A Good Cigar Is a Smoke

I saw Arizona Theatre Company's production of Anna in the Tropics with a second-weekend audience, having missed its opening night. Second-weekenders are a tough crowd, harder to entertain; first-nighters are there as much for the schmoozing as for what's up on stage. And so the warm reception given by these people to Nilo Cruz's 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama was especially notable. They didn't care quite as much about Cruz's Pulitzer, or Chris Barreca's amazing set design, or that Marcia Roth was there in the front row. While those of us enamored of opening night might have been applauding Miguel Angel Huidor's splendid period costumes or Peter Maradudin's brilliant, almost animated lighting design, this crowd was clapping because it had been well entertained.

ATC's program explains about how, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cigar factory workers employed a lector to entertain the workers by reading aloud while they rolled. Cruz's story is set in the Cuban-American world of a Florida cigar factory owned by Ofelia (Karmín Murcelo) and Santiago (Apollo Dukakis), a long-married but cantankerous couple. Their daughters are Conchita (Jaqueline Duprey), who is about to exact revenge on her cheating husband, Palomo (Tim Perez); and Marela (Adriana Gaviria), an innocent who believes in the redemptive power of romance. It's 1929, and automation has begun to thin the ranks of the workers in the cigar factory; Ofelia and Santiago defy the wishes of his half-brother, Cheché (Javi Mulero), who runs the plant and whose wife has run off with the previous lector, by refusing to allow him to install rolling machines in place of workers. Enter Juan Julian (Al Espinosa), a newly impoverished Cuban aristocrat who's been hired as the new lector. He begins by reading from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (the Cubans pronounce it "Anna Cara-neena"), and, while lectors typically read from newspapers and farm reports in the early part of the day, Anna Karenina is all Juan ever reads to the cigar workers.

In very little time, Tolstoy's story of reckless love begins reshaping the lives of those who are hearing it read. Like Tolstoy's Anna, a woman consumed with yearning, these are lusty people, dreaming of things they'll probably never have. Soon, the women are lusting after Juan himself, which infuriates Cheché and wrecks Conchita's already troubled marriage, and spouting long, florid speeches about life and love.

It's all gorgeous -- the set, the lighting, the acting -- but Cruz's endlessly metaphoric chatter makes Anna seem oddly implausible. I suspect what Cruz is aiming for is a kind of Tennessee Williams surrealism by handing elaborate language to people of meager learning. But the unpretentious acting of the superb cast makes the playwright's award-winning dialogue seem all the more peculiar.

Director Richard Hamburger points up the distance between his people and the story they're hearing, indeed the distance between themselves and the people in their own lives, by placing actors far apart on Barreca's handsome set while they converse. At times, he matches Cruz's dense, lyrical language with almost balletic movement, as when Conchita and Juan first come together, and later when Cheché exacts his revenge.

Not that anyone probably noticed. The audience this night showed up looking for entertainment and, having been entertained, stayed to cheer.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela