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Cigars With No Heat

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Anna in the Tropics by Nilo Cruz, dir. Dennis Zacek, The Studios of Key West Helmerich Theater, February 2020

Theatre etiquette! There is always some ponce who has failed to note the dress code and pitches up wearing completely inappropriate attire. Such is the gloriously laid back atmosphere in sunny Key West that everyone breezes into the mercifully air-conditioned intimacy of Helmerich studio theatre wearing loosely buttoned floral shirts, shorts and sandals. Casual theatre-going is a glorious invention, the comfort of which can considerably assist one's concentration and appreciation of what is presented on stage so why this one twerp arrived in a smart white-collared shirt, neat-pressed blue trousers and a grey blazer is anyone's guess. Taking liberties if you ask me.

Not that being comfortable or cool or otherwise would have done anything to enhance the appreciation of this script. How it won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, beating out the likes of Edward Albee's far superior (in every sense of the word) The Goat, or, Who is Sylvia? is a mystery. I have seen The Goat in a breathtaking production in London starring Damian Lewis and although a tough and uncomfortable watch, it was pure drama from start to finish - in other words, it contained conflicted characters, rising tension, explosive climaxes and it flirted continually with elements of the absurd and controversial in a way the very best theatre seems entirely designed for. It was a revelation. In contrast, Anna in the Tropics, while it has its lyrical moments reminiscent of Lorca (of whom the author is also a translator), lacks any real sense of momentum, cohesion, depth or substantial character development. It's abrupt climax is first sign-posted from here to kingdom come with the appearance (literally) of a Chekovian gun and then happens in such a matter of fact manner that it is devoid of any power when it does. There is no heat here at all.

The real problem with the script is the clunky and overly exploited parallel Cruz tries to create to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina through the contrivance of what was called a 'lector' - a Spanish term for an employee who used to read to the workers in the Cuban cigar factories to keep them content and entertained while carrying out monotonous and repetitive work. Monotonous and repetitive are probably two adjectives a playwright wants to avoid, so when Cruz sets his play in an unpromising and static location you have your first sign of the problems ahead. A cigar factory may ordinarily be ripe for any manner of bon hommie entertainment or the rise of sweaty disgruntlement and while we do have the onset of jealousy, adultery, infatuation and challenge to convention, it is continually deflated by the interjection of large chunks of Anna Karenina being read out verbatim, after which the characters seem to reflect starry-eyed on its significance in their own half-baked trajectories. They all sit around rolling cigars and commenting on the beauty of the language while the intrigue which should be flourishing is kept always at a frustrating remove, only ever allowed to half-boil up somewhere in the background. As a consequence, when action eventually does unfold, it happens so ineffectively it strains credibility to breaking point.

The premise is the arrival of the handsome and erudite Juan Julian (Daniel T. Bochlas - impressive) who is a new lector come to cause the young ladies of the family-run cigar factory to swoon and covet his attention. The matriarch of the family, Ofelia, (the excellent Mira Negron) is distraught that her husband Santiago (Christian Dean Haler - also good) keeps gambling away the business' profits so she has cracked the whip and taken over affairs. She is bossy but sympathetic to her daughters Marela (Nayem Cardenas-Lopez) and Conchita (Francesca Silva) who alternatively fall in love with Juan Julian (obviously) even though one is married and the other so inexperienced she wets herself whenever she is in the presence of a handsome specimen. There is a sub-plot involving the odious CheChe (Aramis Ikatu) who wins a share of the company in a cock-fighting bet from Santiago and wants to modernise the factory by firing the lector and introducing machines but this is never developed significantly, while he then tries to firstly seduce Marela and then, again with little dramatic exposition to do so, rape her. Juan Julian has in the meantime started an affair with the sensual Conchita and when her husband Palomo (Mathias Maloff) finds out, of course it all leads to tragedy. Except another reason for the death of Juan Julian transpires which allows Cruz a clumsy way of giving CheChe his comeuppance while the gun appeared two scenes earlier anyway so we can see what is going to happen a mile away. The event unfolds with all the entertainment of watching a half full balloon slowly deflate. The denouement lacks any impact as yet again it is derived from a reading of the novel and the reconciliation between Conchita and Palomo is poorly handled and gifts the play a cloying and lightweight though not unwelcome conclusion.

The play is adeptly directed by Dennis Zacek with some nice flourishes, such as when a new cigar is unveiled and they each take turns passing it around and describing its characteristics. Here the evocative language sparks the play's potential to light - we sense the cultural significance of cigars in the context of an age-old handmade craft specific to a certain set of people, but there is far too little originality in the rest of the script to define it as an experience you want to envelope yourself in as opposed to an awkwardly grinding generic template of an all-too obvious unfolding of turgid action.

At least, in shorts and loose-button cotton shirts, we were comfortable watching it.


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