The Jungle Theater has opened its 2017 season with a play by Nilo Cruz, “Anna in the Tropics,” a Pulitzer Price winner for the playwright in 2003. The piece starts with the jewel most writers treasure: a little known slice-of-life, capable of launching a provocative “what if.”
A Cuban family, living in Florida in the 1920s, runs a factory where cigars are hand rolled the old-fashioned way, and lectors are hired to read to the workers to alleviate the tedium of their labors and enrich their lives.
Here it comes … What if a new lector reads Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and it so impacts them that the family begins to live it out in their own lives?
After extended wheel spinning in the script’s first scene, the lector, Juan Julian, played by Juan Rivera Lebron, settles in to read, addressing passages to workers based on his perception of each one’s personal, in-progress story. Lebron is a beautiful man, dapper in a white suit, slicked-back hair and silken voice. We’ve been set up, even before his arrival, to be swept away, and he does not disappoint.
But this story is not about Juan Julian. It is about Ofelia and Santiago’s family. Youngest daughter Marela (Cristina Florencia Castro) is captivated by Anna Karenina’s world – and obsessed with Juan Julian himself. Older daughter Conchita, (Nora Montañez) is caught in a failing marriage with a cheating husband, Palomo, (Rich Remedios), who pays no attention to her. Santiago (Al Clemente Saks) begs and pilfers money to fund his drinking and gambling, with his half-brother Ceché (Dario Tangelson) as his slightly more successful compatriot.
Ofelia, given this scenario, one might expect would either succumb, or lead by default, but Ofelia (Adlyn Carreras) does neither. She paddles along, with her family’s addictions, obsessions and infidelities offering about as much conflict as the supposed threat of mechanization in their little family operation, which she waves off with, “We will make cigars as we have always done,” and inexplicably brings the majority to her corner and life goes on. (The absurdity of a crowd of workers off stage in the wings, indicated by sound effects and pointing a line in “their” direction now and then, didn’t help Carreras with assigning gravity to a scene meant to be turning point.)
Almost. This is based on Anna Karenina, so tragedy must strike, as indeed it does.
Although the play trips itself up on timing and consistency issues (and the crowd nonsense is a small thing that sticks out like a sore thumb in the script) there are layers and layers of emotional deposits that could have been mined in this material – by the writer and the director, Larissa Kokernot – and weren’t.
Castro as the ebullient Marela delights us as she joyfully embraces a new imaginary world. Saks’ Santiago melts our hearts. We can’t help ourselves. Tangelson’s Ceché grabs us early on, turns slimy and slips through our fingers. Good work by Tangelson. Remedios is “stuck” with playing a dud of a man for an entire act, but pulled off a credible turnaround for Palomo in Act II.
Montañez … now she’s got the plum role in all of this. Pushed by her loneliness and desperation to be the seductress, her Conchita embraces her vengeful affair reluctantly and with a reserve that foreshadows it’s inevitable end. I liked her understated portrayal.
So, why didn’t this work?
But for the final picture in Act I, I really didn’t know what this play was about at that point. That’s a lot of wondering. Act II, with its heightened emotions and patches of poetry, might have made us forgive all that, but … it didn’t quite.
With a gifted cast, a stunning set and great costumes, this flawed but sometimes beautiful script might still have won us over. However, this production missed what was best about the play, and that is its non-realism wrapped in the story of the characters’ inner, emotional turmoil. This one – the one between the lines roiling under the surface – is the powerful story we expected to see, but it only occasionally bubbles up, and then the bubbles pop and disappear.