Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
June 7, 2013
Cuba – the very name invokes two robust sets of images. One is bright colors, tropical breezes, cigars, rum, sultry nights, passionate emotions and hip-swaying rhythms. The other is Revolution. Both are conjured in the world premiere commissioned by North Coast Repertory Theatre.
“Becoming Cuba” revels in the lush language of playwright Melissa Lopez, whose great grandmother lived through the Cuban War of Independence depicted here. As illustrative complement, there’s the pulsating color in the abstract paintings of Cuban-born artist Pete Garcia, showing off the beautifully redesigned gallery adjacent to the theater.
Though the play’s setting is Havana, 1897, there are visitations from the more distant past – a Spanish conquistador and the lusty wife of a 16th century tribal chief, Cuba’s first national hero. The menace of colonialism always lurks, with the most virulent barbs aimed at the Spanish, though America is implicated, too. The devastating effects of occupation and rebellion course through every scene. The play is all about steadfast or shifting loyalties, infused with heavy doses of the island’s fraught history – too much for unknowledgeable gringos to absorb in one evening. And frankly, more than we need.
The first act doesn’t do much more than introduce the colorful cast of characters, present and past. But everything heats up in Act Two: the love story, especially, with an American journalist falling for the widowed proprietor of the apothecary where the action takes place, and her hot-blooded sister falling for the journalist. Their hunky half-brother slinks in from the rebel outpost, seeking additional supplies. The indiscretions of the siblings’ profligate father are mirrored by the implied infidelities of the local Spanish second-in-command and their disastrous effect on his hapless wife. Then there’s a little waif who wafts in and out, pilfering from everyone, perhaps a gloomy forecast of the next generation. Everyone here defines survival differently; some are better at it than others.
A few too many stories to follow, but still, this is a striking and affecting new work that, with trimming, shaping and more concentrated focus, will make a powerful statement about love and war, secrets and honesty, subjugation and liberation.
Director David Ellenstein deftly marshals an outstanding cast, including Eileen Faxas as the repressed apothecary who speaks a tad too rapidly; fiery Maritxell Carrero as her impetuous, oversexed sister; Steven Lone as their magnetic, freedom-fighting brother; Richard Baird as the American journalist with an eye for the ladies – and a good story; and, in a variety of juicy roles, malleable Mark Pinter and Catalina Maynard.
The wonderfully detailed set, gorgeous sepia lighting, excellent sound and marvelous costumes transport you to another time and place. You’ll see just why Cuba’s motto is ‘Patria o Muerte ,’ our homeland or death.
“Becoming Cuba” runs through June 23 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, in Solana Beach.
©2013 PAT LAUNER