By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Smoke and poetry thicken the air in Anna in the Tropics, now onstage in an intensely passionate production at Dallas Theater Center. Set in a cigar factory outside Tampa in 1929, Nilo Cruz's two-act play, winner of the 2003 Pulitzer for best new drama, unfolds like a hazy, sexy dream. And as Cruz sees it, even objects are capable of dreaming. "A bicycle dreams of becoming a boy, an umbrella dreams of becoming the rain, a pearl dreams of becoming a woman, and a chair dreams of becoming a gazelle and running back to the forest," he says in this play.
The owners and workers in Anna's little cigar factory are small people with big dreams. Ofelia and her husband, Santiago (played by Karmin Murcelo and Apollo Dukakis), are in danger of losing their cigar business to his gambling losses. He believes the perfect 10-cent smoke will wipe out his debts and make them all rich. Their daughters are the virginal Marela (Adriana Gaviria) and the doe-eyed Conchita (Jacqueline Duprey), married to openly unfaithful, brooding Palomo (Timothy Paul Perez). Looming in the background is much-despised Cheché (Javi Mulero), Santiago's bastard son who dreams of firing all the workers and replacing them with machines. Day after steamy day, they sit at the long assembly table, cutting and hand-rolling fragrant Cuban tobacco leaves and listening to romantic literature read by the factory's hired "lector," the aristocratic Juan Julian (Al Espinosa).
There really were such men as Juan in Florida's cigar factories before the Depression (as there had been back in Cuba), paid for by the workers themselves. But by the 1930s, lectors had disappeared. It could have been radio or noisy new machines that drowned them out. Lectors also were seen as dangerous political influences on émigrés whom American factory owners preferred to keep illiterate and uninformed. As Cruz discovered in researching Tampa's Ybor City factories, lectors were regarded as romantic, elegant figures (at the beginning of the play, we find out Cheché's wife has run off with one). Juan Julian is written to be matinee-idol handsome (as is the actor playing him here). Dressed in a white linen suit, white Panama hat and brown and white spectators (the lovely period costumes are by Miguel Angel Huidor), he's what the old movie fan mags would dub a "dreamboat."
Juan reads Anna Kareninafrom the lector's perch. The employees get caught up in the tragic story and begin acting out Tolstoy's love scenes and intrigues for themselves. Marela gets a schoolgirl crush on Juan. But it's her older sister Conchita who rushes into his arms when they're finally alone together. He becomes her Cuban Count Vronsky. Act 1 ends with a seduction scene as hot as Tabasco.
Director Richard Hamburger keeps the passion at high simmer in Anna in the Tropics. The handsome cast, particularly Espinosa, a '91 SMU drama grad, and Duprey as his beloved, bring a haunted, feverish quality to their performances, leaving the audience at a preview performance at times afraid to breathe for fear of breaking the spell. The actors are careful not to overplay Cruz's dialogue, which can sound artificial. ("How does one read the story of your hair?" a lover asks.)
Scenic designer Christopher Barreca makes excellent use of the Kalita Humphreys Theater's revolving stage. Actors and furniture move at a dizzying pace through the two-hour performance. Through swirls of words and kisses, smoke and tears, everyone, including the chairs, seems always to be on the verge of running back to the forest.
Best New Plays or Musicals:
Gauguin's Shadow by Fred Curchack (independently produced)
Up in Auntie's Attic (A Gentle Haunting) by Johnny Simons (Hip Pocket Theatre)
Best Touring Productions:
Big River (Dallas Summer Musicals)
Urinetown (Casa Mañana)
Best Acting Ensemble:
Closer (FireStarter Productions)
The Life (Uptown Players)
Akin Babatunde, Blind Lemon Blues (Documentary Arts)
Mark Nutter, Lone Star (Contemporary Theatre of Dallas)
Joey Steakley, Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Kitchen Dog Theater)
Trey Walpole, Moon Over the Brewery (Circle Theatre)
Nicole Case, Steel Magnolias (Contemporary Theatre of Dallas)
Marisa Diotalevi, Laundry and Bourbon (Contemporary Theatre of Dallas)