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”.

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