Huntington's "Becoming Cuba": Paella with Rum and Coke

Brandon Barbosa, Juan Javier Cardenas, Christina Pumariega,
 Christopher Tarjan & Rebecca Soler in "Becoming Cuba"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Sometimes a rare evening of theater is like a healthy helping of paella, filled with nourishing, sometimes indescribably exotic ingredients, expertly mixed and seasoned. “Becoming Cuba”, a new work by Huntington Theatre Company Playwright-in-Residence Melinda Lopez (whose play “Sonia Flew” was presented by Huntington in 2004) is the ultimate theatrical buffet. Having had its world premiere last year at San Diego’s North Coast Repertory Theatre, this much-revised version is directed by Huntington’s Associate Producer M. Bevin O’Gara. In its present state, it’s a fascinating amalgam of forms, part comedy as well as tragedy, part naturalistic as well as magically realistic. It really defies pigeon-holing, somehow managing successfully to be all things to all men, and, especially, women. In a very subversive way, it even becomes a feminist statement about an atypically vocal protagonist, a widow facing change, both within herself and without, and how events and emotions produce an inescapable metamorphosis in her life. In many unexpected ways, this is an unforgettable triumph for Lopez.

It’s the story of the Cuban widow Adela (Christina Pumariega) and her choices between family and country loyalty. Intensely personal and passionate, it’s inspired by the playwright’s own great grandmother’s experiences. Due to Spain’s overtaxing of Cuba (and Puerto Rico) to fund war losses, Cuban revolutionaries proclaimed independence in 1895, supported by the countryside “campesinos”, leading to the Cuban War of Independence (known here in the U.S. as the Spanish-American War, though our involvement was quite late on the scene). By 1897, guerilla warfare and disease hinted at victory for the rebels, but the U.S. intervened anyway. A short year later, the U.S. and Spain signed the Treaty of Paris granting Cuban independence. Against this historical background, the fictional story of one family is explored.

In 1897 Cuba, Adela leaves the country home where her father, her half-brother Manny (Juan Javier Cardenas, doubling as the character of the Little Conquistador) and sister Martina (Rebecca Soler) were active in the rebellion against Spain. Adela heads for Havana, marries a Spanish pharmacist, and takes over his pharmacy when he’s killed in the war. Despite difficulty getting supplies due to a blockade of the harbor, she is unwilling at first to get involved in the rebellion. She has several visions (or ghosts or apparitions), such as folk hero Hatuey’s wife (Marianna Bassham, doubling as the noblewoman Fancy). Another pivotal character is that of the American journalist Richard Davis (Christopher Tarjan), based on real-life journalists such as Sylvester Scovel of The New York World, and Grover Flint and Richard Harding Davis of the New York Journal. Also appearing, doubling as the youths Chucho and Mambi, is Brandon Barbosa. At the beginning (and end) of the play, the Conquistador (Christopher Burns, doubling as Fancy’s husband Isidore) ominously proclaims: “Blood will have blood”, then refers to English as a “language of grunts and farts”. It’s just the first of many swings of words and moods in the play. All of the cast are at the top of their form, especially Pumariega in the central role of the evolving Adela; it’s impossible to take one’s eyes off her. It is she who describes thirty years of war as not a metaphor, but background noise. Near the end of the play, she admits that she is “becoming Cuban, I suppose”.

O’Gara’s direction, as in her previous work at SpeakEasy Stage with “Tribes” and “Clybourne Park”, is remarkable. The other technical credits are equally fine, including the impressive Scenic Design of the Havana pharmacy by Cameron Anderson, precise Costume Design by Andrea Hood, and Lighting Design by Yi Zhao and Sound Design by Arshan Gailus.

As Lopez has stated, the play questions whether freedom is something we all want. It deals with what happens when people awake to take action, and when the American intervention complicates affairs leading to “unintended circumstances”. After a hearty dose of theatrical paella, one might want to follow up with a restorative rum and coke, which of course goes by the name of “Cuba libre”.


New Rep's "Our Lady": It Gets Bitter

James Fluhr in "Our Lady"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

“Our Lady”, an intensely moving presentation of performance art now at New Rep in Watertown , is the creation of one James Fluhr, who conceived it, wrote the piece, and performs it. He even provided (with Courtney Nelson) the wonderful Scenic Design. If popcorn were being sold in the lobby, one suspects this multi-talented wunderkind would be out there popping. And “out there” he certainly is, in several meanings of the term, for this is an extraordinarily personal (as in autobiographical) self-described “fairy story” of one young gay man’s coming out. Asked to elaborate on his tale, he deemed it seductive, sparkling and stark, and it’s all of that. At ninety minutes with no intermission, it covers a remarkable bit of territory, with a journey by Fluhr (a recent graduate of Boston University) from his initial emergence to full-fledged and feathery defiance.

Along the way, Fluhr provides some terrific insights into the roles played in his development by his mother (a complex, truly nuanced Southern belle), his father (at first the object of his anger) and his late beloved lover Aspen. It’s a moving, often heartrending, progression, but the key to it all is how he accomplished it. The writing of this piece was the beginning of his road to inward and outer peace. To conquer the ignorance of “The Monster” that is the bigotry of his father and much of today’s world, he conjured up the power of “Our Lady of the Ashes”, rising up (and raising us up with her) like a phoenix, to heal and to hope. If at first his reaction is to get bitter (especially given the horrific reality of young gay suicides), Fluhr’s redemption in his own eyes as well as others starts with his admission that he still loves his father and remains proud of him despite his narrow-mindedness.

As fundamentally idiosyncratic as this work is, the play succeeds best when it transcends the personal and encompasses the greater world of being gay in a homophobic world. If the emphasis is first on the intimate look at one man’s fear of finding and fulfilling love, it morphs stunningly into a universal outcry for overcoming fears. It’s revelatory, as the current New Rep production, the second in a series of three plays (the others being “Tongue of a Bird” and “In Between”), as well as other play readings, that all together form the First Annual New Rep Black Box Festival. "Our Lady" is a promising continuation, due in large part to the contributions of Fluhr’s technical team, including the crucial Lighting Design by Dan Alaimo, fabulous Costume Design by Ameera Ali and Costume Construction by Chelsea Kerl, Sound Design by Yi-Chun “Iggy” Hung and mesmerizing Projection Design by Matthew Haber.

The greatest enemy of freedom is complacency; “Our Lady” raises us up from the comfortable to the confrontational. It’s a timely reminder, for those of us who live in a relatively liberal bubble (Saint Patrick’s Day parade ugliness aside) in our Commonwealth, that while much has been accomplished historically, much remains in the fight to gain the dignity and respect due all of us. Here we have an amazingly gifted actor and author to remind us once again: It gets better.