BLT presents fascinating piece of theater

Review by Aya Hashiguchi Clark

Burien Little Theatre’s 2012-2013 season began this weekend with a special pre-season opener. “Anna in the Tropics” is a collaboration with Latino Theatre Projects and brings a welcome and refreshing look at a culture and a period in history that many may not know.

A 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, “Anna” tells the story of a Cuban-American family in Ybor City, Florida in 1929. Santiago (Fernando Luna), the clan’s patriarch and owner of the family-run cigar factory, is seen in the opening sequence attending a cock fight with his half-brother Cheche (Jason Pead). A compulsive gambler, Santiago loses much of his money in poor wagers, and ends up selling shares in his cigar business to Cheche in order to pay off his debts.

Meanwhile, Santiago’s wife Ofelia (Eloisa Cardona), waits anxiously at the harbor along with their two daughters Conchita (Maria Knox) and Marela (Idalia Limon) for Juan Julian (Gabriel Sedgemore) to arrive from Cuba. Juan Julian is a lector, who is hired to entertain and educate by reading to the factory workers as they roll the cigars by hand.

Here, Juan Julian chooses to read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

The introduction of Anna Karenina to the factory worker’s day brings about a mixed bag of responses. Marela practically swoons as she is caught up in Tolstoy’s Russia, finding refreshment in both the words of the story and in the brisk, cold images of snowfall.

Conchita and her husband Palomo (Erwin Galan) can’t help but see their own lives mirrored in Anna’s tale of love, passion and marital betrayal, so much so, that even the lector Juan Julian finds himself caught in the web spun by Tolstoy’s characters.

But not everyone welcomes the arrival of the lector. Cheche, having recently ended his marriage (when his wife ran off with the previous lector), grows increasingly hostile toward Juan Julian and Anna Karenina.

But, a lot more than literature weighs heavily on Cheche’s mind. Decreasing sales of their cigars, (due to the economy and to the growing popularity of cigarettes), the increasing pressure to convert the factory toward mechanization and Santiago’s burgeoning debts all add to Cheche’s insistence that a lector is an unnecessary expense.

“Anna in the Tropics” is a fascinating piece of theatre. From the first moments you enter the theatre, Steve Cooper’s and Maggie Larrick’s work in scenic design transports you to the Florida factory inhabited by Santiago’s family. One can almost feel the tropical heat and smell the tobacco from the audience.

Director Roy Arauz brings together an engaging cast of actors who complete the transporting experience by their very presence on the stage. Stand-out performances are given by Eloisa Cardona as the matriarch Ofelia, Idalia Limon as the romantic dreamer Marela, Erwin Galan as Palomo and Gabriel Sedgemore as Juan Julian the lector. Their total commitment to their roles coupled with a naturalness and ease in their dialogue carries you toward the dramatic climax of the story.

A special shout-out goes to Mireya Beltre, who played Eliades, a gamester who ran the cock fight in the opening of the show. She is one of the reasons why the show draws you in immediately. It is a shame her character does not make another appearance within the play.

During the preview performance this reviewer attended, the acoustical challenges in the venue occasionally got in the way of hearing and understanding the words to the story. Hopefully, the black curtains that are usually set up in the back of the auditorium will be there during the run of the show, which helps tremendously with the live sound.

Nilo Cruz’ drama continues at the Annex at the Burien Community Center through August 26. Fridays and Saturdays perform at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.
More information can be found at www.burienlittletheatre.org, which includes online ticketing and Dinner and a Show Package at the Mark Restaurant & Bar.

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