Without question, Anna in the Tropics at the Atwater Village Theatre could be comparatively compared as stupendous to any production ever produced anywhere. Open Fist, however, with Jon Lawrence Rivera directing, takes the lead on this round with Nilo Cruz’s poetic Pulitzer Prize winner in a high-voltage actor chemistry version that gorgeously hits the mark. “And thanks for that, Casting Dept…” Really these actors, these people are seriously intense.
Anna [‘Kareneena’] Karenina comes to life in a sultry tale that speaks Tolstoy’s broken dreams, adultery and fantasy through the lyrical lenses of a Cuban-American cigar factory owner Santiago (Steve Wilcox) and his family living in Ybor City, a section of Tampa, Florida at the center of the cigar industry, during the Prohibition Era where passions ignite through, as Rivera explains, the power of words.
It’s 1929, and tensions are flaring between old traditions and new disruptors which include mechanical cigar-rolling machines that are slowly replacing factory workers who hand roll. With that, another much-loved tradition – the Lectore de Tabaqueres – the reader who reads out loud to the workers to break the tedium.
Much loved at this particular factory by all, especially the women, except for Cheche (Antonio Jaramillo) whose wife left him for a reader at a time not so long ago. Cheche is hell-bent on getting rid of the new Lectore, Juan Julian (Byron Quiros) and all the ideas that are promoted by the reading of novels, what he calls disgusting, non-sensical, un-masculine ideas of romance.
The very thought of it is abhorrent to his core. And in addition, streamlining the factory that he now has scammed through gambling debts, almost a majority of company ownership, from his half-brother Santiago, the owner. In truth, Cheche is a violent man, a cafone, only subdued by the promise of someday factory ownership and revenge. He is constantly pushing the envelope with his personal will against the others. And it doesn’t help that his brother’s daughter Conchita (Presciliana Esparolini) , who was once a shy accepting woman, has now turned the tables on her cheating husband Palomo (Javi Muelero) by taking up with the Juan Julian as her lover and has boldly blossomed as a fearlessly sensual creature that her husband, although previously sexually unsatisfied with, now craves to have back. Palomo is obsessed with having the kind of love she freely gives to another man (which she has done with his permission as part of a private agreement between the two of them). And it’s the public behavior most of all that feeds Cheche’s hatred for the Lectore.
Cruz’s play is so deeply entrenched in the most beautiful facets of the Cuban culture and the daily lives of its people with rich interactions of language, actions, and ideas. From beginning to end, even with the conflicts, the volatility of the situation, the overarching drama, there is a deep love and sensuality in daily life, in the people themselves.
The cast here brings this to fruition with a definitive celebratory naturalness that rises above the mere content of the play and creates a ‘life’ for us that is immersive, provocative and utterly moving.
And the women, ah the women of this production really shine with intricate nuance and joyous reverie that is the happiness of the Cuban people at their best, especially Presciliana Esparolini who ‘moves to feminine power’ so absolutely without apology. Wholly underrepresented here though but nonetheless outstanding is Jill Remez as Santiago’s wife Ofelia. Remez really captures the spontaneous, fiery Cuban spirit. Jade Santana as Santiago’s other daughter Marela is an absolute icon of beauty from the inside out.
Really every actor in this production brings a vital aspect of personality and passion.
Open Fist’s Anna in the Tropics blossoms as beautifully as a mariposa…sultry and exquisite.
Written Nilo Cruz
Directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera
Starring Christopher Cedeño, Presciliana Esparolini, Antonio Jaramillo, Javi Mulero, Byron Quiros, Jill Remez, Jade Santana, Steve Wilcox,
Presented by Open Fist Theatre Company, Martha Demson, artistic director
Photo (above) by Darrett Sanders: Jade Santana and Jill Remez
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