Directed by Denis McCourt for the Long Beach Shakespeare Company, Nilo Cruz's "Anna in the Tropics" reminds us that there is a downside to technological progress. Set in the thirties, in a cigar factory in Ybor City, outside of Tampa, Florida, the production suggests that because something is possible doesn't mean that it's better. In this case, it's the introduction of machines to make the cigars. Economically, perhaps, it makes sense, especially in a Depression era: more cigars, better quality, less labor costs. The noise of the machines, however, would would make obsolete the presence of a Lector, an educated, well-dressed person who reads to the cigar makers as they work. His choice of reading material, Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina," plays a significant role in the story.
The proponent of modernization is Cheche (Randy Castrejon), the half brother of Santiago (Gil Valencia), the factory's owner. Cheche thinks he can impose modernization because Santiago, to the chagrin of his wife Ofelia (Jessica Kehayias), has to cede partial ownership of the factory on account of a gambling debt. There's another, more sinister and selfish reason: a former Lector cuckolded him. This explains his reluctance to welcome the new Lector, Juan Julian (Benny Briseno) who happens to be handsome and cultured, in short, everything Cheche is not. Juan Julian catches the eye of the two daughters, the dewy and energetic Marela (Andrea Ramirez) and the smoldering though unhappy Conchita (Kesia Elwin) who's in a go-nowhere marriage (machismo, adultery) with Palomo (Colbert Alembert). Juan Julian is charming, Cheche is bitter, the girls are enchanted. Just like "Anna Karenina", it doesn't end well.
Framing the production as well as showing the ability of a novel to affect and otherwise enrich the characters' lives, the story (the production as well as the novel) tells a tale of passion and betrayal, hope and, ultimately, tragedy. It celebrates the power of words to seduce, inform and communicate. It grips us not just because we wonder what effect that the tall, dark stranger will have on the lives of his audience but because we see how each character takes something different from the story he reads.
Like John Novak's sepia colored set that makes us think of cigar leaves and vintage, monochromatic photographs, the casting is inspired. In a story about listening and connecting, Ramirez brings energetic innocence to the possibility of ideal, perfect love. More world-weary, her older sister, Elwin's Conchita, reignites a cigar butt of a marriage with the awakened, cherry ember passion of someone else. Though Castrejon's Cheche seethes with understandable, bottled up anger, we are still surprised at his final spasm of violence at the end. Alembert's Palomo emits a palpable hypocrisy ("I can have an affair, you can't") that gets tamped into humility when Conchita turns the tables on him.
Performances are 8pm, Fri. & Sat, 2pm, Sun. The show runs until May 14. Tickets are $10-20. The Theatre is located at EXPO Backroom Theatre, 4321 Atlantic Ave. For more info call 997-1494 or visit www.lbshakespeare.org.