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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Anna in the Tropics is a Beautiful Compelling Play

Also see Richard's reviews of Steve Silver's Beach Blanket Babylon,
Russ Lorenson at the Empire Plush Room and Sharon McNight's Songs to Offend Almost Everyone

Anna in the Tropics
George Castillo and Vilma Silva
TheatreWorks is currently offering Nilo Cruz's Pulitzer Prize winning Anna in the Tropics at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. The playwright skillfully presents absorbing characters for this "Spanish novella" drama. Anna in the Tropics is a beguiling tale of arousing clashes, sexual frustration and the tragedy of a closely knit family of workers in a cigar factory in Ybor City, Florida. It is 1929, a time when cigars were hand rolled by illiterate workers. "Lectors," or readers, were hired to read classic literature to the workers in the factory.

After playing at the 380 seat McCarter Theatre in 2003 to great acclaim, Anna In the Tropics won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play was produced at the large Royale Theatre in New York where it appeared to have lost its charm in a strange staging bordering on psychological drama. The critics were not kind and the play ran only 113 performances. TheatreWorks is wisely presenting this play in the intimate Lucie Stern Theatre in a detailed realistic setting of the late-1920s cigar factory, with a great cast that gloriously rises to the occasion.

The drama opens with three energized cigar factory workers, sisters Conchita (Vilma Silva) and Marela (Isabelle Ortega) and their mother Ofelia (Alma Martinez), awaiting the arrival of Juan Julian (David DeSantos), a lector from Cuba who will be reading to them while they roll cigars. At the same time on the right side of the stage, we see Ofelia's husband Santiago (Apollo Dukakis), who owns the factory, losing money in a cock fight to his half brother Cheche (Tommy A. Gomez), who is also a factory employee. As a result, some shares in the business are given to Cheche and this endangers the security of the business. Cheche hates all lectors because his wife left him for a lector, and he makes his contempt very clear.

As Juan reads Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" to the workers, the audience begins to see how this novel of doomed lovers affects the workers. Because Conchita's husband Palomo (George Castillo) is having an affair with another woman, the hot blooded sister starts an affair with Juan. The reading of this novel changes everyone in the play, resulting in tragedy by the end of the two act drama of two hours and five minutes.

Cruz's situations and writing, along with the work of director Amy Gonzalez, captures the sweltering eroticism of Juan and Conchita. The writing contains beautiful stylish lyrical flashes. Most of the poetic dialogue is brilliantly spoken by Isabelle Ortega (Living Out, Charlie Cox Runs with Scissors). She is charming in the role of a young girl with romantic dreams of white snow and Russian waltzes until the tragic ending of the play.

Vilma Silva's (many roles at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, including the world premiere of Gibraltar and Continental Divide) Conchita starts out as a plain, subdued and disregarded housewife. Silva's performance is amazing as Conchita blooms into a sexual being while listening to the romantic words of Tolstoy's novel. David DeSantos (Los Angeles actor and has played in many television series) is mesmerizing as the lector Juan. He radiates sex as he walks and talks about the stage. In a white suit, he has the look of a great Spanish romantic poet speaking the words of the Russian author.

Thomas A. Gomez (Psychopathia Sexualis plus many appearances in the Bay Area) is excellent as Cheche, a realist and hell-bent on modernizing the factory with machines. He is a danger to the rest of the workers. Apollo Dukakis (Hecuba with his sister Olympia at A.C.T.) is a joy to watch as Santiago the hapless owner of the cigar factory. His manner of just listening and reacting is priceless. Alma Martinez (Electricidad and Zoot Suit at Mark Taper) gives a heart warming performance as the stately matriarch, Ofelia. George Castillo (Teatro Vison production of Kiss of the Spider Woman) as Palomo, the conflicted husband of Conchita, is convincing. Rounding out the cast are Glen Caspillo (Summer and Smoke at Center Rep) and Gardner (Six Degrees of Separation), who are effective in the small roles of cigar factory workers.

Director Amy Gonzalez gives the cast a wonderful exotic look that keeps the audience on their toes. The natural set by Duke Durfee is an amazing detailed factory. The cast are actually rolling cigars during the performance. When Apollo Dukakis as the owner of the factory smokes the new cigar called "Anna Karenina" and passes it around to various members of the cast, the smoke comes wafting into the audience.

Anna of the Tropics plays at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto through April 2nd. For tickets please call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org. Their next production will be Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig, opening on April 5 at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts.


Photo: David Allen


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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