Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Anna in the Tropics
Jungle Theater
Review by Kit Bix | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Dr. Seuss' The Sneetches the Musical, Bad Dates, Marie Antoinette, and The Highwaymen


Juan Rivera Lebron, Al Clemente Saks,
and Adlyn Carreras

Photo by Dan Norman
I am not sure if one would use the term "magical realism" to describe Nile Cruz's 2003 Pulitzer Prize winning steamy, romantic tragedy Anna in the Tropics. American critics have sometimes been accused of applying that tag to any and all Latin-American writers. Cruz's story about Cuban-American factory workers in the 1920s, while saturated with sensual imagery, poetry, and richly evocative metaphors drawn from nature, is largely realistic. Where fantasy exists, it is largely confined to people's thoughts. And yet, like many narratives about American immigrants past and present, the play has a mythical, timeless feel to it.

Cruz's play is set in Ybor City, Florida (near Tampa), in 1929. Immigrant factory workers sit from dawn til dusk at work tables, sorting tobacco leaves and hand-rolling cigars. The monotonous work and long hours would be unbearably tedious were it not for the presence of a lector—an educated man hired to read fiction to the workers.

As the play begins, the owners and workers at the Santiago Cigar Company are eagerly awaiting the arrival of new lector, to replace the one who recently ran off with the wife of the floor manager Cheché (Dario Tangelson). Cheché would like to see the company install the kind of machinery that would reduce the number of salaried laborers while increasing output two or three times over. Such machinery would also, it happens, create so much noise that having a lector—like Juan Julian (Juan Rivera Lebron), the dreamy young scholar who just arrived—would be impractical. Lonely and bereft, Cheché is attracted to Marela (Cristina Florencia Castro), the younger daughter of the owner, and becomes jealous when Marela develops an all-consuming crush on Juan.

The new lector does himself no favors with Cheché when he points out the flaw in Cheché's argument: "The truth is that machines, cars, are keeping us from taking walks and sitting on park benches, smoking a cigar slowly and calmly. So you see, Chester, you want modernity, and modernity is actually destroying our very own industry." Besides, listening to literature while sitting in the heat and rolling cigars has become a ritual, one that preserves a sense of the world the workers had lost and the culture of their homeland. Juan, like factory owner Santiago (Al Clemente Saks), is far too romantic to trade away rich tradition for the sake of expediency. The conflict between the forces of modernization and assimilation, on the one hand, and loyalty to tradition and culture of origin, on the other, is just one of the many overlapping themes in this layered and finely structured play. Another is the tension between the need for pragmatism in establishing a foothold in a competitive and alien environment and the lure of poetry and romanticism.

For his first reading selection, Juan chooses Anna Karenina, Tolstoy's great novel about the tragic passion between a young aristocratic woman stuck in a loveless marriage and the dashing Count Vronsky, an affair that ends in Anna's suicide. As Juan softly reads sensual passages from the novel, he inspires the workers to draw connections between their own lives and those of the fictional characters.

As the workers listen, they gradually find themselves changed, in particular, Santiago's oldest daughter Conchita (a stellar Nora Montañez), who, like Anna, is stuck in a dead-end, passionless marriage to Palomo (Rich Remedios, terrific). Due to a combination of machismo and cynicism, Palomo feels entitled to have a mistress and to ignore Conchita's need for intimacy and affection. Indeed, he seems so utterly indifferent to Conchita's happiness that when Conchita threatens to take a lover of her own, he raises no objection.

Anna in the Tropics is dense with evocative poetry and lush prose, in the tradition of Federico Garcia Lorca and Gabriel Garcia Márquez. But Lorca is a poet and Márquez is a novelist, and a play does not offer the same chance to pore over the sensual images or the lovely metaphors. There is such a thing as too much sumptuousness to take in over the course of two hours. Anna is one of Cruz's early plays, and like many great writers in the early stages of their career, it sometimes seem as if he wants to pack in everything he's got, every gorgeous metaphor and each piece of brilliant dialogue. It quickly becomes too much. What is needed is a director who provides a clear focus and guides the audience to the passages that deserve special attention, while at other times letting the beautiful language flow over the listeners like water. That is to say, this play requires a director who will take the role of a collaborator: to make choices regarding what the emotional core of the play is and which of the intertwining stories should be foregrounded, and to impose a coherent vision throughout. Unfortunately, Larissa Kokernot never quite rises to this (albeit difficult) challenge. Instead, she directs with such a light hand that one gets the sense that she was trying to restrain herself from "meddling too much," perhaps out of respect for Cruz's genius. However, the effect is a play seriously lacking in consistency.

Take, for instance, the hodgepodge of performance styles the actors bring to the drama. At one end of the spectrum there is the understated, naturalistic, and impressively nuanced performances of Remedios, Montañez, and Lebron. At the other end of the spectrum are Castro, Saks, and Adlyn Carreras (playing Santiago's wife Ofelia), who perform in a bold, heightened presentational style. Indeed, Saks and Carreras sometimes act in such broad strokes that they seem like they are performing in a musical comedy. Cruz's work could succeed with either approach, but not with both at the same time. The director's failure to get the actors to line up behind a single approach is distracting.

Of the performances, there is one that is truly stellar. Nora Montañez brings a passion and vulnerability to Conchita that is almost startling in its honesty. Indeed, if there is magic to be had in Anna, it occurs as we watch Conchita transform from a cowering, wounded and abused wife to a gloriously sensual and powerful, romantic heroine. It is a performance that is potentially Ivey-worthy, but almost certainly worth the price of a ticket.

Anna in the Tropics by Nilo Cruz, through March 12, 2017, at the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Tickets can be purchased by calling 612-822-7063 or at www.jungletheater.com.

Directed by Larissa Kokernot

Featuring Adlyn Carreras, Cristina Florencia Castro, Juan Rivera Lebron, Nora Montañez, Rich Remedios, Al Clemente Saks, Dario Tangelson
Costume Design by Sarah Bahr
Lighting Design by Barry Browning
Sound Design by C. Andrew Mayer
Wig Design by Paul Bigot
Scenic Design by Andrea Heilman
Stage Manager/Properties John Novak


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