Critics of all varieties of storytelling use phrases like “cheap tactics” and “emotionally manipulative” when describing certain works – imagine one of the dozens of films where a guy loves his dog only for the filmmakers to try to kill it two acts later. You might not even like this movie, but there you are on the ground, crying to the heavens to save what’s-his-name’s golden retriever.
All of this is to say that storytelling is a powerful tool, especially for those on unsure psychological footing. Sure, your buddy Dave seems like he’s over Lisa now, but he’s one midnight watch of The Notebook away from embarrassing himself on Facebook messenger. The right story in the right place can change a person’s perspective.
Readers looking for evidence of this phenomenon need look no further than Nilo Cruz’ Anna in the Tropics, a play currently being put on by the Little Lake Theatre Company. The story here is essentially how a small family of cigar rollers find themselves fractured in the face of jealousy, the industrialization of the 20’s and 30’s, and the novel Anna Karenina, the world’s most fatalistic romance.
Businesses in Mexico at that time would hire lectors to read novels to workers, many of whom were likely illiterate, a tradition proudly carried on by this small business. The newly hired lector is the subject of fascination for the otherwise miserable workers, and for a variety of reasons. Santiago and Ofelia, the owners of the factory and long-married lovers now grown apart, see their youth in his storytelling. Their daughters, Marela and Conchita, find him irresistible, and even more than that, become enamored by his book. More troubling are the reactions of Palomo, Conchita’s distant husband, and Cheche, a jealous worker and partial owner of the warehouse – and a man who lost his wife to one of the previously employed lectors.
The presence of the lector, then, is hotly debated. The tension surrounding him is fascinating, because he must somehow be all of what the other characters suspect of him, and yet also completely different than what they feel they know he is. This is a character who, depending on perspective, can be a folk hero, a pretentious jerk, and the sweet and sensitive recipient of a little girl’s crush all in one scene.
In a satisfying – if surprising – move, actor Erik Martin inhabits all of these spaces equally. While I’m sure any actor would happily play a character as beloved as he is attractive, I was fascinated by the decision take extra care to emphasize the character’s ability to be underhanded. Although there are scenes in which the lector’s ability to be selfish are a matter of importance, Martin happily relishes the character’s darker side in a memorable late-play quarrel – and he always keeps the seductive power of Anna Karenina with him like a gun in its holster.
Before I go any further, I’d like to appreciate just how engrossing and well-executed this play is. Director Art DeConciliis seems intent on wringing every element of human feelings possible from these characters by always bringing the conflict of the characters as close to the edge of explosion as possible. Although this method of directing can be a play’s death knell with the wrong cast, it felt to me that both the director and the cast knew how best to utilize their range in any given scene.
DeConciliis also takes full command of Little Lake’s theater in the round-style seating; there is one memorable conflict between Ofelia and Santiago in which Santiago, played with poise and to great effect by Marcus Muzopapp, has reflected on Tolstoy’s work and has realized he has become a failure. Patricia Cena Fuchel (Ofelia) absorbs the full effect of her husband’s defeat, and turns from him so that he might now witness her disappointment while she reassures him. DeConciliis has placed these characters so that the audience is witnessing one of two scenes – Ofelia is either silently crying, and we are witnessing the weight of her role in the family, or we are with Santiago, never seeing Ofelia’s face, wondering how deep the valley of their relationship has truly grown.
Philip Bower’s portrayal of Cheche is hard to deny. Bower capably rides the teeter-totter that is Cheche by, as with the rest of the cast, playing the character to his fullest, most maximalist effect. There are a few scenes in which Cheche’s forward-thinking, business-minded approach to life gives way towards numerous outbursts of rage, and I was left wondering why the performance felt so out of place, until I realize that the play had planted that seed in my head all along. To him, Karenina is the whine of pulsing white noise in the eardrum, an inescapable reminder of isolation.
Cheche occasionally directs his turmoil towards the younger sister and characterization of childhood naivety, Marela. In Anna in the Tropics, Cheche is industrialized progress personified. That he directs his irrepressible anger towards the character that must live with his problems the longest is an important detail.
Although the play will delight audiences looking for a story worth explicating, its greatest joy is in discovering the ways the characters themselves are looking for the same thing – and in the sometimes ugly relationships between its characters. Conchita, played with enormous empathy and depth of feeling by Kaitlin Kerr, is the most affected by the lector’s Karenina, and consciously casts herself as the Anna of her life. She does this not just in opposition to her barely present husband, but in defiance of the rapidly closing walls of her life. Just as Eve bit the apple, so too does Conchita learn Karenina, making ignorance give way to knowledge, and then to personal redemption – and then, of course, to the delight of this reviewer.
Special thanks to Little Lake Theatre for complimentary press tickets. Would you like to see more articles and reviews like this from Pittsburgh in the Round? Then help us out and donate to our indiegogo!
Anna in the Tropics plays at the Little Lake Theatre through July 23rd. For tickets and more information click here. Photos courtesy of James Orr.