By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
Exile is not simple. Both a physical reality and a psychological state, it can be imposed by governments or chosen as a means of survival. It breeds nostalgia and longing, shame and guilt. It can be a burden or a source of pride. But in all instances, it's characterized by distance -- from the actual place or the spiritual source of what we consider home.
For three generations of the Garcia family in Rafael V. Blanco's comedy Falling Fidel, that home is Cuba. True to the nature of exile, each family member's experience of it is complex. Abuelo longs for his homeland while denying the existence of Victor, the pro-Castro son he left behind. His other son, Carlos, insists he will fulfill his duty as a Cuban and return to the island when Castro falls, although life in Miami is very comfortable. Carlos's wife, Miriam, can't reconcile memories of lush greenery and lavish homes with rumors of decay. Their son, Eric, considers himself American despite his roots. And daughter Sofia and her black Cuban fiance, Alfie, insist they're going back when the time comes; for now, however, Alfie's family's business in New Jersey beckons to them.
Currently playing on Coconut Grove Playhouse's main stage, Falling Fidel is the first play that Blanco ever wrote A he has written six others since then. Like a first novelist writing the requisite coming-of-age story, he feels compelled to include everything in his affectionate depiction of this family. In addition to exile, he throws racism, religion, German unification, and abortion into a comedic stew -- but at times his touch is too light. Given its comfortable-looking set and the fact that family bickering is occasionally resolved through one-liners, Falling Fidel sometimes plays like a cross between the manic TV sit-com Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and a parody of Stanley Kramer's 1967 film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? Yet Blanco manages to keep it boiling through the first act. The situational slapstick of slamming doors, climbing in and out of windows, and running up and down stairs ends on a hilarious crescendo that, during intermission, sent me out to the lobby laughing and anticipating where the playwright would go from such a high point.
Where he goes is to more talk and fewer antics. Act two attempts to sustain some of the first act's farce through the shopworn device of a stolen wallet, but it is sluggish in places because Blanco can't resist making his "points" through long-winded polemical confrontations between siblings. He redeems himself, however, by allowing his characters, in particular Carlos, to tell the truth about their exile and to take responsibility for it. And he fashions an ending that, while not in the least bit surprising, poignantly conveys how painful it is to leave behind one's homeland.
Blanco's play succeeds despite contrived plot twists, Hallmark Card dialogue ("I don't want my little girl to get hurt -- I just want her to be happy"), and pat solutions ("We can change things together"). That's because enough of his material is genuinely funny and, in the end, moving. As a writer, he's sure of his subject, if a little attached to it (some objective cutting in act two wouldn't do any harm). As a director, he's confident. Blanco has been Coconut Grove's production stage manager for sixteen years. Clearly he knows every inch of the stage and is not afraid to use it.
The strong cast strides across the proscenium with exuberance. Only Andy Nobregas (Victor) seems a bit lost among the frenzied comings and goings, almost glassy-eyed behind the blur of his spectacles. But perhaps this is as it should be for a man exiled by his family in exile. And Salvador Levy (Abuelo) is hard to hear at points, as if he's out of breath, although this proves effective as his character takes center stage during the play's hushed finale. In contrast Marta Velasco (Miriam) and Emiliano Diez (Carlos) crackle with comic energy as lord and lady of the manor. Kristina Rodriguez is spunky and haughty as the rebel daughter in act one, although I found the direction in which Blanco sends the character in act two disappointing.
According to Blanco, Falling Fidel was a direct result of the fall of the Berlin Wall. That event inspired the playwright to imagine the answer to the question that haunts Miami's Cuban community: What will happen once Fidel falls? As history updates itself by the minute in Cuba and Miami, Blanco has revised the play accordingly, and previously has produced a Spanish version, La Caida, in which Emiliano Diez first created the role of Carlos. To his credit, Blanco does not indulge in waxing romantic about his subject. Although he doesn't say anything new about the condition of exile, he gets to the heart of the conundrum without being heavy-handed: Even with memory and desire, can one ever go back and reclaim what was?
In the same theater, in the smaller Encore Room, with considerably less historical perspective, is singer-dancer-actor Ron Torres's Cuban lovefest, Havana B.C. It easily could be subtitled: "Let's Go Back to the Way Things Were A Immediately." This nostalgic look at Cuban nightlife from the 1920s through the 1950s in such legendary clubs as San Souci and the Tropicana echoes Falling Fidel's Carlos's assessment of his pre-Castro life: "I had no political opinions. My life was one big party." Torres's version of the party, despite unbearably corny references to I Love Lucy, is enjoyable and educational.