Three on a Raft

By sheer coincidence, A Bicycle Country, Nilo Cruz's bewitching play about the fate of three balseros, is premiering against the backdrop of the political drama of the young rafter Elián Gonzalez. Or is it just coincidence? If six-year-old Elián hadn't been rescued off Palm Beach on Thanksgiving Day, then perhaps...
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By sheer coincidence, A Bicycle Country, Nilo Cruz's bewitching play about the fate of three balseros, is premiering against the backdrop of the political drama of the young rafter Elián Gonzalez. Or is it just coincidence? If six-year-old Elián hadn't been rescued off Palm Beach on Thanksgiving Day, then perhaps some other rafter might have been. Such is life in South Florida.

With this beautifully realized work, the Cuban-born, Miami-bred playwright, who now lives in New York, is struggling to come to terms with the legacy of his own exile. The rest of us, of course, are already wrestling with the plight of the boy who watched his mother drown. Cruz's play, set in 1994 -- a year in which thousands of desperate people left Cuba for South Florida -- is not a political work so much as a statement about yearning. Nonetheless, the production is dedicated to Elian, and through much of the second act, in which the three characters board a raft to set out for Miami, it's nearly impossible not to think of Elian's mother, who lost her life, perhaps within sight of land.

It's also difficult to miss the lyricism with which Cruz tells his story. Although he uses easy metaphors of bondage and immobility (one character is a stroke victim, another says she is drowning on dry land) that may seem even weaker years from now, the play's language will remain charmed. Speaking of the meager food supply available, one character recalls that he had only an egg for dinner. "It looked like it was hungrier than me," he adds. The play's title refers to this same character's observation that the government (Castro is never mentioned by name) has become so repressive that the country is not moving ahead, but "slowly going back to the Iron Age." Instead of cars and computers, citizens must rely on bicycles and other low-tech machinery.

Initially, the play focuses on Julio (Gilbert Cruz), a man disfigured by paralysis, who is meant to symbolize those who allow external circumstances to inhibit their lives. His friend Pepe (Oscar Riba) is impatient with Julio's conviction that an exit visa will solve all his problems. Pepe thinks Julio should find another way to leave Havana. To help the disabled Julio, Pepe hires Inez (Sol Miranda), a young woman who nurses him back to health, while also nurturing her own impatience. As characters, Julio, Pepe, and Inez don't have much to distinguish them. Their individual stories, touched on lightly in the first act, are less important than their ability to stand for others like them. In their longing to leave Cuba, they represent an entire country so crippled by yearning that it cannot live in the present. Political oppression, it seems, is about more than just limited groceries and the threat of jail.

Soon, however, the characters' circumstances change. Act Two, set entirely on a raft in the Florida Straits, depicts the three balseros coming up against the very real perils of escape. Followed by sharks, ravaged by hunger and thirst, burned by the sun, and plagued with hallucinations, Pepe, Julio, and Inez leave behind their longing for a better life and learn that their only reality is that of immediate survival. At this point, Cruz moves his characters out of the realm of realism he originally used to tell their stories and into an expressionistic universe.

The spirit of Samuel Beckett hovers over this act, which often seems to be populated with updated Cuban versions of Lucky and Pozzo from Waiting For Godot. With her upraised umbrella, intended to shield her from the blazing sun at sea, Inez looks like nothing more than the beleaguered Winnie in Beckett's Happy Days, caught between life and death, trying to straddle the great divide. The trio's hallucinations bring visions of trains, buses, and people waving in the middle of the ocean. At one point, terrified of his own suffering and fearful of the profound isolation of the raft, Pepe asks, "Is there anybody out there who knows what is happening?" Playwright Cruz's portrayal of these escapees is both literal and metaphorical, capable of transcending the specifics of 1999 and becoming a work about any group of desperate people.

A Bicycle Country was commissioned by the Joseph Papp Public Theatre, which ended up producing another Cruz play instead, allowing Florida Stage the rights to this work. Last season, the theater presented Cruz's A Park in Our House. It's too soon to know for sure, but these two productions suggest that the playwright, now in residence at New Jersey's McCarter Theatre, has found a kindred spirit in Benny Sato Ambush, director-in-residence at Florida Stage. Ambush, who brought a keen poetry to A Park in Our House, stages A Bicycle Country with an intelligence and inventiveness that keep the play in the air, never earthbound. A large-scale set piece in which Inez takes on an other-worldly mission is executed with exquisite ritual-like precision and horror, but the production is full of smaller moments that come to life.

As he did with A Park in Our House, Ambush composes unforgettable visual images. When the refugees are still in Havana, Inez declares her love for Pepe, and the pair put pillowcases on their heads as though donning wedding clothes. "We'll start a new life," she says. The two then use their fingers to explore each other's faces through the fabric, as though the material bore a unique landscape of Braille. In Act Two, with help from lighting designer Jim Fulton and set designer Kent Goetz, the director transforms an interior space into a timeless limbo that indeed seems to be located in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. Goetz projects Cruz's supertitles for different sections of the play -- tierra, fuego, agua, aire -- onto the set's backdrop, a screen depicting the sky, which changes color with the time of day or night. The titles are nearly gratuitous, however. The inherent notion is already carried by the stark fable of three humans battling the four eternal elements.

Ambush gets masterful and delicate performances out of his actors. Cruz and Riba are strong, but the play belongs to Miranda. A childlike woman in Act One -- I wondered at first if Ambush had made a mistake by having her seem so insubstantial -- she emerges as a life force in Act Two. Cruz, too, is emerging as a vital force in the American theater. It's too limiting to label him a Cuban-American writer, but the truth is that he is the rare playwright taking on the themes of his generation of Cuban exiles who grew up in the United States. As I commented on the occasion of the production of A Park in Our House, it's wonderful that Florida Stage has sought out his work. What's less admirable is that no one in Miami-Dade County has yet been willing to bring Cruz's plays down there, possibly because he doesn't take a position on specific Cuban political issues. What Cruz has to say, however, is so much more than a mere anti-Castro screed. Don't let another year go by without embracing this gifted hometown voice.

Stage Whispers: For the second year in a row, the Theatre League of South Florida is presenting its Winter Stages of the Sun program, which allows residents and visitors to buy discounted theater tickets at almost every theater in South Florida. To participate, pick up a "passport" at participating theaters or local hotels, restaurants, and other venues, and present it at the box office to receive half-price tickets (subject to availability). Call 305-682-9682 to find out which theaters are participating in Winter Stages. Then go out and fill up those seats.

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