It’s all about the family in ‘Anna in the Tropics’ at the Bay Street Theater
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. – Leo Tolstoy
There is a long-standing tradition in Cuban cigar factories of hiring readers to read to workers to break up the days filled with the monotonous task of rolling cigars by hand. Smartly dressed and educated, readers traditionally sat on raised platforms on the factory floor where they read aloud from popular literature, classic novels or even news of the day, providing workers with an education as well as entertainment.
Cuban cigars and the role of one reader in particular feature prominently in Nilo Cruz’s “Anna in the Tropics,” the current Bay Street Theater production that opened July 2 and will run through July 24. The play, expertly directed by Marcos Santana, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2003 and it offers a moving and powerful portrait of a family in transition.
Set in Ybor City, a neighborhood of Tampa, Florida, in 1929, the action is set in a Cuban cigar factory owned by the Alcalar family and is a study in modernization and changing attitudes, not just in terms productivity at work, but also in respect of personal relationships. In this piece, a culture of male dominance prevails – on the surface, at least – but undertones of female empowerment emerge throughout the evening, providing glimpses that clearly show that times are changing for Cubans. patriarchal.
Santiago (played by Serafin Falcon) is the owner of the factory, while his wife, Ofelia (Iliana Guibert) helps run things and is one of the factory workers and spends her days rolling cigars at the alongside the couple’s two daughters, young Marela (played by Maria Isabel Bilbao), and her older sister Conchita (Christine Spang). Conchita’s husband, Palomo (Guillermo Ivan) and Santiago’s half-brother, CheChe (Christian Barillas), who is Cuban-American and grew up in the United States, are also employed at the plant.
As the play opens, CheChe and Santiago enjoy an evening of drinking and betting on cockfighting. When Santiago runs out of funds, he convinces CheChe to loan him a considerable amount of money so he can continue playing. In exchange, a very drunk Santiago promises to give his half-brother a share of the factory if he doesn’t repay the loan. In fact, a stake in the factory is really what CheChe wants, so when Santiago takes an extended leave from the factory as he tries to sort out his drinking and betting propensity, it’s Ofelia who runs the show. the show and CheChe discovers that he has to deal with her in his attempts to become a partner in the business.
Meanwhile, family and factory dynamics are shaken even further with the arrival of a handsome new reader, Juan Julian (played brilliantly by Anthony Michael Martinez). When he chose Leo Tolstoy’s novel “Anna Karenina” as the first classic to be read aloud to the workers, the reception was decidedly mixed.
The question soon arises: where does fiction end and where does real life begin? Although at first glance it would seem that a Russian novel has little to do with the life of Cuban immigrants in a Florida cigar factory, as Juan Julian reads the story of ‘Anna Karenina’, each worker begins to recognize his own situation in the fate of fictional characters, laying bare their passions and hidden flaws.
Particularly endearing is the rekindling of a love between Santiago and Ofelia that has faded over the years, but which rekindles when the couple are moved by the plots of the novel. While the young and vulnerable Marela dreams of love and lets herself be carried away by the romantic tale that Juan Julian tells, for the older sister Conchita the romance has a very different effect. Instead of love, it’s about her troubled relationship with her husband, Paloma. She knows he is having an affair, just like Anna Karenina is in the book, and she confronts him, informing him that she too will soon take a lover back. Jealousy rises when Paloma begins to suspect that Conchita has in mind none other than Juan Julian himself.
Of all the characters in the play, CheChe in particular is a powder keg of raw and dangerous emotion. American, not Cuban, by birth, he has little patience or sentimental affection for old traditions. The outside world affects business and with the advent of cars and fast-paced lifestyles, fast-burning cigarettes are becoming the preferred tobacco choice over cigars, which are best enjoyed at a slow, leisurely pace.
Abandoned by his wife who ran off with a former factory reader, CheChe also has little use for Juan Julian’s flowery language and, in fact, finds his lyrics both menacing and revealing in a way that leaves him nervous. Citing fierce competition, he pushes for factory automation and brings in new machines to increase production. But with machines, readers cannot be heard over the noise. For CheChe, that is largely the point. His aggressive desires soon become so threatening that they threaten to change their entire lives forever.
In terms of production, “Anna in the Tropics” is breathtaking, both in terms of its content and its visual impact. The acting is superb and the play features a well-oiled cast who are perfectly tuned, not only in terms of the dialogue, but also in the subtle yet meaningful silent messages shared in the form of stares between them, which are almost as hard-hitting as the words of Nilo Cruz’s screenplay. The complicated relationship between Palomo and Conchita is masterfully choreographed and portrayed on stage.
While the performances themselves are memorable, Bay Street’s “Anna in the Tropics” is particularly impressive in its setting. Luciana Stecconi’s incredible set is magnificent. The factory’s wooden floor is etched with the faded logo of the company’s family name, Alcalar, and the factory’s large windows overlook Tampa’s tropical skyline. Simple wooden workstations are filled with the tools of the trade where cigars are rolled, while curing tobacco leaves hang from the ceiling to one side of the stage. Also noteworthy are the impressive projections by Milton Cordero which add an element of fantasy and literally take the audience into the pages of Tolstoy’s novel. As the characters are swept up in the emotion of the tale, the scene magically transforms with poignant quotes layered over the backdrop in elegant script.
While “Anna in the Tropics” explores difficult ground over its two acts – and there are scenes that some audience members may find difficult to watch – at the end it’s a beautiful piece that speaks to the enduring family strength in the midst of uncertain times. In the end, maybe that’s all we really need.
The “Anna in the Tropics” creative team includes Combat/Intimacy Director Rick Sordelet; Luciana Stecconi, scenographer; Fabian Aguilar, costume designer; Maria-Cristina Fusté, lighting designer; Milton Cordero, projection designer; Andrew Diaz, accessories designer; Lori Lundquist, production manager; and Kate Croasdale, assistant stage manager.
“Anna in the Tropics” by Nilo Cruz, directed by Marcos Santana, runs through July 24 at the Bay Street Theater on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor. For tickets, call 631-725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.