Written by Patrick Chavis
Set in a Cuban immigrant cigar factory in 1929, the happiness and turmoil brought on by the classic Russian novel Anna Karenina bring hard universal truths about love, pride, and tragedy to light. Thursday night, these concepts were explored thoroughly in the Pulitzer-winning play, “Anna In the Tropics,” at Chapman University’s Waltmar Theatre.
“Tolstoy understands humanity more than anyone,” Juan Julian (Donathan Walters), the Lector, said. This is how Juan responds when asked why he picked the novel Anna Karenina, a book about an upper-class Russian adulterous in the 1800s. This line stands out. It lays bare the theme that is consistently brought out in this play. The music is an unmistakable-the universal connection that transcends and doesn’t transcend cultural, economic & historical traditions. You might call Anna Karenina and Anna in the Tropics the same play, just thrown in another location and time, but that’s the lesson. It’s the same story, but it’s not. And it can be that way because what connects us also makes us unique, which changes our actions.
A lector was a job in Cuba, the title of a person who would read out loud to factory workers to break up the monotony of the day. In this story, it’s 1929, and with the creation of machine work, the job of a lector is almost extinct, except in this factory situated in a small city in Florida called Ybor City. The story begins as a black Cuban named Juan Julian is brought over to read after the previous lector leaves the factory. Julian is a sophisticated, well-spoken individual who’s used in this story as a shining example of Cuba and tradition. Cheché, definitely the antagonist in this story, foils Juan’s character.
Cheché is a man who believes in progress and feels stunted in the factory. He doesn’t understand why the factory still rolls cigars in the traditional way when they could be more profitable using machines. He also finds the job of lector an obsolete position for a few reasons that will remain undisclosed in this article. As the story continues, the lector reads to the workers the story of Anna Karenina, and we get to see how the story affects the characters. The play begins to mirror many moments from the novel. But don’t be fooled. The space never gets too imaginative. It keeps the story grounded by never straying from the reality of the situation. These aren’t rich Russian royalty. These are poor, hard-working immigrant workers just doing their best to survive.
The set was decorated with a wooden floor, two tables for the workers, and a podium where the lector reads the stories. The use of lighting was very effective, especially at crucial points. I would say the chestnut of the night is the lovemaking scene, which is done with dark lights keeping it sexy. The music, a classical guitar jazz score, helps keep the mood and is very appropriate but doesn’t lend anything to the intensity or progression of the story, which ultimately is the show’s biggest flaw.
Though the acting was not flawless, every actor gave an excellent performance. This was a well-balanced cast. The most robust version of the night came from Ofelia, played by Leean Gill, the wife of Santiago, the factory owner. She played the character naturally, instantly transitioning from severe to loving and funny. I also really enjoyed Cheché ( Luchas Gust) and Conchita (Zoe Donnell), the older sister who fell in love with the story of Anna Karenina. Not only was their acting compelling, but they were well seasoned and paced. With a little more passion and direction, this play could have been exceptional, but dreadful diction in parts and a rushed pace squandered some very creative moments.
Date & Location :
November 6-8, 13-15
One University Drive
ORANGE, CA 92866
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