Sunday, October 17, 2004

Play: Theater Smoke

Anna in the Tropics by Nil Cruz, Driected by Sharon Ott, Seattle Rep Theatre, October 2-30, 2004

Honest: one of the reasons the Alliterates were founded was a chance to smoke cigars. So for several years I smoked one cigar a month, sometimes two, in various smoky bars in Southeastern Wisconsin. Then the group stopped, in part out of solidarity one member was a former nicotine addict who was quitting, and in part because a new member was allergic. It wasn't a major sacrifice, and I am reminded of it only when I have my yearly physical. ("So," my doctor would say, "Have you started smoking again?").

I mention this because Anna in the Tropics is about cigars and cigar manufacture, of which I know a little about (of course I did some research during my cigar-smoking era). The play revolves around arrival of a new lector at a small cigar factory in Yrba City, CA, in 1929. A lector is an person who reads to the workers - both local newspapers and the classics. The result was an illiterate but knowledgeable work force. (Historical note - Pittsburgh itself was a strong cigar manufacturing area (and claimed in the early parts of the 20 Cent. to be the leading producer of "stogies"). Yes, they had lectors).

The factory is a family affair - The gambling-prone patriarch and his wife. Two daughters, the eldest in a loveless marriage, the youngest enthusiastic and dreaming. The patriarch's half-brother from up north, modernistic, heart-broken, too tightly wound for anyone's good. The new lector arrives - young, handsome, educated, smooth. He chooses a "romantic" novel - Anna Karenina. His reading permeates the collected family, sparking different reactions - not changing them, but facilitiating the courses of their lives. Many of the character's arcs are determined even before the lector arrives - the lector is there almost to bear witness.

The play left me a little empty, and perhaps for just that reason. The lector and the novel might have sped the other characters to their actions, but you don't get the feeling that any of them changed as a result of his presence. The play's resolution is sudden and strangely truncated, brewing up like a squall off the Gulf, surprising not for its arrival, but its suddeness. The most interesting character proved to be the villain (Peter Allas), but while the play brushes up several times against his own descent, he doesn't get the chance to address his own fall.

The other part that troubled me in the presentation was the lack of heat. This is Flordia. This is a spanish-speaking cast. The play centers on cigars, which evoke both the sexuality of the item, and the low heat that comes off the tip. And yet, there is a surprising lack of heat. The staging is very chill and controlled. All the moreso odd in that the play makes the specific comparison of the coldness of Ana's Russia with the warmth of Florida, and that the lector's reading evokes the feeling of chill Tolstovian lands. The play does not reverse the process, bringing its warmth out to the audience. The play is ultimately OK, the acting solid, but ultimately unfufilling. On the drive home, where Kate and I usually talk about the play, we talked instead of Anna Karenina.

Though at this point, I could really use a good cigar. More later,