Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Fidel Castro (Andhy Mendez) dominated Cuba from 1959 until he stepped down as its leader in 2008, eight years before his death. Machado, a Cuban native who came to the United States as a child, considers the ins and outs of the Castro regime in detail with the help of Celia Sánchez (Marian Licha), for many years Fidel's closest advisor. (The play is fiction inspired by historic events, with a light sprinkling of magical realism.)
The year is 1980, four months after Celia's death. Fidel is facing challenges on several fronts: Cuban soldiers in Angola fighting to establish a Communist government there; the question of whether U.S. President Jimmy Carter could mitigate sanctions against Cuba as he prepares to run for re-election against Ronald Reagan; and why thousands of Cuban citizens are seeking asylum in the Peruvian Embassy to escape living conditions they can no longer endure. "I am willing to destroy the world to protect my children," Fidel proclaimsbut many of his "children" have different ideas.
Smith's direction underscores how much of the spark of this play comes from the combative yet affectionate interaction between Fidel, embodied by Mendez as the shaper of reality for himself and his nation, and Celia, the only person of either sex who could ever stand up to him. When he complains about the people's criticism of his leadership, she tells him, "They're asking for what they want because we taught them to do it. They want to use their voices."
Mendez makes the most of Fidel's outsized emotions, from a love of scurrilous gossip about Richard Nixon to fury at the "Miami Mafia" (Cuban emigrés who fled to Florida after the revolution and, he is sure, want to assassinate him). Licha plays Celia with grace and the nuance Fidel often lacks, seeing things from a fuller perspective and telling him things he won't accept because they don't fit his rigid viewsand, at the same time, revealing her core of steel.
The other characters are largely foils for Fidel and Celia: Consuelo (Heather Velazquez), a young ideologue who considers Celia her role model; and Manolo Ruiz (Liam Torres), a former comrade of Fidel who escaped to the United States and now advises the U.S. government.
Riccardo Hernández has designed a comfortable set dominated by packed floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, Fidel's intimidating desk, a well-stocked bar, a humidor, even a phonograph, enhanced by Nicole Pearce's atmospheric washes of light. Alejo Vietti's costumes convey character, from Fidel in uniform and Manolo in a business suit to Celia's airy blouse and pants and Consuelo's different outfits for different duties.
Celia and Fidel runs through November 21, 2021, at Arena Stage, the Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle, Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St. SW, Washington DC. For tickets and information, please call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.
By Eduardo Machado