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Cigars and Self-Discovery

ATC's 'Anna in the Tropics' effectively shows factory workers discovering their inner lives with a little help from Tolstoy

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All happy plays resemble one another; each unhappy play is unhappy in its own way. Or so Leo Tolstoy might have observed upon finding his novel Anna Karenina used as the catalyst of the unhappy action of Nilo Cruz's Anna in the Tropics. The 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning play is now on the boards in a sometimes-sultry Arizona Theatre Company production.

Many works, more often novels than plays, have revolved around characters who are deeply moved by fiction. What's unusual about Anna in the Tropics is that the characters are largely unschooled workers in a cigar factory in 1929 Tampa. Sweating in the Florida heat, they are easily transported, in their minds, to Tolstoy's frigid Russia thanks to a lector, or professional reader, who regales them with passages from Anna Karenina every afternoon. Gradually, the novel's passionate characters raise the internal temperatures of the play's characters, few of whom realize how unhappy they are until their brush with Tolstoy.

The Cuban Americans of the cigar factory don't grasp the totality of the novel; each takes possession of certain different details. (They personalize the work by 'Hispanicizing" the heroine's name, pronouncing "Karenina" Spanish- rather than Russian-style, accenting the next-to-last rather than antepenultimate syllable.)

Kindly but floundering factory owner Santiago (Apollo Dukakis), for example, focuses on Tolstoy's secondary character of Levin, who strives to improve his farm and be fair to his workers while fearing that he's losing his dignity to drinking and gambling. His elder daughter, Conchita (Jacqueline Duprey), sympathizes with Anna's betrayed husband, for she suspects her own husband, Palomo (Timothy Perez), of cheating on her. Her mother, Ofelia (Karmín Murcelo), takes a somewhat philosophical approach to the issues. Conchita's younger sister, Marela (Adriana Gaviria), suffers a more generalized inflammation of ardor, especially in the presence of the handsome reader Juan Julian (Al Espinosa). Santiago's half-brother, Cheché (Javi Mulero), who owns a share of the factory, despises Juan Julian and romantic novels on principle, for his own wife ran off with a lector.

Inevitably and predictably, the story will involve infidelity and death, but Cruz makes the tale more pungent by wrapping it in the tobacco leaves of a new setting. Cigar factories in the late-19th and early-20th centuries actually did employ lectors, who read from newspapers and workers'-rights materials in the mornings and popular fiction in the afternoons, while the workers quietly and monotonously rolled their cigars. Factory managers weren't entirely comfortable with the editorial slant of the morning material, but in Anna in the Tropics, Cheché objects to the dangerous romantic rather than political notions that Juan Julian is spreading around.

Mulero brings much-needed depth to his role as the antagonistic Cheché; not an inherently bad man, he initially channels his frustrations into improving the factory's profit margin, and only gradually does his frustration build to rage. Espinosa is a charismatic but not narcissistic Juan Julian, and Dukakis plays the well-meaning but ineffective Santiago with just the right mix of sadness and teeth-gritting optimism. Perez gives an especially nuanced portrayal of Palomo, an ordinary and ordinarily weak man who realizes too late that he doesn't want to lose his wife.

Women really stand at the center of this play, and ATC offers a strong trio of actresses. Gaviria is an engaging Marela, although the script and director Richard Hamburger require her to seem a bit too adolescent for a woman in her early 20s. Murcelo brings dignity without stiffness to the obligatory role of Wise Hispanic Elder (the mother, Ofelia) and Duprey is convincingly strong yet wounded as Conchita.

Chris Barreca's scenic design, abetted by Peter Maradudin's lighting, makes effective use of burning reds, and the remote-controlled, motorized long table that transforms itself from a gangplank to a workbench is almost a character itself. It calls to mind one character's poetic contention that "a chair dreams of becoming a gazelle and running back to the forest."

Where this production falls short is in the relationship between Conchita and Juan Julian. When she takes him as her lover, it seems more a matter of convenience as she seeks revenge on her cheating husband; there isn't much chemistry, somehow, between Duprey and Espinosa. Also, neither Cruz nor the production team really provide a sense of the community in which the action takes place. Ybor City, long a derelict quarter of Tampa, now the city's hip district (although its hipness can seem more curated than organic), was a thriving Cuban enclave in the 1920s; there's no trace of it, visually or audibly, in Anna in the Tropics, whose cigar factory might as well be plunked on some little sand bar in Tampa Bay.

Otherwise, Anna in the Tropics very effectively conveys the quandaries of people who discover to their astonishment that they have inner lives. Its mixture of inhibition and exuberance is well described by a character who says she is "like a shell that shouts with the voice of the sea, and doesn't care if anybody hears it."

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