note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth
Theatergoers who enjoyed seeing her artistic “Sonia Flew” and cerebral “From Orchids to Octopi,” had high expectations for Melinda Lopez’s newest play, “Becoming Cuba”. Perhaps too high.
Lopez, Huntington Theatre Company’s playwright-in-residence, is no stranger to Cuba’s volatile history. Daughter of Cuban immigrants, she remembers rumors about her great-grandmother, and her being a fearless young woman who refused to leave her farm after Spanish colonialists confiscated it and ordered her family to internment camps. Although her great-grandmother never discussed it, family legend says she ran to the mountains and joined the rebels.
Lopez didn’t try to write her great-grandmother’s story here, but she revisits local insurgents, ruling Spanish military leaders, America’s involvement in the Cuban resistance in 1897 and its ongoing fight for freedom, honing in on a fictitious family torn apart by opposing politics.
For good measure, she tosses in a few lively ghosts - an ancient conquistador who’s up-to-date on contemporary times (Christopher Burns), and a female revolutionary(Marianna Bassham), who fill in as narrators, lightening the mood, yet intoning its seriousness. “Blood will have blood,” he says.
Lopez’s play is set in Havana, Cuba, in 1897-8, on the cusp of the Spanish-American War. Despite Spanish military occupation, islanders are celebrating Cuban Independence Day, with a parade, flags, and hoopla, including their national pastime, a baseball game, locals vs. Spaniards. Thrusting America’s involvement in Cubans’ resistance, Lopez creates an earnest American journalist (Christopher Tarjan), who’s there to cover the game, but wants to spread the word back home about Spanish military oppression.
Most of the action occurs in Cameron Anderson’s handsomely designed Havana apothecary, or drug store. As residents prepare to celebrate the holiday and ballgame, the Spanish military is swapping gunfire with insurgents. Yi Zhao’s incendiary lighting and sound designer Arshan Gailus’ explosions punctuate the escalating tension in once-peaceful city streets.
Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?
Lopez’s purpose is noble, but she loses her way, enmeshing the big and smaller picture - Cubans’ quest for independence and families torn apart by loyalist and revolutionary ideologies.
Unfortunately, she defuses that intensity with tongue-in-cheek humor and tangential characters, such as the ghosts, and a ubiquitous urchin.
Pragmatic apothecary owner, Adela (Christina Pumariega), a native Cuban, married to a native Spaniard and sympathizer who’s killed, is trying to carry on her husband’s business. The 35-year-old grieving widow is childless, but her younger half-sister Martina, (Rebecca Soler) an impetuous, fun-loving, rebel sympathizer, works with her. The sisters fear for their half-brother, Manny, (Juan Javier Cardenas) an inflammatory revolutionary, with a price on his head. When Manny appears at the apothecary, asking Adela for supplies for the rebels, she refuses. Her stock is dwindling, new shipments aren’t getting to Havana, and she needs more stock to serve her dwindling customers - Spanish and Cuban.
Enter a lovely, talkative, Spanish noblewoman named Fancy, (also Bassham) who buys a few things and befriends Adela. As Fancy prepares to leave, street urchin Chucho, grabs her bag and runs off with it. Throughout the play, he appears, disappears, and reappears, behind and under the counter, in the street, whenever and wherever. Brandon Barbosa is delightfully mischievous as Chuco, who wants to join the rebels.
During teatime together, Fancy, nervously talks too much and too fast, bemoaning how out of place she is in Cuba, and how she can’t sleep and is in pain. Her husband criticizes her, calling her a hypochondriac, she says, After a cursory examination and test, Adela discovers Fancy’s alarming diagnosis and administers medicine to help her.
When her cruel husband, General, Isidore (also Christopher Burns) storms into the apothecary and threatens Adela, she tells him unwelcome news, further angering him.
In the meantime, a well-meaning, married American journalist named Davis (Christopher Tarjan) frequents the shop, and wants to help the rebels by embedding himself with them and writing about it. This unlikely lover tarries with Adela, and they fall in love, even though he’s married with three kids, whom he never sees, he says.
Their budding romance becomes entangled by another spur-of-the-moment involvement, and the war rages on, until....America, that grasping, greedy, economic evildoer, and symbol of freedom, becomes involved and ultimately exacts an agreement between the two countries.
Although the cast and the production’s trappings are eye-catching, Lopez’s interlacing intense drama with humorous strains and unnecessary romance diminish the play’s fury, creating confusion instead. Some of Lopez’s lines don’t make sense, either. For instance, when Spanish noblewoman Fancy hears gunfire and explosions outside the apothecary, she exclaims, “This isn’t Chicago, you know!”
Huh? In 1897?
With additional strategic tweaks and changes, Lopez’s play can emerge from a work in progress to another theatrical coup for her.