note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi
Eliades … Diego Arciniegas
Santiago … Dick Santos
Cheché … Robert Saoud
Marela … Angela Sperazza
Conchita … Melinda Lopez
Ofelia … Bobbie Steinbach
Juan Julian … Liam Torres
Palomo … Diego Arciniegas
Sometimes a production will not have jelled in time for its opening yet still must be reviewed --- never a joy on either side of the footlights; when I attended SpeakEasy’s production of Nilo Cruz’s ANNA IN THE TROPICS, the performance played like a dress rehearsal and left me wondering how could such a disappointment have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, several years ago? (Actually, the Pulitzer Committee awarded its prize after reading Mr. Cruz’s script rather than seeing it on any stage --- that’s how.) But my disappointment lies with SpeakEasy’s production and not necessarily with Mr. Cruz and, yes, ANNA IN THE TROPICS does sound intriguing, on paper: a Cuban-American family, in 1929, hires a lector named Juan to read aloud to them while they manufacture hand-rolled cigars in their Florida-based business (this long-standing literary tradition ended when machines replaced manual labor and the lectors’ voices could no longer be heard). Juan chooses to read from Tolstoy’s ANNA KARENINA --- its plot, a respectable woman’s adulterous affair that ends in her suicide --- and the novel’s romance, coupled with the dashing figure of the lector himself, affects his listeners in various ways, culminating in rape and murder; rather than work in silence, the family chooses to go on listening to the magic of words.
ANNA IN THE TROPICS is yet another mood play which means red-blooded drama need not apply: the patriarch Santiago loses money on a cockfight and signs away part of his factory to his half-brother Cheché in exchange for a loan; upon losing again, Santiago sinks into drunken self-pity and begins to skip work to the anger and despair of his wife Ofelia --- he returns to his duties, sober; end of episode. Santiago takes out a legitimate loan to pay off Cheché; end of episode. Cheché wants to bring in machinery to catch up with the outside world; the others vote him down; end of episode. The eldest daughter Conchita, identifying the most with Ms. Karenina’s stifling marriage, takes Juan as her lover under her husband Palomo’s nose --- Palomo, a philanderer himself, more or less accepts the new status quo --- no conflicts, there; at evening’s end Conchita is bound to return to her husband, again. There is a lovely moment when all of the characters, one by one, savor a new cigar brand named after Mr. Tolstoy’s heroine; otherwise, ANNA IN THE TROPICS needs a hothouse atmosphere to lend depth and interest to the would-be lyricism --- under Daniel Jáquez’s direction, there simply isn’t any: it must be wonderful to work in a cigar factory where you can listen to stories all day, wear nice clothes and never need air conditioning. Such barrenness can be overlooked if the actors can hold us enthralled with their ever-changing interactions but Mr. Jáquez’s ensemble, most of them, accomplished local actors, lacked the quiet desperation that makes Mr. Tolstoy’s novel seem like a godsend nor was there any yearning between love-starved bodies --- when Conchita and Juan first embrace or Cheché makes the first of two passes at his young niece Marela, their actions and emotions erupt out of nowhere (a simulated sex scene is just that --- simulated). Only Diego Arciniegas conjured up a world of sweat and smoke in his opening cameo as a leather-lunged barker; Dick Santos, a handsome, courtly man, brought an Old World dignity to the role of the easy-going patriarch.
Perhaps the SpeakEasy production will improve, in time, and its audiences will dismiss this assessment. I can only report what I saw in the beginning and would gladly be proven wrong, in this case --- after all, a Pulitzer for Drama, even in script form, should still count for something.