.A whole life. That's what gets to me. So many days gone. . .I could knit a whole bedspread for this island with all the lost days -- Sofia

You need not look beyond the current newspaper headlines for the heartbreaking personal dramas stirred up when members of one family escape from a politically repressive government like Cuba while others remain behind. Can a stage play inspired by another of these behind-the-headlines stories make a play more compelling than straight docudrama? It can if you have two fiery actresses like Adriana Sevan and Daphne Rubin-Vega to bring it to throbbing, passionate life.

Daphne Rubin-Vega embodies the caged bird spirit of Sofia, a pianist who has endured two years in prison and is now under permanent house arrest because her writer sister has publicly declared her support for Perestroika (The play is set in 1991 Havana). Her Sofia is sexy and sensitive, feisty yet vulnerable and as in another sister role (Rahmi, an Islamic girl longing for the unknown pleasures beyond her walled garden world in Gum) she conveys all the fierce hunger to be released from the confines of the life fate has dealt her. And while all these qualities were present in her portrayal of the original Mimi in Rent, it's safe to say that Rubin-Vega no longer needs to lean on that first big role to be accepted as a serious and accomplished actress.

Fortunately, Adriana Sevan matches Ms. Rubin-Vega's strengths as her older sister Maria Celia, a novelist whose husband is in exile trying to help them to gain their freedom. Though she seems cooler and more inner directed than her more ebullient and impulsive sister, Maria Celia is a cauldron of passion.

Playwright Nilo Cruz depicts the familial history and close sibling ties and at the same time draws a rich portrait of the each woman. Maria Celia's political convictions are deep-seated enough for her to have given her writing a more political twist. Sofia got involved with the protest meetings of Maria Celia's artist friends because she was smitten with one of the men.

Overseeing the confinement of the women and adding another element of tension and drama is the play's third major character, Lieutenant Portuondo (Paul Calderon). When we first meet him, he seems a typical police state brute, hassling the sisters during one of the regular inspection visits to which they are subjected. He and two Militia guards are determined to get their hands on papers which Maria Celia says she does not possess. His very first words are "Just tell us where you keep them, bitch!"

But the Lieutenant is as full of complexities as the sisters. Raised in poverty he's never been exposed to people who grew up with music and books, and especially not to anyone like Maria Celia. That first brutal encounter turns into an intense attraction. Calderon gives a most persuasive performance as the increasingly conflicted revolutionary. An intricate relationship ensues, briefly flaring into passion that helps to keep the polemical aspects of this play from overwhelming its emotional center and has us as on edge as it does the two women and the at once attractive and repellent Lieutenant.

Two other men figure importantly in the story. One is an unseen presence, a man next door about whom the love and excitement starved Sofia fantasizes and who ends up a character in one of Maria Celia's stories; the other is a piano tuner (Gary Perez) whom Sofia persuades to take a pair of her father's never worn shoes to make up the difference between the fee he names and what they can afford to pay to have her beloved piano tuned. His brief appearance adds a touch of lightness even as it again underscores Sofia's hunger for human contact, especially with someone who also loves music. All these men, including the Lieutenant, are secondary to the relationship that lifts this story above polemic -- the relationship between the two sisters. This is most memorably seen when they dress up and have their own celebration in tandem with the PanAmerican Games festivities outside their home.

Under Loretta Greco's sensitive and assured direction, the story moves from the frightening search scene at the beginning through the buildup and outcome of the volatile relationship between Portuondo and the sisters. Robert Brill's expressionistic set supports the atmosphere of a once happy home now bereft of all but a few remnants of happier days -- and a circular metal staircase leading to the roof the only escape from the suffocating imprisonment. James Vermeullen's lighting beautifully illuminates the characters' emotions and becomes almost a third character during the scenes when Maria Celia listens to the Lieutenant reading from letters to and from her husband. Some of those letters can teeter on self-indulgent sentimentality. A few break your heart, filled as they are with longing, hope and humor -- for example:

"I tell Sofie that 1991 is our lucky year. We've been allowed back home. At least here we can walk all the way from the kitchen to the living room and that's a log distance compared to the size of our cell back in prison. So many things are happening out there in the world, my love. . .A new way of thinking. . .Freedom. . .I always tell Sofie how much I love the leader Gorbachev, any man who has a birthmark that looks like an island on his forhead is a blessed man . . . "

Mr. Cruz does not quite succeed in giving us a drama that is "more humanistic than political" and the political themes put forth tend to be more familiar than enlightening. Still, as with In the Blood, the Public Theater has given us another new play of substance, enriched by beautiful performances and staging.

Written Nilo Cruz by
Directed by Loretta Greco

With Paul Calderon, Gary Perez, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Adriana Sevan.
Set Design: Robert Brill,
Lighting Design: James Vermeulen,
Costume Design: Alex Jaeger
Sound Design: Fabian Obispo
Running time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, including one intermission
2/01/200-3/12/200; opening 2/15/2000
Joseph Papp Public/Shiva/ 425 Lafayette St. (Astor Place/4th St)
Tickets ($45), 239-6200, at the box office or at
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on February 11 performance

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