By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
I don't know what motivated Rafael de Acha and his New Theatre to produce Nilo Cruz's new play Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams. Maybe it was the topicality and locality of a South Florida production of a play about Cuban Americans searching for their roots. Cruz himself has been a hot commodity of late, as his plays have been produced across the nation as well as locally: A Bicycle Countryenjoyed a long run at the Coconut Grove Playhouse.
Whatever the original motive, the play has taken on a deeper resonance in the wake of the recent terrorist disaster. To be sure, the New Theatre has a hit on its hands, but it's also one that happens to explore the sense of dislocation and restlessness that many have experienced in the past few weeks. Coincidence? Possibly, but as the play emphasizes, perhaps there are no coincidences, just miracles and unexplained intentions.
Hortensia is the story of a brother and a sister, Luciana (Tanya Bravo) and Luca (Carlos Orizondo), who came to the United States as children, sent by their mother during the desperate Pedro Pan flights of 1961 and 1962. Like many other parents, the children's mother thought she would soon follow her youngsters. But the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the subsequent blockade ended that hope; she never saw her children again.
Alone in a strange country, bounced from one foster-care facility to another, the children endured years of sadness with only each other for solace. Thirty years later, in the Nineties, they live estranged, in different U.S. cities but with a shared goal: to return to the island of their childhood to recover pieces of their past.
Luciana is a journalist who uses the pope's visit to Cuba as the pretext to return to the island on a press visa. Once there she finds herself wandering through a small town outside Havana, where every sound, every breeze brings back fleeting memories of childhood. There she meets Hortensia (Marta Velasco), a charismatic matron who operates the Museum of Dreams, a collection dedicated to the miracles that Hortensia is convinced abound in the world. Luciana befriends Hortensia -- much to the delight of Hortensia's two adult sons, Basilio (David Perez Ribada) and Samuel (Robert Maxwell), who can't stop thinking about her. Meanwhile Luca arrives in Havana and begins a dalliance with Delita (Ursula Freundlich), a young woman with a taste for handsome foreigners. But Luciana and Luca are each aware that the other has returned to Cuba; that knowledge hovers over them, disrupting their idylls. Both are haunted by their unexplained separation, which their family history and the island's many memories do not let them forget.
This tale of estranged siblings is the through line to Hortensia, but many other threads wind around it. Cruz uses a multiplot structure, similar to Shakespearean comedies -- notably Twelfth Night, another tale of siblings lost and found. Hortensia has her own story, as her dreams to gain the help of the pope for her museum pits her against her local adversary, a petty official, Viamonte (Ramon Gonzalez-Cuevas). Her sons also play pivotal roles as they vie with each other for the affections of Luciana. This layered structure may lack strong narrative drive but offers other, palpable pleasures. This is a play about loss and recovery, of dreams and memories. Like Tennessee Williams at his best, Cruz plays with reality and relationships. We can't rely on what we learn; we can't even rely on what we feel. And like Williams, Cruz is not afraid of sexuality, exploring some of its more disruptive aspects. Although the past troubles of brother and sister are never spelled out, there is the suggestion of incest in their mutual attraction and revulsion, a theme that is echoed elsewhere in the play.
Certainly Hortensiais the sort of theater that speaks to a specific audience. During the play's opening weekend, the crowd responded audibly to many specific references in it. The memories, the grief, the connection with this material was tangible, an example of what theater ought to be: an exchange, a transformation between actors and audience. And the siblings' plight, their strained yet profound connection, seems to offer a symbol for a nation riven by politics and cruel fate. Yet this is not a play for Cubans alone. The plight of a family haunted by tragic events, of characters seeking to make some sense out of personal chaos and loss, elevates this material to a poetic universality.
American society has long been impatient with many subcultures that struggle to overcome the wounds of the past: the African Americans, the Jews, the Vietnam vets. And it may well be seen that survivors of the recent terrorist attacks will face similar challenges. Hortensia, in its specific Cuban setting, somehow sheds new light on such struggles, how people so affected strive, not to dwell on past tragedy but to confront it and to redefine themselves in the present.
The production features a very strong acting ensemble with solid performances throughout. Velasco is terrific as Hortensia as is Gonzalez-Cuevas as her nemesis Viamonte (and also several other roles). Tanya Bravo and Carlos Orizondo as Luciana and Luca are also excellent, though decidedly young to play the fortyish siblings the story line calls for. There may be some missed opportunities to casting actors so young and fit. Orizondo's muscular, tanned physique is easy on the eye, but he doesn't look like a man who is haunted or hounded by 30-year-old memories. Likewise Bravo's youthful allure tends to make Luciana's involvement with the young brothers less provocative than it might be if an older actress assayed the role.
Hortensia is well supported by an outstanding production team. Michelle Cummings's set design is simple and functional: a pair of double doors, a stone stairway, some wooden shutters that serve to evoke the many scene settings as the narrative careens along. Travis Neff's delicate, evocative lighting adds a sensual, dreamlike quality. To this add the outstanding sound design by Steve Shapiro, full of music and tropical sounds, and the net result is captivating.
Certainly there is room for improvement. The play focuses on the ambiguities and disorientation of its characters, but the production could use more clarity. The opening sequence, which delivers a lot of information in a rat-a-tat-tat declamatory style, is hard to follow. While Luciana's reason for being in Cuba is clear, Luca's is not. Does each know the other is going there? How did Luciana end up in Hortensia's small town? The questions may well have been answered in the opening setup, but the hard facts blow by so quickly, much can be missed. Both playwright and director might do well to think through how to set up their story a bit better.
De Acha, the production's director, has found an ideal match in Cruz. This is not merely because of their common Cuban heritage but rather their shared affinity for the rhythms and music of language, their dignity, their humanity, and a mutual penchant for theatricality. Add to this an excellent acting ensemble and production team, and what we have here is a company that recalls the early days of the Circle Repertory Theater Company in New York City, when Marshall Mason staged many of Lanford Wilson's plays, which spoke to its audience on a very intimate level. Let us hope that the Cruz/de Acha collaboration will continue.
Statistics show that the theater market in South Florida is one of the largest in the nation in terms of box-office dollars. But for many decades, artistically this region has been the end of the theater line, serving up tired retreads of tried-and-true hits. Happily recent years and several vigorous local theater companies have produced a reversal to that trend. Just as we are seeing in music and the visual arts, the local stage scene is poised to make an impact in the national arena. If Hortensiais any indication, the upcoming season and the future of South Florida theater looks very bright indeed.