Anna In the Tropics, a CurtainUp review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp Review
Anna in the Tropics

It's the "Royale" Treatment For Anna

What could be more exciting than to have the latest Pulitzer Prize Winning drama, Anna in The Tropics, and the Pulitzer runner-up, Take me Out, (Review) on Broadway at the same time. . Adding to the play's the thing-- as in legitimate, original dramas, as opposed to London imports and brand-name revivals -- there's also a new play from Mr. Greenberg (The Violet Hour).

The trope studded, tropical romance by the Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz is the same production as the one reviewed by CurtainUp's Katbryn Osenlund and now that I've seen it, I can concur with her evaluation of the play, the characters and the performances. However, I do have some comments.

The McCarter Theatre Center's new Roger S. Berlind Theatre was probably considerably smaller than the Royale which may have given Robert Brill's set more of the feel of lives boxed in (like the cigars being bunched, stuffed and rolled ) into a narrow world on the cusp of obsolescence. As it is, even with Peter Kaczorowki brilliantly narrowing the visual focus with his sultry lighting, the Royale stage often tends to cry out for some more visible signs of other factory workers. It would have been nice to see Kathryn's wish for director Emily Mann to have worked towards a more raked staging for some of the scenes (notably the love scene at the beginning of the second act), but that wish remains unfulfilled.

I think it would also have been helpful for the Playbill to include some background notes on the choice of Tolstoy and the role of lectors who were hired and paid by the cigar factory workers. The lector in Anna does come with a newspaper as well as books tucked under his arms but he reads only from Anna Karenina. In keeping with the lector's mission of educating the workers about real life events, mornings were usually devoted to reading from the newspapers. The story telling was reserved for the afternoon, with the lectors not just reading but acting out all the parts as in the currently popular solo plays. Even the choice of fiction was often part of the intent to raise the listener's social as well as literary awareness. Thus Tolstoy, who was a social activist as well as a great novelist, served a double purpose, all of which contributed to the ill will towards lectors like Juan Julian by efficiency-minded types like Chechè. That said, Jimmy Smits is indeed a charismatic figure in his all white outfit and invests his part with just the right mix of romantic mystery and great sensitivity!

The cast overall is most satisfying, especially the three women. Priscillaa Lopez conveys charming as the practical but still romantic matriarch. Daphne Rubin-Vega is as fiery as she was in Mr. Cruz's Two Sisters and a Piano (Review). Vanessa Aspillaga manages to overcome Ms. Mann's misdirecting her to play the twenty-two-year-old Marela a bit too much like a pubescent teenager. She not only emerges a believably warm and mature young woman from this over emphasis on a too bubbly teen person but transcends the script's one coarse and somewhat jarring note, her loss of bladder control at her first sighting of the handsome lector.

Despite the predictability and tendency towards historical romance plotting, Anna In the Tropics succeeds in conveying the sense of loss that inevitably accompanies the march of time and progress -- and the ability of great literature to reach out to even the simplest readers (and listeners).

The lushly written script brings a welcome poetic tone to a world dominated by street jargon. In Mr. Cruz's world people have skin " pale like a lily" or "the color of saffron" Girls like Marela liken their job of banding the cigars to "marrying all these men without actually seeing them" and even the mother's more practical view is a poetic "men marry their cigars, my dear, and the white smoke becomes of veil of their brides." Do real people talk like this? Would a businessman like Santiago (Victor Argo) describe his attack of nerves as " a line of little ants carrying breadcrumbs on their backs" and accuse those crumbs as taking away his pride and self-respect? Would the business-before-sentiment Cheché liken his abandonment by his wife to a lizard with its tail cut off? Probably not. But as someone guilty of cluttering up people's book shelves a fat dictionary of metaphors and another on similes, how could I not love all those tropes? How could anyone who appreciates lovely language, resist such lyricism?

-- Reviewed by Elyse Sommer, based on 11/19/03 performance

Except for the theater address and performance schedule and prices, the production notes are the same as those at the end of the review below:
Anna In The Tropics
Royale Theater, 242 W. 45th St.(Broadway/8th Avenue) 212/239-6200 Performances and prices there are Tuesday - Saturday @8pm, Wednesday & Saturday @2pm, Sunday @3pm -- $81.25, $71.25, $51.25;Wednesday Matinees:$76.25, $66.25, $46.25.
Closing 2/22/04

--- Kathryn Osenlund' s Review of the Play When It Opened at the McCarter ---

What would be the sense of killing a man in order to define one's own relation with a woman?
---Tolstoy in Anna Karenina
Dark horse Nilo Cruz, Seabiscuit of the playwriting set, has won the 2003 Steinberg New Play Award and the Pulitzer for Anna in the Tropics, a play that has been seen by comparatively few people. That is about to change. It wowed Pulitzer jurors on the strength of its script alone, spurring speculation before the opening at McCarter Theatre Center's new Roger S. Berlind Theatre if Anna would hold up in performance. The audience gave it a standing ovation. On November 1st, New York audiences will have a chance to see it at the Royale on Broadway.

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."

By Nilo Cruz
Directed by Emily Mann

Cast: Victor Argo (Santiago), Vanessa Aspillaga (Marela), Priscilla Lopez (Ofelia), John Ortiz (Eliades, Palomo), Daphne Rubin-Vega (Conchita), Jimmy Smits (Juan Julian) and David Zayas (Cheché).
Set Design: Robert Brill
Lighting Design: Peter Kaczorowski
Costume Design: Anita Yavich
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Wigs and Hair: Tom Watson
Running time: 2 hours with one 15 minute intermission 9/2/2003-10/19/2003
McCarter Theatre Center's Berlind Theatre, Princeton, NJ
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 9/17 performance

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