Something Queer in the Florida Straits

The beginning of Bill Yule and Barry Ball's The Boys of Mariel is evocative. Pedro (played by Ricky J. Martinez), a dancer who's been kicked out of the National Ballet of Cuba, stands center stage in tight jeans and a muscle shirt. He gyrates his hips and pelvis fluidly, smiling provocatively while the profile of a man kneeling in front of another looms in the background. Other men enter the scene -- some checking Pedro out, others minding their own business, until the sound of Cuban police arriving sends everyone scrambling to hide, escape, or look "normal." In this brief scene (also choreographed by Martinez), one has a strong sense of how it would feel to be a gay male in Castro's Cuba -- pre-Mariel. And this is what the play purports to do. The Boys of Mariel, which debuted in Los Angeles in 1999, follows the fate of six gay men who are booted out of Castro's Cuba in 1980 via the Mariel boatlift and struggle to find new lives in Miami. Unfortunately, the concept is more ambitious than the final production.

Because of its biographical focus, Julian Schnabel's film Before Night Falls, about Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, only gives a glimpse at the magnitude of how gay men's lives were dramatically altered by the Mariel boatlift. Not only were at least 25,000 (the exact numbers are disputed) shipped off on Mariel -- many against their will -- but within a decade at least half of them were dying from what was then still called "the silent killer." The second act alludes to the onslaught of AIDS deaths that befell this group of men, who were enjoying the freedom to be openly gay for the first time. The idea of local writers telling such a compelling and untold story is great, but juxtaposing the tragedy of Mariel with the sex scenes that are stock for any B-quality gay flick is disconcerting. The shower, the rape, the street fight, the perverted priest, and the incestuous father -- all of these scenes, as well as the director's inclination to strip down the cast to their underwear or completely disrobe them as frequently as possible, blur the line between adult entertainment and serious theater, to the play's disadvantage.

Recent Carbonell winner John Felix's portrayal of Freddo, the dried-up drag queen, is hilarious and when given the chance, poignant. His character is too often reduced to a series of catty one-liners -- some of which are treasures and others are way too easy (referring to Pennsylvania as "penis-sylvania"). Martinez as Pedro and Jorge Hernandez as the more mature Ricardo are both standouts (the writers were smart to work one of Hernandez's moving boleros into the script). In fact Michael Burch, Andres Alexis, and Kevin Varel all lend weight to these somewhat sketchy characters.


The Boys of Mariel

Teatro Avante, 235 Alcazar Ave., Coral Gables

Written by Bill Yule and Barry Ball. Directed by Bill Yule. Starring John Felix, Andres Alexis, Michael Burch, Jorge Hernandez, Ricky J. Martinez, Marlo Salas-Lanz, and Kevin Varel. Evening performances Thursday through Saturday at 8:00, Sundays at 7:00 through November 30. Call 305.409.4763.

In theater, as in real life, the Fidel Castro character is the most problematic. The mixed bag of metaphors renders a one-dimensional and caricature-like Castro -- Fidel the circus ringleader, the unforgiving priest, the iron fist, the paternalist. This attempt at being darkly comic doesn't coalesce with the serious plot lines and the result is muddled.

But more serious details give the play weight, such as when Castro's police use tissues to see if men have been wearing makeup. The story of Mariel and the gay men who lost their country and then their lives needs to be told, but the seriousness of the project is undercut when framed by an excessive number of bitchy wisecracks, peekaboo underwear scenes, and shallow metaphors. That said, the house was almost full on a Thursday night when I saw the production. The Boys of Mariel is definitely filling a niche, but for this theatergoer it only evokes a yearning to see more serious theater about the stories that make up the cultural fabric of this city. Lately, budding local playwrights like Martinez himself and Juan Sanchez (former director of marketing for the Miami Light Project) have been doing play readings of their work around town. With luck, it's a sign of theater to come.


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