Review: ‘Dreaming In Cuban” world premiere at Central Works (****)

From L to R: Mary Ann Rodgers as Matriach Celia del Pino and Anna Maria Luera as her daughter Lourdes in Central Works’ World Premier production of “Dreaming in Cuban” by Cristina Garcia. Photo Credit: Cheshire Isaacs.

by Charles Kruger

Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

“Dreaming In Cuban” is fantastic. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be Cuban. That miraculous, sweltering island, a beacon of hope in the minds of some, the home of the devil to many disaffected refugees, haunted by the Church and the Orisha, dazzled by drums, is so full of magic and history and human sweat and passion that it indeed seems more of a dream than a reality. To dream in Cuban is to be passionate, for sure.

The del Pino family has been formed in the crucible of La Revolucion, and the passionate women of three generations are fully aware of it. They are four intense women: The matriarch, Celia del Pino ( portrayed with deep emotion by Mary Ann Rodgers) is fully committed to La Revolucion. She remained in Cuba, fiercely loyal to Fidel Castro, and well positioned as a judge. One of her daughters, Lourdes (Anna Maria Luera), is similar in temperament, but a polar opposite in viewpoint. She left Cuba for New York, hates Castro, and runs the successful Yankee Doodle Bakery. A second daughter, Felicia (Natalia Nagado), has remained at home and is a single parent, raising a young son while struggling with mental illness. The fourth intense woman is teenager Pilar (Thea Rodgers), Lourdes’s daughter, who is puzzled by her mother’s over-the-top American patriotism and misses her grandmother as she discovers herself as an artist and meets her first boyfriend. All four of them are literally haunted by matriarch Celia’s recently deceased husband Jorge del Pino (Steve Ortiz) whose death occasions a family reunion in Cuba.

It’s all a heady mix, and playwright Garcia does a wonderful job of exploring the place where personal history, political history, and family genetics intersect. Each of these multiple strands is a fuse that is set burning by the circumstances of the play, and inevitably, they each set off their own bombs by the time it ends. What I mean is that everything fascinates: the characters, their circumstances, and the secrets, gradually revealed, that drive the plot.

In addition to an excellent cast, Garcia’s script is supported by excellent design choices. The set is so minimal, it doesn’t even receive a design credit, and this works perfectly. The designers rely instead on subtle shifts of lighting, props large and small, one sign for the bakery business, a subtle sound design, and actors who know how to create a space.

It is almost uncanny how the actors subtly but unmistakably shift their body language and the rhythms of their speech depending on whether they are in New  York or Cuba. This is surely the result of expert coaching and careful observation on the part of the director, Gary Graves, who clearly understood and exploited the possibilities.

The stories of all the characters fascinate, and the mood is sublime. One of the themes is beautifully summarized in this line from the play, which, as a child of the 60s who grew up under the shadow of a violent civil rights movement, and the war in Vietnam, moved me greatly. It is spoken by the youngest del Pino, Pilar:

“You know what hell is for me? Having politicians and generals force events on us that structure our lives. That dictate the memories we’ll have when we’re old.”

It is a serious thought, but, in the end, “Dreaming In Cuban” ends on a note of high hope. It is a moving and beautiful play, on many levels, staged with excellence.

“Dreaming In Cuban” continues its extended run at at the Berkeley City Club through July 31, 2002. For further information, click here.

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Rating: **** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
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“Dreaming In Cuban” a world premiere by  Cristina Garcia. Produced by Central Works Writers Workshop. Director: Gary Graves. Light Design: Gary Graves. Sound Design: Gregory Scharpen. Costume design: Tammy Berlin. Wigs: Michael Berg.

Cast:

Mary Ann Rodgers: Celia del Pino. Steve Ortiz: Jorge del Pino/Lt. Rojas/Announcers. Anna Maria Luera: Lourdes Puente. Thea Rodgers: Pilar Puente. Natalia Delgado: Felicia del Pino. Eric Esquivel-Gutierrez: Ivanito/Max.

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