Editors' pick

Anna in the Tropics

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Editorial Review

Lyrical poetry in the Florida tropics
By Celia Wren
Monday, Feb. 20, 2012

You know you're in a poetic world when even the electrical fans exude lyricism - and the appliances dangling beneath a cigar-factory ceiling, in GALA Hispanic Theatre's graceful and affecting production of Nilo Cruz's "Ana en el tropico" ("Anna in the Tropics"), do just that. The languidly whirling blades harmonize with the cigar-label art that papers the factory's back wall in muted hues. And as director Jose Carrasquillo's Spanish-language staging proceeds, the fans become associated with the transporting power of art - one of the play's key motifs.

"The words he reads are like a breeze that breaks the monotony," a young woman named Marela rhapsodizes at one point, referring to the lector who is reading "Anna Karenina" aloud to the factory workers. The theatergoer can almost see her simile in those breeze-spinning fans.

Of course, this poetic linkage of story and idea and image might not be dramatically effective without the emotion that pulses through this play. The storyline invites emotion: Originally written in English, Cruz's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama centers on a family-owned cigar factory in the Ybor City section of Tampa in 1929. After family matriarch Ofelia (Marian Licha) hires a lector named Juan Julian (Oscar Ceville), he begins to read "Anna Karenina" to his new audience. Gradually, Tolstoy's tale influences the lives of the factory community in ways that are redemptive, erotic and tragic.

This saga plays out against a background of change: Ofelia's brother-in-law Cheche (Manolo Santalla) wants to modernize the factory with machines whose noise will drown out any lector. So while Marela (Monalisa Arias), Ofelia and the other characters navigate crises and passions, the values of romance and pragmatism, tradition and modernity, humanist ideals and capitalist efficiency, compete for their allegiance.

But it's the personal dynamics, not the intellectual themes, that surge to the fore in this production, which marks the Spanish-language premiere of Cruz's play. (The production has English surtitles. The Spanish translation is credited to the playwright and Nacho Artime.) In particular, actors portraying two sets of couples create moments of arresting intimacy, while emphasizing the human ability to endure and trust in the face of disappointment and suffering. Licha, who played Ofelia in Arena Stage's 2004 English-language "Anna in the Tropics," gives this version of the character a compelling air of determination and pain-tempered dignity - traits that add layers of feeling to Ofelia's scenes with her irresolute, gambling-prone husband, Santiago (Hugo Medrano).

In a more sensational relationship that echoes "Anna Karenina," the married Conchita (Veronica del Cerro) begins an affair with Juan, to the frustration of her husband, Palomo (Jose Guzman). Del Cerro's alluring, vulnerable Conchita radiates quiet sadness - a quality that only heightens the chemistry between her and Ceville's Juan. In one memorable sequence, the lovers converse ardently over a copy of Tolstoy's novel: With Juan standing just behind her, Conchita closes her eyes and opens the book: The sensuality of the moment is so intense, you'd swear the Russian classics were renowned aphrodisiacs.

Arias gives a pronounced comic spin to Marela, a choice that pays off at the end of the play. A hint of comedy also flavors a wonderful scene in which the factory owners and workers sample a new brand of cigar, each person puffing on, and reacting to, the same cigar in an idiosyncratic way. (Ivania Stack designed the show's white linen suits and other costumes.) That's what would happen in real life, of course; and yet, in other respects, the production deliberately eschews naturalism. (Carrasquillo has commented on the lyricism of the Spanish "Ana," arguing that it calls for a less-realistic approach than the English version.) Echoing scenic designer Tony Cisek's cigar-label backdrop, Andrew Dorman's lighting often has a nostalgic, dreamlike richness.

And when not deployed in a scene, the actors sometimes stand around the edges of the stage, in view of the audience - a reminder of how personalities, both known and fictional, haunt the imaginations of Cruz's characters. For these Ybor City residents, out of sight is rarely out of mind.

'Ana en el Tropico,' found in translation
By David Montgomery
Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012

Playwright Nilo Cruz first found his voice in translation as a boy in Miami when his Cuban immigrant parents would have him decipher missives in English.

Cruz, who was 9 when the family arrived in the United States in 1970, made it his mission to master English as quickly as possible. He knew it was the ticket to success.

