The Cook by Eduardo Machado, Directed by Juliette Carrillo, Settle REP, through 1 December, 2007
This play works, primarily through the brilliance of its lead and the excellent feeling of the march of time through the confines of a kitchen in Cuba.
And this is interesting, because it has an uphill fight, as the play has well-rounded, not always likable characters, a polarizing subject (Castro's Cuba) and the overall feel and potential danger of pitching over into political polemic.
The play is broken down into three acts for three different eras. The first is New Year's Eve, 1958, when Castro is moving on the capital and Batista and his boys are leaving in droves. The setting is the kitchen of the upper class house, where Gladys, the cook, is desperately holding things together for the people upstairs, with the aid of two cousins and her husband, Carlos, the chauffeur. She must deal with demands like Baked Alaska and pushing the clocks back an hour so the Master of the house can get back in time (the timeless nature of the household gets inserted early). The elements of class and race come into play in the upstairs/downstairs relationship.
A phone call comes in from the Master, and Adria, the Mistress of the House books out, complete with fur coat and valuables, leaving the staff and partiers behind for the Communists. Before she goes, however, she elicits a promise from Gladys to preserve the house for her promised return.
That's the big drive for the rest of the play - Gladys keeping the house for Adria. Thematically, the house is Cuba, abandoned by its upper class, kept running on thinner and thinner resources by those left behind.
Jump to 1972, and we are in the middle Castro's regime, along with increased sexual politics between Carlos and Gladys. Carlos is now a middle-weight the Party and has a pregnant mistress. Gladys's cousin is a homosexual followed by the secret police. Gladys can save her cousin at a cost of giving Carlos ascendancy in the household. Her resolve is tested, and decisions are made.
Jump to 1997, and American tourists are arriving in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. They have made the house a paladar, a small family restaurant, in order to keep it going. Carlos and Gladys are still together, joined by Rosa, Carlos' daughter by his mistress (who has since fled both Carlos and the island). Rosa is the voice of the New Cuba, who has grown up there. Adria finally returns, in the form of her daughter, Lourdes, an unapologetic Ugly American. You can see where this is going.
Where "The Cook" works as a play is that it internalizes so much of the history and the national politics within the confines of the Gladys' kitchen, and the heart of the play is how the rest of the world impinges of her domain. It is about loyalty misplaced, promises made, and about the progress of time, healing some wounds, keeping others fresh.
Zabryna Guevara as Gladys pulls it all off, aging with the old kitchen, moving from dedidated young servant to master of her own world easily and believably. Given the heavy import and deeper messages that roll around on the stage, it is up to her to pull it together, and like her character, Guevara pulls it off in a splendid, moving performance.
The supporting cast is almost equally as good - Al Espinosa as Carlos comes across as more than merely a communist cypher and strawman for the revolution gone awry. His goal is always one at control, and his final state, that of accepting and supporting Gladys, is one of the triumphs of the play. A.K.Murtadha as the homosexual cousin Julio is extremely broad, and he is the posterboy for showing the cruelty of the regime (like democracies do SO much better). Here we are in danger of pitching completely over into broad political moralism, but Guevara's strong performance and Glady's character pulls it back.
Where it fails is in the portrayal of the upper class characters, Adria and Lourdes, played by the same actress. While race is a definite component in the history of the house which is Cuba (the lighter-skinned Spanish descendants had the advantages and were capable of fleeing the country when the revolution came), Jessica Pimentel's peaches and cream complexion is too much, and she looks and sounds more Megan Mullally (from "Will and Grace") than a Spanish-descended noblewoman, more comfortable in the Hamptons than Havana. Her characters are called upon for the faintest promises and the cruelest betrayals, and this is a difficult proposition for any actress. She doesn't carry it across here, neither believable as Mistress of the house or as Judgment from America.
(And yeah, the toughest moment to "sell" would be when Adria declares her long-unspoken friendship with underclass Gladys, then leaves. If the friendship was so strong, why not take the devoted servants with her? Particularly since one of them (Carlos, the Chauffeur, is driving them to the airport anyway?).
I think the reason the play works despite this is that we are allowed to see and develop most of the other characters over time, and watch the slow shabbification of the set (done extremely subtly, such that only at the end did I realize that the plaster had fallen in and the tiles were missing in parts of the kitchen). The sense of time and that of growth and development, off-stage and on, helps bring the play and its characters to a fuller, richer life. And Gladys, the centerpost, the support for both the play and her household, has the richest life of all.
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