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Anna in the Tropics
--- Kathryn Osenlund' s Review of the Play When It Opened at the McCarter ---
The story unfolds in a family-run cigar factory in Ybor City, part of Tampa with a Spanish-Cuban populace, cock fights, and cigar factories. Set in 1929, just as mechanization was beginning to replace hand-work in the industry, a whiff of sadness and a sense of impending loss hang over the play as lovely old ways are about to disappear.
One of the old customs is that workers hire a lector to read to them as they work. Because the Cuban-Americans in the factories have an admiration for Russian literature, the new lector who arrives at the start of the play selects Anna Karenina for his first reading.
It is not necessary to read Tolstoy's novel before seeing the play, for key passages are read, and the play isn't plotted along the lines of the book. In the play the situation of a handsome lector, reading a romantic novel to couples with troubled marriages, a young girl pining for a hero, and an obsessed, jilted husband longing for retribution, is a volatile one. The workers endow the lector and Anna Karenina with their own agendas.
Juan Julian, the lector, who is elevated on a raised platform to read, operates on a separate level in the play. An enigmatic figure dressed in white from his hat to his shoes, he speaks sparingly and poetically. Although a party to seduction, this Vronsky with a difference wants to mend rather than rend a broken marriage. Jimmy Smits, radiant and elegant in the lector role, proves to be an exquisitely sensitive actor.
Daphne Rubin-Vega beguiles in her portrayal of Conchita, older daughter of the factory owners. She is in a failing marriage with a philandering husband and already has made a decision to have an affair in retaliation. Anna Karenina serves as ratification and the lector becomes her Count Vronsky.
Marela, the younger daughter, played exuberantly by Vanessa Aspillaga, is so excited by the arrival of the new lector she can't contain herself. Naturally, she falls for him. An ebullient and sensitive character, Marela is a dreamer and a tragic figure with an original way of thinking and talking. "Life is made of little moments. Little moments as small as violet petals. Little moments I could save in a jar and keep forever."
Conchita (Rubin-Vega) and the lector's love scene, golden and visually gorgeous, is strangely cerebral and removed. The lovers are infatuated, but not in love. During the course of their affair, Juan elicits Conchita's feelings for her husband, Palomo (John Ortiz). She realizes that unlike Anna's loveless relationship with Aleksei Karenin, she loves Palomo. He knows all about her affair, just like Karenin does in the novel. He wants intimate details, which Conchita supplies. Ortiz has fun with the role as jealousy plays out in curiosity and humorous bravado.
Hotheaded Cheche (David Zayas) seethes with anger over old resentments and obsessive yearning for young Marela, who may or may not be his niece. Priscilla Lopez, a fascinating Ofelia, and the fair-minded Santiago (Victor Argo), the owners of the factory, upon exposure to Karenina and the lector, begin to renew their affections. Tropical rhythms evoke the heat, and passions could get out of hand. Although fired in celebration, two offstage gunshots portend tragedy.
This is not the kind of theatre that is called ensemble because "There's no such thing as a small part." This is all about the characters, and all are big parts. Believable characters' plain talk, foibles and humor are transmuted, emerging with a delicate sensibility and a heightened use of language that would not be heard either in day to day life or in a realistic play.
The palette is light; the costumes-- pale, summery old-fashioned linens-- are later punctuated with tropical prints and some darker shades. The mellow mood is grounded by music. Although the stage is a factory floor, the feel is mildly exotic, suggesting the past and the heat with a lazy fan and a simple, painted wood wall.
Emily Mann's direction is unhurried, concerned with intricacies and with things spoken and unspoken, letting the story unfold. The staging, however, is rather static, primarily confined to a fairly shallow swath downstage and the production would benefit from more fluid patterns of movement and a more oblique use of space.
William Faulkner challenged writers and poets to write "the universal truths, lacking which, any story is ephemeral and doomed." Romantic, yet not hackneyed, richly infused with tradition, Cruz's play quietly glows as it speaks of longings, family, jealousy, and love. With subject matter as old as the hills, but wrapped in a new leaf, Anna in the Tropicsaddresses "the old verities and truths of the heart."
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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