Marela, the youngest daughter of a Cuban Cigar Factory Owner, casts a spell to bring sweetness to Juan Julian’s journey from the island of Cuba to Ybor City, as she and her mother Ofelia (the expressive, incomparable Charín Álvarez) and sister, Conchita, anticipate his arrival. Juan Julian (in an affecting performance by Arash Fakhrabadi) whose voice is “like a Persian canary,” is the new lector. His job is to read books to the Cigar rollers as they work. The characters and a digital dramaturgy packet both note that this tradition comes from the customs of the Taino people (the Indigenous people of Cuba, a first-contact tribe) listening to storytellers as they roll tobacco leaves.
Nilo Cruz’s 2003 Pulitzer Prize winning play is a Cuban American adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Cruz deftly crafts character relationships and factory politics to examine many of the same industrial binaries Tolstoy obsessed over. Machine vs. tradition, speed vs. leisure, with cigarette vs. cigar taking center stage. All are so incredibly specific to the play’s 1929 setting while simultaneously resonant today.
There is no singular character that is identifiable as Anna Karenina from the Tolstoy Juan Julian recites. Instead, as he reads the novel to the factory workers, they all connect to multiple characters in Leo Tolstoy’s story. Conchita (in a dexterous performance by Krystal Ortiz) approaches her husband, Palomo, (an astute Roberto Màntica) to ask him what he thinks of Anna Karenina’s husband. “With this book, I am seeing everything with new eyes.” She confronts Palomo for his affair that she already knows about, demanding the freedom to pursue a lover of her own. Ortiz, cleverly costumed by Gregory Graham in the most versatile period dress, takes control of her own pleasure, transitioning from demure daughter to astute seductress, displaying a leg liberated from a slit in her oh-so-casually unbuttoned skirt. Director, Laura Acala Baker, and Intimacy Designer, Micah Figuroa subsequently craft a brilliantly empowering act two opening featuring Conchita receiving oral pleasure from Juan Julian.
The factory owner (Santiago, played movingly by Dano Duran) barters with his half-brother from up north (Cheché, impressively understudied in the performance I attended by Alex Benito Rodriguez) for an extra $200 to gamble. That’s about $3,500 in today’s currency. In a note carved into the bottom of Cheché’s left shoe, Santiago will owe him an extra share in factory ownership if he can’t pay his brother back. With this newfound power, ambitious Cheché and the jealous Palomo plot to speed up cigar production with machines whose noise would render our lector’s job useless.
Baker helms this well-deserved and timely script with remarkable expertise. The set, a Cuban cigar factory in Tampa, Florida, designed by Lauren M. Nichols, makes tactful use of the backbone of Theater Wit’s spacious stage, symbolically inviting the audience into the warehouse along with the ensemble. The sound (Peter Clare) and lighting (Claire Sangster) design are similarly thoughtful and impressive.
ANNA IN THE TROPICS runs at Theatre Wit, 1229 W Belmont, until March 19. Masks are required for this production. For context on sensitive content, see the detailed warning in Theater Wit’s lobby and on Remy Bumppo’s website.
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Charín Álvarez (she/her) – Ofelia
Eduardo Curley-Carillo (he/him) – Cheché
Dano Duran (he/him) – Santiago
Arash Fakhrabadi (he/him) – Juan Julian
Jalbelly Guzmán (she/her) – Ensemble 2
Roberto Mantica (he/him) – Palomo
Jonathan Olivares (they/she/he) – Ensemble 1 & Juan Julian U/S
Krystal Ortiz (she/they) – Conchita
Tina Muñoz Pandya (she/her) – Ensemble 3/Musician
Alix Rhode (she/her) – Marela
Ruben Carrazana (he/him) – U/S Santiago
Adriel Irizarry – U/S Swing
Ana Ortiz-Monasterio Draa (she/her) – U/S Ofelia
Esme Perez (she/her) – U/S Ensemble 3/Musician
Laura Quiñones (she/her) – U/S Marela/Ensemble 2
Daniel Rivera (he/him) – U/S Palomo/Ensemble 1
Alex Benito Rodriguez (he/him) – U/S Cheché
Jocelyn Zamudio (she/her) – U/S Conchita
Laura Alcalá Baker (she/her)- Director
Monet Felton (they/them)- Assistant Director
Melody Contreras (she/her)- Dramaturg
Jean Compton (she/her)- Stage Manager
Micah Figueroa (he/him)- Violence and Intimacy Designer
Sebastian Fabál (he/him)- Music Director
Rigo Saura (he/him)- Movement Designer
Lauren Nichols (she/her)- Scenic Designer
Gregory Graham (he/him)- Costume Designer
Aija Moreno (she/her)- Asst. Costume Designer
Claire Sangster (she/her)- Lighting Design
Peter Clare (they/them)- Sound Design
Ariel A. Castañeda (he/him)- Asst. Sound Designer
Rowan Doe (they/he)- Props Designer
Addoris Davis (they/she)- Production Manager
Lucy Whipp (she/her)- Asst. Production Manager
Harrison Ornelas (he/him)- Technical Director
Emily Altman (she/her)- Scenic Charge Artist
Gabi Sitze- Martin (she/her)- Wardrobe Supervisor
Christina Casano (she/her)- Creative Producer, Company Management, Covid Safety
Photo by Nomee Photography: Arash Fakhrabadi, Roberto Mántica, Alix Rhode, Krystal Ortiz, Jalbelly Guzmán, Jonathan Olivares, and Tina Muñoz Pandya