The effort paid off. He studied theater, was admitted into the master's program in playwriting at Brown University and started writing plays about the Latino experience - always in English. In 2003, his drama "Anna in the Tropics" won the Pulitzer Prize.

He honed his craft so diligently in English that now, like Samuel Beckett, who drafted masterpieces in French, or Joseph Conrad, the greatest English novelist ever raised speaking Polish in the Russian Empire, Cruz prefers to compose in his second language, even though he is a fluent Spanish speaker.

"It was a conscious choice at one point, and then life took me in that direction," Cruz, 51, says by telephone from Miami in his slightly Spanish-accented English. "I realized early on that if I only did theater in Spanish in this country, I would be limited to a few theaters. . . . I learned to intellectualize the [playwriting] process in English rather than Spanish."

Now, in a twist, Cruz has translated "Anna" into his native language. "Ana en el Tropico" opens Thursday at GALA Hispanic Theatre. Cruz's original English will be relegated to surtitles.

For the actors, director and the playwright himself, the Spanish version is teaching unexpected lessons about the nature of language, identity and theater.

"When I saw the play, I saw it in English and I was originally not crazy about it," says Hugo Medrano, producing artistic director of GALA, who plays the role of Santiago, the family patriarch in "Ana." "Then I happened to get the Spanish version, and I read the play and it was beautiful. It was like another play for me."

At the heart of this work in translation is a translation.

Cruz set his drama about love and betrayal, modernity and tradition, in a factory where the Cuban immigrant workers make cigars in the Ybor City section of Tampa in 1929.

In those days, cigar factories employed lectors to read aloud to the workers as they stuffed and rolled cigars by hand. It was a means of transmitting high culture to poorly educated workers, but most of all, it passed the time.

The play opens with a new lector arriving from Cuba. The novel he has selected to read to the workers is Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina." The story of tragic Russian love resonates unpredictably in the lives of the play's characters.

Instead of the English translations of the Russian that Cruz inserted into the original "Anna," here Spanish seems especially suited to sighing passages of Russian melodrama.

Of course, as any Cuban knows, Spanish comes in many varieties.

A Spaniard named Nacho Artime took the first cut at translating the play from English during the initial success of "Anna," when Cruz says he was too busy to translate himself.

Artime's draft sounded too much like Spanish from Spain for Cruz's taste. "I didn't think it captured the flavor of Cubans in Tampa," Cruz says. He found himself translating certain words or expressions from "Castilian Spanish" into "Caribbean Spanish," with the help of Jose Badue, an editor in Washington. The final translation is credited to Artime and Cruz.

The Spanish "Ana" premiered at Repertorio Espanol in New York several years ago.

"I had actually not heard the piece in the mouth of actors" in Spanish, Cruz says. "It was just breathtaking to hear it the way these people speak."

Productions of the play in English over the years - including at Arena Stage in 2004 - have often engaged bilingual Hispanic actors to play the roles in English. (Jimmy Smits played the lector in the Broadway production in 2003.) The language and casting imply a distinct back story for the characters - that they are immigrants who have had time to learn English and are striving to assimilate linguistically, much like little Nilo at school in Miami.

The true history, according to Cruz, is that the Cubans in Ybor City maintained their customs, culture and language within the little societies centered on the cigar factories. They would have spoken Spanish to one another, and they would have listened to a Spanish translation of "Anna Karenina," as in the lush excerpts that figure in "Ana" at GALA.

A key consequence of translating the play from English to Spanish is to subtly alter the characters' implied biographies.

"Just the fact that now I can make her a Spanish-speaking Cuban woman, that's a whole different character," says Marian Licha, who plays Ofelia, the matriarch, after having performed the same role in English at Arena Stage. "There's a flavor there that wasn't there before."

Cruz says the English he writes is already wired with the music and rhythms of the Spanish he grew up with. In theatrical circles, he is known as an intensely poetic playwright, whose characters are given to bursts of lyrical language, somewhat in the style of Federico Garcia Lorca.

"When I was writing 'Anna' in English, I was thinking in Spanish but writing in English," Cruz says.

Capturing the rhythm

That may explain how it was possible for Cruz and Artime to render such a faithful translation. Rather than reaching for linguistic approximations, they managed to convey every metaphor, simile and image with near literal fidelity.

