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Cruz Does Cruz

If there's an award for great theatrical moments, this year's prize will undoubtebly go to Nilo Cruz and his Anna in the Tropics, now playing at the Coconut Grove Playhouse: In the play's final image, a half-crazed Cuban girl dressed in a Russian costume staggers toward a huge palm tree as snow falls gently, incongruously. In such moments, Cruz who directs his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, brings a theatrical sweep and scope to match his soaring, poetic text. But while such moments are vivid, the production is often awkwardly staged and lacking in emotional substance.

Anna's primary attraction is its redolent, seductive poetry, which is wedded to a melodramatic story line, focused on rocky marriage. Set in 1929 in the Cuban-cigar-making community of Ybor City, in Tampa, Anna tracks the travails of a single family cigar business, which continues the old cigar-making traditions: The workers roll the cigars by hand while listening to a lector, a professional who reads great literature to the workers. A romantic new lector, Juan Julian, arrives amid unresolved turmoil, and the power of art and poetry weaves its subtle spell. Juan Julian begins reading Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, a tale of adulterous romance, setting off a disastrous chain of events as the novel begins to play out in reality. Conchita, daughter of the business owner, enters into an illicit romance with the romantic newcomer, and her husband burns with jealousy.

The Cinderella story of the play's rise to fame is by now well-known. Written on commission from the New Theatre in Coral Gables, it was staged by the New two years ago. Soon after -- and before it was produced in major regional theaters -- it was the surprise choice for the Pulitzer and other top awards on the basis of the script alone. None of the prize judges had seen the play in production. Anna then went on to a Broadway run, and it continues to be produced regionally. The long-anticipated Coconut Grove show marks the play's return to South Florida and a marketing coup for the Playhouse's wily impresario, Arnold Mittleman. Both the Cuban themes of the play and its prize-winning luster make Anna a likely choice for the Playhouse -- but how to make this revival a major event? The brilliant answer was to bring Cruz in to direct an ensemble of his favorite actors, most of whom have performed in other productions of the play, supported by a crackerjack team. Adrian W. Jones' glorious set design first establishes a huge, lone coconut palm leaning in the tropical wind against a deep-blue sky before yielding to a vast, wood-timbered cigar factory that glides down magically from above. Ellis Tillman's subtle costumes add a further layer of period realism, while David Lander's assured lighting design bathes all in warm tropical sunsets and chiaroscuros.

The script is a high-wire act of wildly romantic language and melodrama balanced against realistic emotional textures. Cruz gets the former right but strangely seems tone deaf to the latter. The result is competent and fast-paced but flat; once a scene begins, it's often obvious where the story is going. Cruz seems content to let the actors work out the emotional beats of their scenes while he concentrates on visual flourishes, as when a rape scene ends midstruggle with a sudden blackout.

While Cruz is a highly talented writer, he overestimates the power of his words. Anna's true power lies in the living world on the stage, underneath the words. Where this production should present a palpable world of cultural details, mutable relationships, sudden unforeseen choices, and conflicting emotions, there are instead calculated ideas and effects.

Teresa Maria Rojas and Gonzalo Madurga are charming as Ofelia and Santiago, two comedic, petulant oldsters who, because they refuse to speak to each other, dragoon another worker into being their go-between. But a confrontation over factory owner Santiago's gambling debts is staged strictly for laughs; any sense of wife Ofelia's agony at being in love with a compulsive gambler/drinker who is destroying their future is utterly lost in punch lines, double takes, and physical gags. Likewise Santiago's loose ways, portrayed as charming weaknesses, are not the actions of a desperate man who knows that the future does not belong to him.

In the play's most Chekovian moment, Andrew Hamrick as Cheche, Santiago's Americanized half-brother, delivers a harrowing confession of his sorrow and anger over his wife's betrayal only to be interrupted by sprightly Marela (Onahoua Rodriguez), who has dressed as Anna Karenina. This juxtaposition of despair and gaiety is bungled by awkward, nonspecific staging. Carlos Orizondo adds a welcome dose of threat as Conchita's jilted husband, Palomo, and Adriana Sevan brings a grounded honesty to the bewildered, then sexually liberated, Conchita. But the affair with Juan Julian (Jonathan Nichols) seems arbitrary -- the beats of this burgeoning relationship haven't been tracked. Nichols wisely avoids overplaying this difficult role, that of an erotic saviour. But he responds to Conchita's ardor without much struggle. It's as if he'll bed any married woman if she offers herself, giving the central romance the look of a quick, self-indulgent hookup, rather than breathtaking liberation.

Despite its disappointments, this production delivers a luxuriant blend of seductive poetry and dazzling visuals. While the complete fulfillment of this lovely, enigmatic work has yet to be realized, this production can content us while we wait for the definitive one.

Editor's note: A September 23 stage review ("Apocalypses Now") mistakenly reported that Miami's Juggerknot Theatre Co. had shut down. The company recently ceased full-scale productions and shifted to developing new material through a series of workshops and staged readings. New Times regrets the error.

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Ronald Mangravite

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