Cuba Libre

Nilo Cruz's island romance has no freedom from the tyranny of melodrama

This past Saturday a tour bus pulled up to the Theatre Garage. While tour busses are common enough sights parked in front of the Ordway and the Historic State Theatre, they are unexpected at the Garage. There is a tour-bus theater audience, with a tour-bus theater mentality and, frankly, the sorts of plays that inhabit the Garage don't suit either. Tour busses go to Broadway touring shows. Tour busses go to musical revues. Tour busses do not go to plays such as Eye of the Storm's Two Sisters and a Piano, the current production at the Garage.

In fact, it was the usual Eye of the Storm audience that debussed and wound into the Garage, merrily ordering Cuba Libres, some dressed for the occasion in brown straw Panama hats and floral-print short-sleeve shirts. They milled about the lobby, placing bids on various items of Cubana set into elegant displays, including cigars that had the words Hecho en Cuba stamped across their front. These folks had climbed aboard the bus several hours previously as part of the show's opening-night fund-raising festivities, to travel uptown and enjoy a catered Cuban meal. The bus driver had driven to Lyndale and Lake and then paused, turning and calling out to his passengers to see if anybody knew where they were going, specifically. A few passengers responded with suggestions, all wrong, and the group wandered without a clear destination for a while, looking like some dour flotilla of lost refugees.

I am tempted to read this symbolically, even though the bus eventually did locate its destination. But Two Sisters and a Piano likewise seems perfectly dressed for an event, its transportation ready and its passengers on board, but with no clear destination in mind. The play, by Cuban-born Nilo Cruz, reads well and rehearses beautifully, but onstage falls ungraciously to pieces, particularly in its second act. Cruz tells of two sisters, the older, Maria Celia, a politically suspect writer, the younger, Sofia, a willful pianist, who suffer under house arrest as a result of the older sister's pro-democracy politicking. The sisters pine away in their large house, knitting and crabbing at each other. A piano tuner comes and repairs a piano. A lieutenant in the Cuban military checks up on the sisters regularly, bargaining with the older sister, offering to read letters from her exiled husband in exchange for hearing her unpublished stories. The lieutenant may be sincerely infatuated with the older sister, or he may be trying to uncover further counterrevolutionary insurgency.

These are the fixings for good drama, and some of Cruz's script, literate and brooding, has the melodramatic, dissolute poetry of Tennessee Williams. Some lines almost demand to be read in a lurid Southern accent, even if they are spoken by a Cuban. Stretching herself out on a daybed, the younger sister purrs out a monologue about how appealing veins are on men. "Because it makes them look strong and virile, like their plumbing works well and blood flows through all their parts," she explains--and Sonja Parks, who portrays Sofia, pauses meaningfully before the word "parts" in this production. Why, Blanche, I do believe you're blushing.

Parks plays her role with hands like excited insects, scuttling sensuously over every surface as she speaks. She attempts to seduce the piano tuner, played with appealing earnestness by Simon Anthony Abou-Fadel, her hands slinking across the piano top to rest atop his, causing him to almost audibly perspire. Their scene together is well crafted and sweet, filled with carefully rehearsed bits of stage business designed to fluster and excite him further. The sister pulls his shoes from his feet and replaces them with her father's as payment for his work. She flutters behind him like an excited butterfly as he works, and as he leaves, hands filled with his tools and shoes, she rushes at him and kisses him. And then he walks out the door and never returns, and our disappointment as an audience is as palpable as the sisters'.

What remains is the relationship between the lieutenant and the older sister, which comes across as a rather awkward political parable. Aditi Kapil plays Maria Celia, and she has a sharp, commanding manner and an enviable patience as a performer. She is perfectly comfortable sitting onstage, going about her business--which in this case is knitting--while she waits for the play to demand something of her. Most of what it demands are reactions to her husband's letters, which we hear in fragments, read by Daniel Cariaga as the lieutenant. Cariaga plays the role as sincerely lovestruck, and toward the end of the play he begins to paw at her, which is all quite logical. But something unexpected happens--she responds in kind. Several weeks back during the rehearsals for this production, Kapil complained that she was "about 500 epiphanies away from a character," and Cruz hasn't given her much assistance since then. Maria Celia's sudden romance with the lieutenant is out of character: She is, we are told, devoted to her husband, and she behaves with appropriate suspicion toward the lieutenant. But there she is, without explanation, in his arms.

From this point on, the plotting and the language go from melodramatically poetic to simply melodramatic. "We were one night ahead of the world," the lieutenant declares, and then, "You're running so fast you don't even know where you're going." The older sister responds with equally portentous comments, at one point saying, "Something's going to happen in this country soon. I know so. I can feel it coming like a storm."

Observing this scene this past Saturday, an audience member exploded into laughter with each new cumbersome utterance, doubling over in her chair and covering her face, seized with the sort of body-shaking giggles that come from silent, polite hysterics. Perhaps she had one Cuba Libre too many, but I don't think so.

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