A Cuban Son Comes Home

Nilo Cruz's A Park in Our House is a record of the human spirit when the human body exists in a totalitarian state and survives on a continuum not of belief but of disbelief. The romantic, the idealist, the realist, the repressed, the rebel, and the messiah -- these are...
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Nilo Cruz's A Park in Our House is a record of the human spirit when the human body exists in a totalitarian state and survives on a continuum not of belief but of disbelief. The romantic, the idealist, the realist, the repressed, the rebel, and the messiah -- these are the characters (however stunted) in this drama that tells the story of a Cuban family in 1970, when the island was the equivalent of a Soviet satellite state. It becomes a poignant portrait of politics. (It also is the inauguration of several plays to come this season by one of the nation's most noteworthy young playwrights, Nilo Cruz, a naturalized Cuban-American raised in Miami.) With their mouths the characters of A Park in Our House speak of the revolution. With their hands they amend what their mouths cannot say. With their eyes they defend both their hands and their mouths. And with their bodies they seek freedom -- or at least temporary exile. When a young Russian scientist, Dimitri Yefimovich Khruschov (Javier Suit), visits a small unnamed Cuban town through an international exchange program, he affects the lives of his host family irrevocably. Each character must negotiate between reality and dream, hope and despair, to survive the oppressive political system in which he or she lives.

Despite the political content of the play, Cruz's characters are so well drawn that the drama never appears to be thinly veiled rhetoric. His language is rich with humor, sarcasm, and the veracity of daily life. Combined with director Teresa Maria Rojas' choice of dynamic actors, this creates a stage experience that feels very organic. Ofelina (Patricia Azan-Clavelo) is the realist, the den mother -- a long-suffering, strong woman with a wry sense of humor who is always solving problems. Hilario, Ofelina's husband (Alfonso DiLuca), is the idealist. He also is a sellout in that he must be a part of the system, the one who is holding out hope that it just might work. The metaphor for his waxing and waning faith is his dream of using his government job as a way to get a park built in the town. Fifo (Alain Mora) is the artist and the rebel. Once a photographer whose work was censored, he is now condemned to the cane fields to prove he is part of the system. Camilo (José Santisteban) is mute, having lost his voice in a traumatic event that is only alluded to.

Ofelina's niece, Pilar (Diry Cantillo), is the romantic. By glorifying and romanticizing Russia, she gives meaning to her own nation and to her role as a communist. She even goes so far as to eroticize communism, counting Dimitri's fingers and naming his body parts Red Square, the Kremlin, Stalin, Lenin, and other Soviet icons. Cantillo plays the role with the necessary degree of self-awareness, because on a more pragmatic level, Pilar hopes Dimitri will fall in love with her and take her back to Russia with him. In Pilar we find the seeds of jineteria (a form of prostitution by Cubans who want to escape the island that arose with the opening of the nation to tourism in the late '80s). Her body is a vehicle for survival.

Dimitri represents communism for each member of the family, and through him each character grapples with the meaning of that ideology and the role Cuba has played in the world. In a particularly gripping scene, Hilario goes on a tirade about the reputation Cuba has earned as the whore of the Americas: "What has the Caribbean been to the world? These islands? These specks? We've been whores. We've been beds and pillows for some tired ships." Ironically the Russian is a reluctant messiah at best. He turns out to be equally disillusioned and unhappy with the system and life in his country.

Ofelina is the one character who interacts intimately with all the others. Clavelo's energy and theatrical range are commendable. She delivers her lines passionately, without falling into the hysterical-female stereotype. She has a survivalist's humor, which helps offset the harsh reality of a life where everything -- such as trading a radio for a lean pig to put meat on the table -- must be done in a clandestine manner. Ofelina exclaims, "I'm not going to jail for a skinny pig," while wrestling comically with the carcass, underscoring the Cuban tendency to laugh at misery. When Dimitri says his great-grandparents used to drink cow urine for medicinal purposes, Ofelina comments, "I wouldn't drink cow urine to live to 100. I'll drink cow milk and live to be 50." She displays her ever-vigilant practicality; she's no dreamer.

Numerous scene changes make this play seem like several vignettes that ask multiple dramatic questions: Will Pilar seduce Dimitri and find a way off the island? Will Camilo get his voice back? Can each character find hope where there seems to be none? The changes also create a sense of the inexactitude of time and space, particularly apparent in the more lyrical scenes. But at other times, the many scene changes break up the dramatic action, giving the piece a disjointed feel, creating more chaos than suspense and interrupting the dramatic action instead of enhancing it.

A sleepwalking scene and an invisible character, the espiritista (spiritual adviser), balance the realism of the play with more magical elements. When Ofelina seeks the advice of an espiritista to help Camilo regain his voice, she is told to take him to the ocean. In a powerful scene in which the sounds of water and the color blue wash over them, Ofelina and Camilo bow down to the sea, and she shouts to the Afro-Cuban deity Yemalla: "This is your son! Give him his voice back!" The visuals in the sleepwalking scene are very enigmatic and reminiscent of Beckett as Ofelina and Hilario weave around each other, exiting and entering the stage. "I have a dream that my hair won't stop growing. That I am growing a beard," Ofelina laments. As in Gabriel García Márquez's fictional town of Macondo, Cruz's unnamed town is the site for harsh human realities and miraculous surreal moments, moments that dramatize the characters' inability to live, think, and dream freely within the boundaries of their society.

A Park in Our House is a first on many fronts. It's the first performance in the Promethean Players' new space, which is warm and intimate. It is appropriate that they chose one of Cruz's plays to christen their stage. The playwright was a student and actor with the group from 1984 to 1986. What is not so clear is why his works are just now being performed in Miami after having received critical acclaim on both coasts. Last year the lauded A Bicycle Country made its South Florida debut at Florida Stage in Manalapan, but this is the first time one of Cruz's works has been put on for a Miami audience. A Park in Our House has also been performed by Florida Stage, as well as in Princeton, San Francisco, and New York. Some speculate that Cruz is the prodigal son for Miami theater -- honing his craft before bringing it home. Others have implied that the political content of his works might make producers or theatergoers uncomfortable. Whatever the reason, Miami-based venues are making up for lost time. This season alone A Bicycle Country is playing at Coconut Grove Playhouse, and New Theatre will produce the world premiere of Hortencia and the Museum of Dreams in conjunction with Teatro Avante, which will also produce Two Sisters and a Piano.

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