By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Kyle Swenson
By David Villano
By Kyle Swenson
By John Thomason
By Michele Eve
In the second act of A Bearded Lover, Lucia, the youngest sister in this three-character opus, delivers one of the play's most telling lines: "I'm not lifeless anymore, like the two of you."
For much of the protracted duration of this production, set in prerevolutionary Cuba, it's an insult that might apply to the play itself. This world premiere from Miami playwright Juan C. Sanchez is a lumbering, unpolished play, brimming with ideas but sorely in need of an editor and, yes, some life.
This is not entirely the fault of the actors, who appear to be performing their roles proficiently. Deborah L. Sherman plays her part as the melodramatic, self-described "poetess" Dolores with gusto. Ursula Cataan drips icy, repressed hurt with every sentence as middle sister Ines. And Gladys Ramirez, as the uncouth Lucia, deserves credit for what little pulse A Bearded Lover sustains in its first act.
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A Bearded Lover opens with Dolores teasing her sisters about the contents of a box that she had stowed away in one of the house's myriad secret compartments. It will be a long time until the box is opened. Diversionary dialogue will be breathlessly exchanged, some of it hinting at revelations to come but most of it petering toward an empty void. Much of the play's dialogue comes across as arbitrary because it is never used to grow its characters. They are simplistic, one-note creations: broken records of single, definable traits that never waver.
The three sisters are planning a group suicide on the anniversary of a house fire that scarred them all and killed their parents. For most of the play, they are dressed as gothic figures, motionless and stunted, as if preserved in amber. They animatronically wander a spacious house full of dark, Poe-like secrets, resembling some of Madame Tussauds' wax creations.
Sherman's Dolores speaks every monologue with ostentatious gravitas, as if it's the next stanza in the endless poem writing itself in her head — which is only the most obvious representation of Sanchez's reductionism. Allegiances between sisters may shift, but every exchange is a dramatic pendulum, overblown and fraught with a mixture of forced tension and coffin-black quirk. Not always attuned to the play's downbeat tone, the attempts at humor in A Bearded Lover yield as many metaphorical crickets as they do ripples of receptive laughter.
It takes a story about a young, unknown rebel named Fidel Castro for the rest of the play to catch up with Ramirez's energy. Lucia offers a salacious narrative describing how Castro recently ravaged her virginal loins. From here on out, A Bearded Lover displays a pulse, a libido, and a soul. This new life only helps to highlight the wasted potential of the previous 75-odd minutes.
But of all the play's missed opportunities, the most prominent is the failure to even evoke, let alone artistically employ, its own compelling setting. Thanks to our demography, historical Cuba is a common location in South Florida theater — take the recent premieres of Havana Bourgeois and The Color of Desire at Actors' Playhouse and When the Sun Shone Brighter at Florida Stage. A Bearded Lover can hardly be considered in the same class; the towering set, with its eye-catching blue and red walls, suggests an exotic locale. But aside from a few references to Santiago, Batista, and Castro, we are never grounded in time and place. Not required to speak with Spanish accents, Cataan, Ramirez, and Sherman come across as American expatriates choosing to reside in Cuba, not Latin American women distressed at the direction their country is headed. When Lucia calls Ernest Hemingway "that crazy American with 70 cats," it takes a moment to remember that she isn't American.
Some good ideas occasionally peek out from this overwritten epic, mainly from the ongoing theme of the sisters' escape from their miserable realities via the solace of myths, books, fairy tales, and fantasies. Ines shows her only warmth when discussing her dreams of Poseidon, the Greek deity arriving on horseback to convert her flame-scarred legs into a mermaid fin. Dolores, who buries her passions in dusty novels and sordid paperback romances, harbors the heart of a budding lesbian yearning to be free in a suppressive, pre-sexual-revolution environment.
Dolores reveals this repressed lust in the play's meatiest and most moving soliloquy, the closest Sanchez comes to pure poetry. It proves that, if it didn't spend so much time to find its dramatic footing, this could have been a hefty piece of theater.