Anna in the Tropics is a dramatic play by celebrated playwright Nilo Cruz that won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2003. At the time, Cruz was only the second Latino to have ever receive the honor. It went on to a Broadway run starring Jimmy Smits.
Set in 1929, in the Ybor City community just outside Tampa, Anna in the Tropics is a story about traditions and desires, and how the two sometimes conflict but can ultimately be reconciled.
The play takes place in a cigar factory owned and operated by Cuban immigrants Santiago and Ofelia. In the tradition of their homeland, they and their workers roll cigars by hand – fueled and entertained by a lector.
Lectors, known for their refined speech and fancy dress, held a position of great honor in the factories. They would read from the classics to make the days fly by as the workers toiled in the tropical heat creating their handmade cigars.
The use of a lector was a long-held tradition in Cuban factories, and those run by immigrants in the U.S. From Cruz’s pen, we learn of the importance of this and other traditions in the Cuban American community.
In the story, Juan Julián is brought from Cuba to serve as the new lector for Santiago and Ofelia’s Florida cigar factory. The first book he chooses to entertain the workers with is Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Regarded as one of the greatest pieces of literature in history, Anna Karenina deals with themes of marriage, faith, and betrayal – in particular dealing with issues of infidelity and jealousy.
Articulate, handsome, and refined, Juan Julián creates quite the impression upon his arrival. It is interesting how he is both representative of the Latino culture that dictates how the factory operates and also is very much an outsider to what is, at its core, a family business.
Working alongside Santiago and Ofelia are their daughters Conchita and Marela, as well as Conchita’s husband Palomo and Santiago’s half-brother Cheché. A smattering of other workers are present as well.
As Cheché campaigns to modernize the factory, replacing workers with machines, Conchita wrestles with Palomo’s infidelity, while Ofelia struggles to survive her husband’s drinking and gambling. There are a lot of complex issues that crisscross and intersect throughout the play.
In general, Cruz’s ideas are the makings for a very interesting story. The themes of tradition and modernization battling it out for supremacy are juicy for development.
Director Laura Alcalá Baker has assembled a group of very capable actors for the Remy Bumppo Theatre Company production now running through March 19 at Theatre Wit in Chicago’s Belmont Theatre District.
The cream of performances belong to Chárin Álvarez, Alix Rhode, and Krystal Ortiz.
Álvarez is pure brilliance. There is no visible acting. There is no pretending to be a character. There is no searching her mind for lines or blocking. Everything about Álvarez just flows. You are simply watching a real character expressing real emotions. It is as breathtaking as watching film star Rosanna DeSoto, who I regard as one of the greatest actresses of her generation.
AGE OF INNOCENCE
Rhode is equally wonderful as wide-eyed Marela. She is a child just becoming a woman, filled with fanciful ideals and romantic dreams. It is a marvelous and nuanced performance. Rhode shows she can act with the best of them.
Ortiz gets a lot of juicy material to play with as Conchita, a woman in love with her husband, but no longer feeling loved or wanted as a woman. When Juan Julián arrives it inspires Conchita to take control of her life.
Juan Julián is played by Arash Fakhrabadi, who has a charming smile and great diction. The warehouse patriarch is played by Dano Duran and Roberto Mántica plays Palomo. All three are fine actors.
Being an understudy is a unique challenge for actors. You have to know the lines and the blocking so you can step into a role on a moment’s notice, but you don’t get much dedicated rehearsal time with the cast.
I remember when I was doing Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding around the country, for one of the California productions I met the understudy playing Tina minutes before she was set to go on opposite me. Yet, she was an incredible actress and I ended up having one of my best performances playing with her. That’s an example of an understudy knowing their job and being ready.
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
For Remy Bumppo’s Anna in the Tropics, on the night being reviewed, understudy Alex Benito Rodriguez played Cheché. Rodriguez nailed the character, hitting a homerun. Rodriguez is an impressive actor and blends perfectly with the other cast members.
Director Laura Alcalá Baker makes effective use of the stage. Her greatest gift to the production is in the use of music and movement throughout the performance, including the incorporation of ensemble members Tina Muñoz Pandya, Jalbelly Guzmán, and Jonathan Moises Olivares.
These vignettes range from striking tableaus to interpretive and ethnic dances to melodic and spirited songs. To that end, I offer the highest praise to movement designer Rigo Saura, music director and composer J. Sabastian Fabál, and sound designer Peter Clare.
Costumes from Gregory Graham are very appropriate and help set the mood. I love the attention to detail for footwear, particularly Juan Julián’s stylish shoes. Violence and intimacy designer Micah Figueroa has also done his job very well. Lights are by Claire Sangster, props are effectively designed by Rowan Doe, and Lauren Nichols provides impressive scenic design.
Underwriting support for Anna in the Tropics and the 2022-2023 Remy Bumppo season is provided by Brenda and James Grusecki.
The Remy Bumppo Theatre Company production of Anna in the Tropics plays Thursdays through Sundays, with a closing date of March 19, 2023. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday performances are at 7:30 PM, Sunday performances are at 2:30 PM. There are additional select matinees on Saturday March 4, Saturday March 11, and Thursday March 16.
Performances are at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Avenue in Chicago. For single tickets or 2-Play Flex subscriptions visit www.RemyBumppo.org or contact the Theater Wit Box Office at (773) 975.8150.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
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