Marela, the character of a young woman yearning for romance, says at one point: "No, everything in life dreams. A bicycle dreams of becoming a boy, an umbrella dreams of becoming the rain, a pearl dreams of becoming a woman, and a chair dreams of becoming a gazelle and running back to the forest."

In translation: "Pero todo en la vida suena. Una bicicleta suena con ser nino, un paraguas suena con ser la lluvia, y una perla suena con ser mujer, y una silla suena con ser una gacela que huye al bosque."

Even though the imagery is consistent, the Spanish version still gains something in translation.

For director Jose Carrasquillo, a Puerto Rican, the impact on the overall feel and meaning of the piece is profound. He's a good barometer because he also directed the play in English at the University of Maryland.

In English, "it reads very much in the naturalistic style," Carrasquillo says. "It's a realistic play. So most of the productions of the play that have been done are totally realistic. It's a cigar factory, it's a play with hundreds of props."

In Spanish, the play feels more "Lorca-like" to Carrasquillo. "It's the language that really rules, and the language has such a powerful end result that you don't need to support it with anything. You just need to let these actors get their solar plexuses up and let the poetry come out."

Speeches that may sound over-the-top in English seem equal to the emotion of the moment in Spanish.

"I can't hear that without tearing up," Carrasquillo says of Marela's riff on the dreams of inanimate objects. "People don't speak like that. In Spanish, it seems plausible that people could potentially say that."

For Cruz, translation is more than a tactic to reach new audiences. He recently translated "Hamlet" into Spanish, and he has also translated work by Lorca into English.

"It's almost like going to a museum and standing in front of the masters and trying to do a copy of what work they've done, to really investigate what they did," he says.

The language in translation casts its spell. After finishing "Hamlet" in Spanish, he turned to writing a new work of his own, in English.

"For some reason, at the beginning, the characters were speaking to me in Spanish," he says. "I was like, okay, I need to write this in English, even though it's going to be translated into Spanish."

Playwright Nilo Cruz first found his voice in translation as a boy in Miami when his Cuban immigrant parents would have him decipher missives in English.

Cruz, who was 9 when the family arrived in the United States in 1970, made it his mission to master English as quickly as possible. He knew it was the ticket to success.

The effort paid off. He studied theater, was admitted into the master's program in playwriting at Brown University and started writing plays about the Latino experience - always in English. In 2003, his drama "Anna in the Tropics" won the Pulitzer Prize.

He honed his craft so diligently in English that now, like Samuel Beckett, who drafted masterpieces in French, or Joseph Conrad, the greatest English novelist ever raised speaking Polish in the Russian Empire, Cruz prefers to compose in his second language, even though he is a fluent Spanish speaker.

"It was a conscious choice at one point, and then life took me in that direction," Cruz, 51, says by telephone from Miami in his slightly Spanish-accented English. "I realized early on that if I only did theater in Spanish in this country, I would be limited to a few theaters. . . . I learned to intellectualize the [playwriting] process in English rather than Spanish."

Now, in a twist, Cruz has translated "Anna" into his native language. "Ana en el Tropico" opens Thursday at GALA Hispanic Theatre. Cruz's original English will be relegated to surtitles.

For the actors, director and the playwright himself, the Spanish version is teaching unexpected lessons about the nature of language, identity and theater.

"When I saw the play, I saw it in English and I was originally not crazy about it," says Hugo Medrano, producing artistic director of GALA, who plays the role of Santiago, the family patriarch in "Ana." "Then I happened to get the Spanish version, and I read the play and it was beautiful. It was like another play for me."

At the heart of this work in translation is a translation.

Cruz set his drama about love and betrayal, modernity and tradition, in a factory where the Cuban immigrant workers make cigars in the Ybor City section of Tampa in 1929.

In those days, cigar factories employed lectors to read aloud to the workers as they stuffed and rolled cigars by hand. It was a means of transmitting high culture to poorly educated workers, but most of all, it passed the time.

The play opens with a new lector arriving from Cuba. The novel he has selected to read to the workers is Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina." The story of tragic Russian love resonates unpredictably in the lives of the play's characters.

