By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
If translation is treason, as Argentine author Jorge Borges said, then adaptation might be considered assassination -- especially when it comes to reviving a Tennessee Williams work, which more often than not results in catastrophe. Not in the case of the attempt by Cuban-born director Rolando Moreno, whose sensitivity to Williams's text as well as his own excellent craftsmanship make La Ultima Parada, his Spanish adaptation of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, a thought-provoking and exciting theatrical experience. A successful adaptation is much like a transfusion: The blood or vitality of one work is donated to a new one.
Moreno has transplanted Williams's streetcar of Southern decadence, morbidity, and desire to Guantánamo, Cuba. The setting is circa 1970, when the whole island was required to cut cane in a mad attempt to harvest ten million pounds of sugar. The setting is a large mansion turned apartment house situated between a cemetery and a prostitution zone. Wisely Moreno has not turned Blanche into Blanca, Stella into Estela, and so on. He has given the original characters new identities and added some new characters. Instead of a husband, the neighbor, now named Petra (Vivian Ruiz) has a nubile young daughter, Odalys (Maria Hernandez), who in turn has a handsome yet feckless boyfriend, Lazarito (Hugo Garcia). A driver, Chicho (Ricardo Ponte), steps in at the very end of the play.
But the real transformation is Blanche, now a man named Laurel (Evelio Taillacq), the brother of the Stella character, who is now named Felicia (Alexa Kuve). By not obliging himself to stay true to the text, Moreno revives the spirit of Williams's faded genteel South, confirming the personal theory I've held for years that Havana has more in common spiritually with New Orleans than Miami. Laurel has lost the family home in El Vedado (a once-posh neighborhood in Havana) because of a scandal, which is later revealed. Just as Blanche came from a world of plantations, kind strangers, and memories of happier times, Laurel also is a remnant of prerevolutionary bourgeois Havana. He cowers in front of the mirror, unable to bear his own wrecked image. He gingerly lingers over the baubles he has managed to salvage from the family mansion like a fallen Scarlett. He bathes with cologne and deodorant -- a luxury in Cuba at that time and a reminder of his privileged past.
Taillacq takes on one of the most difficult roles in contemporary theater, with the added complication of a different gender. The challenge is to reveal Blanche's fragility and vulnerability without succumbing to melodrama or, in this case, turning Laurel into a diva, and Taillacq pulls it off. He has managed to find a good balance, creating a character who is both passionately loyal to the past and hopelessly alienated from the present.
Dressed in the army fatigues of a young communist laborer, Carlos Caballero's Pancho embodies the raw sexual energy of Marlon Brando in the 1951 movie version of Streetcar, pero a lo Cubano. Caballero's Pancho is far from a gentleman. When he first meets Laurel, he unselfconsciously peels off his shirt and begins to wipe the sweat of the cane fields from his body with a crude sex appeal to be envied by any Stanley of performances past, heightened by the fact that Laurel is a man.
Kuve does an excellent job as Felicia, balancing her role as lusty young wife and devoted sister. She also gives her Stella some cojones, and justly so. When the situation calls for it, Felicia rises up and is as fierce as her husband -- more of Moreno's keen direction and insight into the psyche of the Cuban female.
La Ultima Parada, playing at Arting Together in Little Havana, is undoubtedly steeped in the Cuban vernacular, right down to the pin pan pon(cot) on which Laurel will sleep during his stay. There's talk of la libreta ("ration book") and "Los diez milliones se van se van!" ("The ten million are going!" Incidentally from this slogan the Cuban music group Los Van Van got its name.) Likewise the actors vividly integrate the script's cultural connotations into their performances. Ruiz as Petra strives to keep her daughter chaste through an endless chain of insults, threats, and lamentations. As Lazarito and Odalys, Garcia and Hernandez play out their own electrifying version of cruelty and lust, extending the play's scope far beyond the triangle of Pancho, Laurel, and Felicia. Moreno has inserted Williams's themes into a Cuban reality that not only fits but often flourishes. For example Moreno capitalizes on the island's intrinsic connection to death by making references to El Palo -- a sect of Afro-Cuban religion from the Congo known for its connection to the dead. And Laurel is tormented by the sound of tambores, drums used in the Yoruba religion, Santería.
La Ultima Parada is a fascinating and innovative exploration of sexuality and gender. While women often are portrayed as either whores or saints, men traditionally have been allowed the duplicity of being both los caballeros (gentlemen) and los machos(studs). Neither Pancho nor Lazarito possesses one ounce of Prince Charming-ness, thereby breaking open the myth that behind every machista (chauvinist) exists a romantic. Moreno has written Pancho as a beast teeming with raw sexuality, keen self-interest, and malice, taking the character's brutality a step further than even Williams did (or could have, in his time). Through his characters Moreno unveils different forms of sexuality -- bisexuality, homosexuality, masochism -- which give the story a new perspective. Far from contrived, this theatricality explodes onstage because it extends spontaneously from the characters and the dramatic situations in which they are placed. Many possibilities arise: Behind every brute is a man who is sexually repressed. Behind every cruel man is an even crueler political system -- one so emasculating, men have no alternative but to respond to their everyday world with violence. The play is not didactic, but it cracks open old themes for a much-needed new interpretation.