Enjoying the 'Tropics' with your eyes closed

Gordon Jones
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Theatre

As any cigar aficionado can tell you, in days of yore, before the invention of radio or Muzak, workers rolling tobacco for long hours in Cuban cigar factories were informed and diverted by a professional lector reading to them, as a rule from newspapers in the morning and from famous novels in the afternoon.

So popular was one of these novels in a particular factory, so the story goes, that workers petitioned that a line of cigars be named after the book's titular hero - the Count of Monte Cristo.

As any cigar aficionado can tell you, in days of yore, before the invention of radio or Muzak, workers rolling tobacco for long hours in Cuban cigar factories were informed and diverted by a professional lector reading to them, as a rule from newspapers in the morning and from famous novels in the afternoon.

So popular was one of these novels in a particular factory, so the story goes, that workers petitioned that a line of cigars be named after the book's titular hero - the Count of Monte Cristo.

This legend evidently inspired playwright Nilo Cruz, whose "Anna in the Tropics" transposes the concept from Cuba to Florida, while switching authorship from Dumas to Tolstoy, and locating the action in 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression.

In an old-fashioned, non-mechanized factory outside Tampa, the newly arrived lector reads "Anna Karenina" to workers repetitively stuffing and rolling and banding cigars.

As the novel unfolds, their imaginations are seized and they live out a displaced version of the narrative of doomed love and jealousy.

Novelistic plot and dramatic action converge as Tolstoy's Russian characters are reanimated in their Cuban-American avatars, who shadow the actions and relationships of their fictional predecessors.

"This book will be the end of us," Palomo declares as the story moves towards its pre-ordained, violent climax and unexpectedly quiet coda, as a new lector takes up the reading.

Played on a cut-away set furnished with rolling desks, the Beothuck Street Players production of "Anna in the Tropics" is notable for its solid and well balanced cast, Dave Walsh as the generous and paternalistic factory owner, Santiago, Janet McDonald as his ebullient wife, Ofelia, Chris Hibbs as his angry and frustrated half-brother, whose wife deserted him, and Natalia Hennelly in the ingenue role of his daughter, Marella, while the focal sexual triangle is constituted by passionate and articulate Conchita (Janet Edmonds), and her philandering but jealous husband Palomo (Chris Panting), who drives her into the arms of her lover (George Robertson in the role of the suave lector).

Scenes are separated by black-outs, covered by Cuban music cues. Pacing is brisk enough, but a few of the scenes are somewhat stilted, particularly the opening, split-stage scene alternating between men gambling at the cock-fighting and women awaiting the arrival of the lector.

The production wisely rejects the poison pill of trying to create and sustain Cuban-American accentuation. Director and actors trust Cruz's courtly dialogue, which is imbued with reminiscences of Spanish idioms and suggestions of Hispanic formality, language shifting often into a realm of magic realism that is mysteriously evocative and lyrically beautiful.

A bicycle dreams of becoming a boy, a pearl dreams of becoming a woman, a chair dreams of becoming a gazelle.

The adulterous affair between the lector and Conchita will be white and pure like tobacco flowers. The new cigar named after Tolstoy's heroine burns like a blue dream, it speaks of forests and orchids, it sighs like a sunset.

Elizabethan theatre-goers sometimes talked of going to hear a play. "Anna in the Tropics" is a play that you could enjoy with eyes closed and ears open, like those other listeners - the oidores - in the tobacco factory.

Directed by Jill Kennedy, with expressive lighting by Clar Doyle, the Beothuck Street Players production of Nilo Cruz's intriguing "Anna in the Tropics," which won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for drama, continues until Sunday at Holy Heart Theatre, starting at 8 p.m. With a 10-minute intermission, it concludes before 10 p.m.

Organizations: Beothuck Street Players, Holy Heart Theatre

Geographic location: Monte Cristo, Cuba, Florida Tampa

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  • Rachel
    July 02, 2010 - 13:14

    The play runs until Saturday the 23rd.

  • Rachel
    July 01, 2010 - 19:53

    The play runs until Saturday the 23rd.