Instead of the English translations of the Russian that Cruz inserted into the original "Anna," here Spanish seems especially suited to sighing passages of Russian melodrama.

Of course, as any Cuban knows, Spanish comes in many varieties.

A Spaniard named Nacho Artime took the first cut at translating the play from English during the initial success of "Anna," when Cruz says he was too busy to translate himself.

Artime's draft sounded too much like Spanish from Spain for Cruz's taste. "I didn't think it captured the flavor of Cubans in Tampa," Cruz says. He found himself translating certain words or expressions from "Castilian Spanish" into "Caribbean Spanish," with the help of Jose Badue, an editor in Washington. The final translation is credited to Artime and Cruz.

The Spanish "Ana" premiered at Repertorio Espanol in New York several years ago.

"I had actually not heard the piece in the mouth of actors" in Spanish, Cruz says. "It was just breathtaking to hear it the way these people speak."

Productions of the play in English over the years - including at Arena Stage in 2004 - have often engaged bilingual Hispanic actors to play the roles in English. (Jimmy Smits played the lector in the Broadway production in 2003.) The language and casting imply a distinct back story for the characters - that they are immigrants who have had time to learn English and are striving to assimilate linguistically, much like little Nilo at school in Miami.

The true history, according to Cruz, is that the Cubans in Ybor City maintained their customs, culture and language within the little societies centered on the cigar factories. They would have spoken Spanish to one another, and they would have listened to a Spanish translation of "Anna Karenina," as in the lush excerpts that figure in "Ana" at GALA.

A key consequence of translating the play from English to Spanish is to subtly alter the characters' implied biographies.

"Just the fact that now I can make her a Spanish-speaking Cuban woman, that's a whole different character," says Marian Licha, who plays Ofelia, the matriarch, after having performed the same role in English at Arena Stage. "There's a flavor there that wasn't there before."

Cruz says the English he writes is already wired with the music and rhythms of the Spanish he grew up with. In theatrical circles, he is known as an intensely poetic playwright, whose characters are given to bursts of lyrical language, somewhat in the style of Federico Garcia Lorca.

"When I was writing 'Anna' in English, I was thinking in Spanish but writing in English," Cruz says.

That may explain how it was possible for Cruz and Artime to render such a faithful translation. Rather than reaching for linguistic approximations, they managed to convey every metaphor, simile and image with near literal fidelity.

Marela, the character of a young woman yearning for romance, says at one point: "No, everything in life dreams. A bicycle dreams of becoming a boy, an umbrella dreams of becoming the rain, a pearl dreams of becoming a woman, and a chair dreams of becoming a gazelle and running back to the forest."

In translation: "Pero todo en la vida suena. Una bicicleta suena con ser nino, un paraguas suena con ser la lluvia, y una perla suena con ser mujer, y una silla suena con ser una gacela que huye al bosque."

Even though the imagery is consistent, the Spanish version still gains something in translation.

For director Jose Carrasquillo, a Puerto Rican, the impact on the overall feel and meaning of the piece is profound. He's a good barometer because he also directed the play in English at the University of Maryland.

In English, "it reads very much in the naturalistic style," Carrasquillo says. "It's a realistic play. So most of the productions of the play that have been done are totally realistic. It's a cigar factory, it's a play with hundreds of props."

In Spanish, the play feels more "Lorca-like" to Carrasquillo. "It's the language that really rules, and the language has such a powerful end result that you don't need to support it with anything. You just need to let these actors get their solar plexuses up and let the poetry come out."

Speeches that may sound over-the-top in English seem equal to the emotion of the moment in Spanish.

"I can't hear that without tearing up," Carrasquillo says of Marela's riff on the dreams of inanimate objects. "People don't speak like that. In Spanish, it seems plausible that people could potentially say that."

For Cruz, translation is more than a tactic to reach new audiences. He recently translated "Hamlet" into Spanish, and he has also translated work by Lorca into English.

"It's almost like going to a museum and standing in front of the masters and trying to do a copy of what work they've done, to really investigate what they did," he says.

The language in translation casts its spell. After finishing "Hamlet" in Spanish, he turned to writing a new work of his own, in English.

"For some reason, at the beginning, the characters were speaking to me in Spanish," he says. "I was like, okay, I need to write this in English, even though it's going to be translated into Spanish."