BACK STAGE WEST
March 04, 1999
at the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts
Is it too soon to laugh about Cuba? With Castro still in power and the U.S. embargo holding fast--but, all things considered, a kind of tentative thaw in the works--is it really time for a "black comedy" about its corrupt, inefficient statist bureacracy? I say bring on the laughs. Laughter, like free trade, may be the best medicine for shaking up the last remains of Cuban socialist rigidity on the one hand and the overweening dogma of the anti-Castro lobby on the other.
Eliseo Alberto Diego, Tomas Gutierrez Alea, and Juan Carlos Tabio are credited as authors of a screenplay upon which the play is based (apparently no screenplay is worth writing that can be thought up by just one writer anymore), and it's been adapted by Lina Montalvo and director Margarita Galban and translated by Eugenia Cross, who also stars in the English-language cast. If that sounds like play-making by committee, the result feels accordingly disjointed and chaotic, and even when that's the point of the play--as in the absurd emergencies that climax each act--Guantanamera comes off as an intermittently engaging mishmash of telenovela and sitcom. And while the social realities of contemporary life in Cuba drive the plot conflict and provide much of the play's droll, occasionally stinging humor, they feel more like a backdrop for a romping farce than an integral part of a satiric critique.
The tellingly named Adolfo (Ernesto Miyares) is the anal-retentive head of a state agency in charge of all funeral arrangements--he's the people's undertaker, except that he thinks of his subjects less as people than as numbers on a statistical chart that can make or break his career in the socialist hierarchy. It doesn't even matter to Adolfo if the corpse is his wife's aunt Yoyita, a popular singing star--he's got gasoline rations and mathematical formulae to meet. His wife, Gina (Eugenia Cross), a formerly outspoken college professor, tags along with her aunt's remains on the absurd cross-country journey mandated by Adolfo's convoluted bureacratic logic, along with one of Yoyita's still-smitten admirers (Agustin Coppola). Along the way, Gina catches up with some unfinished business, Mariano (John Paul), a hunky workman who was inspired to more than mere educative ecstasy by her former teaching, while Adolfo's trek is fraught with a sketchy gallery of collectivist ironies--the frauds, bribes, and petty squabbling over privilege that result when all things belong to everyone.
Cross and Miyares are both effective, if a bit broad, in their characterizations. Faring better is a supporting cast whose timing and subtlety mines the full comedy of the situations: Armando D'Lorenzo as a sunnily cynical taxi driver, who also narrates the show with customized verses of "Guantanamera," Antonio Nesme as various functionaries and flunkies, Raul Avila as a persistently indignant mourner (among several roles), and Coppola, whose sweet-old-man shtick is perfectly calibrated to help us see Candido's dignity and decency--perhaps the play's most hopeful sign that a human spirit can survive degradations and political upheaval with some integrity intact.
Estela Scarlata and Ramon Mendoza's versatile storybook set and Jennifer L. Davis' lighting take us fleetly along the cross-country journey, though the script seems to call for a more fluid and, yes, cinematic rendering. Whether we have to wait until things between Cuba and the U.S. really thaw to see the script filmed, for the time being we can find a few laughs in this stage version.
"Guantanamera," presented by and at the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, 421 N. Avenue 19, Lincoln Heights. Feb. 10-Mar. 28. (323) 225-4044.