Found at Sea
When American poet Adrienne Rich wrote, "The personal is political," she reminded us that political acts cannot be separated from the circumstances of individual lives. Too often drama that attempts to convey a political message does so by striving to be universal, at the expense of the characters' discrete choices and motivations. In A Bicycle Country Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz avoids this trap and proves Rich's maxim correct, combining his poetic skills with a keen knowledge of theatrical conventions to create a play that is both lyrical and relevant.
The plot of A Bicycle Country is simple,and familiar to South Florida audiences. Set in 1994, the action takes place in Cuba as well as in the waters of the Florida Straits. Julio (John Rodaz) is paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. His best friend Pepe (Carlos Orizondo) finds a physical therapist to help him recover. The physical therapist, Ines (Marcy Ruderhausen), convinces the two men to risk escaping the country with her on a raft.
Upon this modest foundation, Cruz has constructed a work of incredible depth and complexity. Cruz is a gifted wordsmith, but he knows how to use the physicality of the theater to convey his themes. The theater-in-the-round staging for the set of A Bicycle Country, which appears as merely a square platform with a column in the middle, heightens the sense of confinement, especially in the second half of the play, when the stage becomes a makeshift raft. (Set designer Steve Lambert uses a hydraulic system to rock the stage as if it were on water in a subtle yet effective visual device.)
Even the props take on a poetic identity. Chairs, an old trunk, and a couple of pillowcases go from being instruments of diversion to instruments of destruction. A captivating visual moment in the play comes from the use of simple pillowcases, which at first represent family and memory ("I was just imagining all the women in your family who have slept on these pillowcases," Ines says to Julio). Later the pillowcases give Julio and Ines the anonymity to love each other and to dare to escape repression and poverty in Cuba.
"We are going to play a game," Ines explains. "When we take off these pillowcases, we will be in a new place." They place the pillowcases on their heads and reach outward, exploring each other's features through the cloth. The pillowcases take on new meaning yet again in the second half, when Julio and Ines include Pepe in the game. When the three of them stand in a distant triangle with pillowcases covering their heads in an attempt to renew their sense of hope, they end up looking more like hooded prisoners awaiting execution.
The same objects are present from the beginning to the end, making the stage -- whether it's an apartment or a raft -- give the impression of both transition and permanence. Like the pillowcases, other objects take on vastly different meanings depending upon context. As metaphorically rich as this lack of change is, it threatens to make the show extremely static. A small stage, an abundance of rich language, and not much action could add up to a bored audience, even with Cruz's scintillating dialogue. Fortunately director Michael Garces has instructed the actors well in their movement. Whether they are dancing, arguing, or rowing, there is fluidity on the small stage that keeps the viewer engaged.
Even so, it is Cruz's script that truly drives this play. The sea is both an angel and a demon for Caribbean writers; Cruz ably explores this dichotomy. Like Garcia Lorca, Cruz is as much a poet as he is a playwright; the second half shimmers with the images of water as the three actors speak in a dizzying round robin of visceral metaphors. Cruz has given us new images of the sea, no small feat under the shadow of writers such as Derek Walcott and José Lezama Lima. A scorched and dehydrated Ines speaks of a dream in which water flowed from her breast: "I couldn't drink because I couldn't bring my mouth close to my chest. But you came close to me and sucked the water from my breast and gave me some water to drink." In one of the most beautiful moments of the play, Julio and Ines make love on the raft, perhaps for the last time. Julio tells Ines: "We don't have to move. The sea is already moving."
For all the startlingly original poetry in A Bicycle Country, the dynamic among the characters is the tried-and-true triangle. In this dramatic threesome, Ines represents love, poetry, and freedom. But she also is well grounded in the role of caretaker and organizer. Ruderhausen demonstrates more than enough range as an actress to convincingly portray Ines's wide range as a character. Ines is both the idealist and the pragmatist: While the decision to leave the island is a leap of faith, it also is a carefully reasoned choice. Ruderhausen wisely gives us the no-nonsense Ines in the first half, the powerful, poetic Ines in the second.
While Orizondo plays the good-natured Pepe with ease, the lack of intensity written into this role saps some of the vigor from the first half of the play. While his character facilitates their attempted escape, he just doesn't add that much dramatically to the first act. His role would be fine in a larger cast, but in a triangle he is obviously (sometimes painfully) the weakest side. In Act Two, though, he begins to hold up his end. As the characters begin to slip into their own hallucinatory worlds, together they weave an imagistic tapestry of trains, ships, umbrellas. The desperate poetry of their impassioned incoherence echoes the cacophony of Beckett's Waiting for Godot.
Rodaz shows a subtlety that complements Ruderhausen's intensity. His portrayal of a bitter and isolated man who finds love and hope is subtly moving and largely grounded in physical gesture. His keen intuition allows him to let Julio's physical progress reflect the emotional metamorphoses taking place inside of him. Early on in the play Julio, referring to his paralysis, says, "I'm sinking in my own body. I'm sitting here on solid ground, and I'm drowning." This contradiction embodies the irony of the Florida Straits. Freedom, love, and safety, be it personal or political, are painfully close and at the same time, just out of reach.
A Bicycle Country is important not only as a human story but as a Cuban-American story, and the behind-the-scenes story is as interesting as what unfolds onstage. Cruz will debut four plays in Miami this season. New York-based director Garces also has emerged over the past couple of years as an actor and playwright with a unique perspective on being both Cuban and American. Likewise Rodaz and Orizondo are the founders of Oye Rep, a theater company dedicated to producing the work of Latin-American playwrights in English. The result of their collaboration is not only a powerful story of the Cuban-American experience but the beginning of a larger body of work that promises to defy its one-dimensional definitions.
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