Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
In the intensely intimate space where Central Works stages its productionsa smallish room in the gorgeous, Julia Morgan-designed Berkeley City Clubdirector Gary Graves has done marvelous work with minimal resources to create a world of magic realism in the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez for the world premiere of King of Cuba, a play by Cristina García based on her novel of the same name. His excellent work is, however, undercut by lackluster performances from his cast.
García's story plays out in a variety of locations in Havana and Miamiand in the dreams/hallucinations of its two main characters, a pair of octogenarian adversaries unwilling to surrender their mutual animosities. El Comandante (Marga Gomez) is a fictionalized representation of Fidel Castro. Nearing his 90th birthday, plans are brewing for a celebration of this milestone. Despite the vagaries of old age, El Comandante is as feisty and committed to the Revolution as ever he was.
Likewise, Goyo Herrera (Steve Ortiz) has never forgotten the indignities of being on the losing side of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and his hoped-for revenge has burned in his heart for almost 60 years. As the play opens, Goyo is at a shooting range, imagining the target is El Comandante, and before he fires each bullet he exclaims in poetic fashion whom each slug is meant to avenge.
Interestingly, Goyo's daughter Alina (Elaina Garrity) also has a dream of shooting Castrobut with her camera, as a photojournalist working on a project to create portraits of Cubanos of the revolutionary generation. His son Goyito (Marco Aponte) is about to be released from prisonyet even with this black sheep status, it's clear Goyo values his ne'er-do-well son over his accomplished, faithful daughter. In prison, a sugary diet has rotted Goyito's teeth into a misshapen mess, clearly standing in for the chaos and decay that permeates this Cuba, where coffee is a scarce commodity and restaurants have little to serve beyond arroz con frijoles.
While Alina attempts to obtain the visas required to visit Cuba for El Comandante's birthday bash, the dictator is himself embroiled in the plans for the celebration. His major domo Fernando (also Marco Aponte) keeps bringing him ideasa casino hotel to fleece funds from tourists, a musical of the Bay of Pigs complete with scantily clad showgirlsthat run deeply counter to El Comandante's revolutionary ideals.
Both men are also beset by visitationsfrom angels, former lovers and wiveswho bring warnings and remonstrations and wise advice the two men seem unable to take. Ultimately, their fates will bring the two men together for a resolution of their enmity that will satisfy neither of them.
The staging is simple, but wonderfully so. Two chairs, a few simple props, a radio mounted on the wall, and a bold lighting design (also by Gary Graves) create a variety of scenes. Masterful sound design from Gregory Scharpen (it's refreshing when sound actually seems to emanate from its source, rather than a speaker in some other location) heightens the sense of verisimilitude for the audience. He has also engaged Grammy Award-winning "bongocero" Carlos Caro to provide an atmospheric score (and sound effects) played on a compact set of percussion instruments. Graves uses all these tools and the space itself with imagination and grace.
But his cast sadly fails to complement Graves' direction. Lines seem to be declaimed rather than felt, and though the cast exudes a passionate sense of energy, that passion is never put to use in furthering the sense of character. Instead, it seems only to serve to remind us that these are actors rather than people. Marga Gomez performs El Comandante with a gruff voice that is all too often swallowed up by a mumbling delivery, but she clearly revels in the macho energy of a man obsessed by power and his concept of masculinity, the primary indicator of which is the size of his cojones. Ben Ortega, despite playing eight roles, is the most focused and engaging of the cast.
When El Comandante quotes the Cuban hero José Martí in saying "it is a sin not to do what one is capable of doing," it could be applied to this production of King of Cuba itself: there is a fascinating and far-reaching story here that doesn't quite live up to its potential.
King of Cuba, through August 19, 2018, at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Avenue, Berkeley CA. Shows are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 5:00 p.m Tickets range from $30-$38, with a sliding scale of $15-$38 available at the door. Tickets are available online at www.centralworks.org, or by calling (510) 558-1381.