Up In Smoke

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Down past a cobblestone road and a half-row of terra cotta brick townhouses in downtown Brooklyn, The Heights Players theater stands ensconced within a small, late nineteenth century Gothic Revival chapel. The building, which also houses the Brooklyn Community Nursery School and their young Picasso-ish attempts at art, was an interesting venue for a Sunday matinee showing of Nilo Cruz’ passionate, Tony-nominated and Pulitzer-winning Anna in the Tropics.
It certainly wasn’t helping my misgivings toward a mostly English, community theater version of a production I had originally seen with a many-star, all-Spanish cast in El Repertorio Español. It’s been my experience, more often than not, that a story’s heart can tragically get lost in translation. And Anna is all about heart – and hot blood and tears.
The age-old struggles between love and lust, tradition and modernity, and wisdom and ignorance boil their ways to the surface in a 1929 Tampa, Florida-based, Cuban-owned cigar factory, courtesy of a new lector. A custom brought over from the island, lectors read to workers as they rolled, tucked and nipped tobacco leaves into aromatic smokes. More than just a form of entertainment before the days of Muzak, they brought literature, the arts and philosophy to their captive audiences. Of course, knowledge has a way of igniting conflicts.
The arrival of Juan Julián, nicely and understatedly played by Jeremy Goren, adds gas to the simmering relationship between gambling-addict, but good-hearted factory owner Santiago and his power-grabbing, heavy-hearted half-brother Cheche (whose wife left him for the last lector). Played by The Heights Players veterans, Roger Gonzalez, and Bernard Bosio, respectively, theirs is a tussle between the old ways Santiago strives to preserve and the new modern methods Cheche wants to impose on the factory. First of which, would be getting rid of the Anna Karenina-reading lector.
But what takes center stage, of course, is the romance. An awkward, but nerdy-sexy Lothario, Juan Julián, woos the unhappily married Conchita, Santiago’s eldest daughter, with sideways glances and knowing tones sent between the lines of the Russian love triangle tale that he reads.
It’s New York native Justine Campbell-Elliott’s scene-stealing performance as Conchita that hands-down brings this play to life. She speaks volumes with a simple tilt of her head or an emotion-paralyzing stare into the distance that dedicatedly avoids Juan Julián’s eyes, but which you know is all for him. You see Conchita’s fall from grace as a loyal and doting wife, but with a sympathetic understanding of the feverish temptation she faces. In full control of every fleeting movement and voice tremble, Campbell-Elliott’s sophisticated performance is nothing short of captivating.
A close second best? Newcomer Bernard Cubria’s performance as Conchita’s husband, Palomo, who wears his inner struggles on his sleeve as he goes from the cocky husband with his mujercita on the side to the lovelorn and heartbroken spectator of his wife’s illicit courtship. He, too, acts from piercing eyes and slouched shoulders to his beseeching outstretched hands and shuffling feet. Their scenes together smoke with the heat of things left unsaid. At one point, Goren, Cubria and Campbell-Elliott are scattered on the perimeter of the stage and the interaction of their sideways glances and challenging stares easily draws your eyes away from the action at center stage.
There are some misses in Anna, however, most notably Emmanuelle Bordas’ earnest, but not quite successful portrayal of younger daughter Marela. Her last few scenes, when the impetuous, curious and daydreaming Marela learns some harsh and cruel lessons about life, are worthily wrenching. In the earlier scenes, however, Bordas seems to lack the innocent playfulness that the part calls for and often goes out of character, staring blankly at some spot on the wall while the other characters are having their moment of the spotlight.
And I implore you to stay in your surprisingly comfy (though noisy) office chair seats beyond the herky-jerky opening scene, if only to give the initially reserved and stuttering Doris Martir a chance to show you her passion and steely-spined acting chops as Ofelia, the matriarch that’s struggling to hold everyone together. And then there’s Dominique Perez’ dual role as a dashing, high-spirited cockfight referee and as a stiff-buttoned Spaniard who works in the factory, alongside all the distraught characters. His few lines will leave you wanting to see more.
Ultimately, director Ted Thompson’s version of Cruz’ tale is a success, with the actors managing to tap into the passion of this troubled family without turning it into a soap opera. Plus, the accents weren’t half bad, even if Bosio’s and Gonzalez’ early back and forth exclamations are more of the brash, fast hustling tones you can still find on Bergerline Avenue, rather than the grizzled, cafecito-sweetened vocal liquor of pre-Mariel Cubanos who really understand what it means to be a don — such a detailed defection is a decent problem to have.
The Heights Players’ Anna in the Tropics is a show that you can enjoy with all your friends – Latino or not. So go catch it before the lights go down on it for the last time on February 17.
Ojo: Just in case the name Jeremy Goren rang a bell…yes, he is the same Jeremy Goren that was Remezcla’s cine and actualidad editor. Felicidades Jeremy!
Photos by Eileen Delgado