Actors' Playhouse Tells the Frozen History of Havana Bourgeois

Havana Bourgeois is an import from Los Angeles, with a mixed cast of local actors and gifted carpetbaggers (including the hunky Danny Pino, from television's Cold Case). But spiritually and emotionally, this is a Miami show. Some of the most extreme audience reactions I've ever witnessed in a theater were during this show, when I watched a row full of Cuban exiles gasp and clutch their chests and cry. The older ones, especially — those were the ones who jumped in their seats when they heard the sounds of televised gunshots, as the performers gathered around an onstage TV set to watch Fidel Castro's first wave of public executions.

This is the kind of big-league ugliness dealt with in Havana Bourgeois, yet the play begins with light and sweetness. David Arisco's directorial fingerprints are all over the first couple of scenes, in which the actors laugh and schmooze with all the outsized fakety-fakeness of the big-number musicals that compose Arisco's fave fare. Havana Bourgeois is set in an advertising agency owned by Luis Calvo (Oscar Cheda), and playwright Carlos Lacamara devotes the early scenes to office politics — to the exploration of the lives his employees enjoy before Castro shows up and blows them all to shit. The ordinary intrigues of a workplace — who's banging who, who wants whose job, who's a brilliant worker, etc. — are subtle things in life, but not here. Here the laughter is too loud, the banter too pronounced, the emotions too intense. Even famous Danny Pino, whom I assume is being paid a ton of money to appear, delivers his opening lines with approximately the same amount of nuance and naturalism I brought to my eighth-grade turn as Magical Mister Mistoffelees.

It gets better, though. Lots. Arisco obviously has a dark side, because as he guides Calvo's ad agency out of the halcyon days of Fulgencio Batista — and what's up with that, anyway; isn't that kind of like Michael Moore sticking those images of happy little Iraqi kids playing on their swing sets at the beginning of Fahrenheit 9/11? — Havana Bourgeois becomes a horror show.

It's strange to begin to enjoy a play only as its characters slip beneath the yawning shadow of totalitarianism, but that's how it happens. The first we hear about a possible revolution comes from Pino's Alberto Varela, the agency's resident commercial artist, whose naturally empathetic character makes him susceptible to the rebels' populist spiel. He is sharing the news with a young, black messenger boy, Manuel Sierra (Joshua David Robinson), to give the boy hope that some day soon he might rise above his station.

Manuel does indeed rise above his station. Suddenly given reason to feel proud of his lowly farm boy origins (Castro's much-touted "Agrarian Reform"), he becomes a passionate revolutionary and, despite being nearly illiterate, an important figure in his neighborhood revolutionary brigade. Lickety-split, he mobilizes the office to oust Mr. Calvo from his own company, and in minutes turns the ad agency into an allegory for Cuba itself.

The employees' responses are varied. Panchito Morales (James Puig), an aging wag, sees it as just another thing to make fun of. He's been through revolutions before and knows precisely how seriously one should take a utopian political program. Juan Mendoza (David Perez Ribada), a shrewd self-promoter, sees the revolution as a professional opportunity. Margo Mateo (Jossie Harris-Thacker, another L.A. import) sees it as a way to end her subjugation at the hands of moneyed white men and to get revenge on the specific moneyed white men who've jilted her. And Pino's Alberto Varela, who so welcomed the revolution on first blush, sees it as an ever-mounting threat to his middle-class aspirations.

It's worth noting that all of these people seemed perfectly normal and happy before Castro came to power. They were ordinary beings, unaccustomed to making mortal, or even ideological, decisions. And so it is jolting to see green-shirted thugs popping into existence where only mild-mannered office workers were before, and heroism where there was only neighborliness. It's a credit to the actors that these transitions — despite occurring with shocking speed — never feel forced. They appear as the sudden fulfillment of long-subsumed desire, which is probably what they are.

This is especially evident in the performance of Joshua David Robinson, whose Manuel Sierra is the moral fulcrum of the show. He is slinking and shy when we first encounter him, but watch how he suddenly stands tall in his green fatigues. Watch how happy he is to be able to speak intelligently about something — even if he is only regurgitating and recombining bits of El Jefe's official party line, and mispronouncing words such as ideological — when before he could barely read. And pay close attention to the way he responds to his co-worker, Panchito. Panchito shows his bemusement with Castro through a series of cartoons that he creates during his downtime (which, in the post-revolution economic collapse, he has a lot of). Castro in a dress; Castro with a pineapple up his ass. Manuel ordinarily demonstrates an arrogant magnanimity — he wants to give people a chance to talk, even if he knows already that what they say will not change him at all — but confronted with these drawings, he loses his shit. Panchito laughs; he is providing the revolution with "satirical nuance," he says. Manuel says, "I don't know what that means." His voice is full of contempt so pure that I don't know any words for it. For him, the farm boy, and for all the farm boys like him, the revolution is the promise they'll never again be outsmarted or looked down upon. In Havana Bourgeois, the first casualty of the revolution is irony.

When it is gone, what is left is an almost-empty office inhabited by two figures in green fatigues, looking so exhausted it's as if the 50 years of boredom and fear separating them from the audience have already elapsed. It's though history has already closed in all around them, or stopped altogether. With Panchito long gone, they can no longer even find the words to describe what went wrong.

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Brandon K. Thorp