KPBS AIRDATE: March 19, 2004
Sex and violence are frequent bedfellows on stage and screen. But playwright Nilo Cruz has the unique ability to marry menace and romanticism in the lush, steamy plays he sets in his native Cuba. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Anna in the Tropics,” and in “Two Sisters and a Piano,” currently receiving a poignant production at the Old Globe, it is language that has the power to stir a soul and change or break a heart. In “Anna,” a lector reads to factory-workers from a classic novel, to fiery effect. In “Sisters,” an earlier play, clearly a forerunner of the more dense and complex prize-winner, it is the passionate letters from a husband to a wife, read by another man, that make sparks fly.
The two sisters of the title are a writer and a pianist; having spent two years in prison for their incendiary opinions, they are under house arrest, where they’re regularly visited by a lieutenant who is attracted to the writings and the soul of the older sib, Maria Celia. There’s a titillating, voyeuristic thrill we share with him as he reads her husband’s confiscated letters, but there is also a dark, disturbing sense that he relishes not only her mind and body, but his political and personal power over her as well.
It’s 1991; pandemonium is outside on the streets, where the Cubans have won big in the Pan American games in Havana, and a Kremlin coup signals the imminent dissolution of the Castro-supporting Soviet Union. Inside, there’s danger and chaos, too. Conflicting emotions and motivations. A young, 20-something sister who wants a man and wants out. The hapless State piano-tuner who nearly gets snagged when he wanders in to do his job. And the erotic, language-drunk dance of two ardent adversaries.
The intimacy of the Cassius Carter Centre Stage helps foster the claustrophobic feel. But the direction and the set don’t always conspire so felicitously. It seemed like more backs than faces were seen, from any angle, and the door and window embedded in the floor don’t consistently succeed. But Paul Peterson’s dolorous sound design weaves an aching piano score into the mix. All the performances are vigorous and convincing: Gloria Garayua is childlike in her adolescent lust and wild imaginings, but forceful and steadfast when she needs to be. Jesse Ontiveros is ingenuous and fearful as the piano tuner. Philip Hernandez is sad-eyed, longing, even a little lost as the lieutenant whose motives are enigmatic and whose anger is quick to flare. And as Maria Celia, Socorro Santiago is both controlled and explosive, heated and sizzling. In his beautiful, lyrical language, Cruz keeps telling us, that in the end, it’s the art, the political passion, that trumps all; that’s the vehemence that will create, not destroy, the world.
©2004 Patté Productions, Inc.