Life imitates art as Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina inflames dormant passions amongst Cuban emigres in Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Anna Of The Tropics, an Open Fist Theatre Company triumph.

The year is 1929 and the city is Tampa, a favored destination of Cubans fleeing the Caribbean island for their lives, revolucionarios whose skill at the centuries-old art of making cigars by hand has allowed them to forge new lives in factories like the one owned by Santiago (Steve Wilcox), first seen mid-cockfight and losing money as fast as his bad luck will allow.

 Meanwhile at the Tampa harbor, Santiago’s wife Ofelia (Jill Remez) and the couple’s two adult daughters Conchita (Presciliana Esparolini), married to Palomo (Javi Mulero), and the still single Marela (Jade Santana) find themselves eagerly awaiting the arrival of the factory’s new lector, hired to keep the workers entertained by reading aloud from clásicos de la literatura like Tolstoy’s tale of adulterous desires.

And who better to ignite similar urges amongst the three women than bald-pated hunk Juan Julian (Byron Quiros), at least four decades younger than the late lamented Teodoro and oozing sex appeal that doesn’t sit well with Santiago’s half-brother Cheché (Antonio Jaramillo), whose wife Mildred left him for Teodoro’s immediate successor.

Now partial owner of Santiago’s factory thanks to the latter’s gambling debts, Cheché would like nothing better than to modernize the establecimiento, including installing machines to do work now performed by hand and getting rid of any potentially wife-stealing lector.

All Cheché needs now is the factory workers’ support.

Playwright Cruz, director Jon Lawrence Rivera, and a top-drawer production design team transport Open Fist audiences to another time, another place so effectively you can almost feel the calor tropical in a story that illustrates the power of the written word to transform, empower, inflame, and destroy human lives.

Scenic designer Christopher Scott Murillo has transformed Open Fist’s Atwater Village Theatre space into a strikingly atmospheric early 20th-century Tampa cigar factory, including either-side seating for a couple-dozen audience members on assorted antique-looking straight back chairs.

Stylishly choreographed scene changes are underscored by rhythmic tropical drum beats, just one of sound designer Tim Labor’s many ambiente-inspiring contributions.

Matt Richter’s stunning lighting design features some remarkable effects including ceiling fan shadows where there’s no ceiling fan to be seen and window-frame outlines appearing to come directly from the vibrantly lit windows that fill the upstage wall.

Properties designers Bruce Dickinson and Ina Shumaker deserve major props for (among other factory paraphernalia) the authentic-looking tobacco leaves that workers cut and assemble into realistic-looking cigars.

Last but not least, costume designer Mylette Nora has followed playwright Cruz’s instructions (“These workers are always well dressed. They use a lot of white and beige linen and their clothes are always well pressed and starched.”) to exquisite perfection.

The decision to have characters speak Cruz’s dialog con acentos cubanos, while adding to the production’s tropical atmosphere, does prove a tad distracting and not just because accents vary more than a bit in authenticity and degree. (When was the last time you saw a Chekhov play where Russian accents were deemed necessary to remind us we’re in Russia?)

Still it’s hard to quibble with the all-around sensational performances that director Rivera has elicited from his stellar cast, with special attention due Jaramillo’s fiery, borderline unhinged Cheché and the sexual-heat igniting Quiros and Esparolini’s electrifying work.

Wilcox’s heroic, alcohol-fueled gambler, Remez’s elegant, staunchly loyal wife, Santana’s lovely, passionate-waters-run-deep daughter, and Mulero’s sexually ambiguous cuckold are fabulous as well, as is Christopher Cedeño’s exuberant cockfight announcer Eliades. (Cedeño and Jennifer Zorbalas provide background player support as factory workers.)

Anna In The Tropics is produced by Martha Demson. Beth Robbins is associate producer. Kaitlin Chang is associate lighting designer. Tuffet Schmelzle is dialect coach. Benjamin Scuglia is production stage manager.

Not only is Anna In The Tropics Los Angeles membership theater at its finest, it’s the best all-around production I’ve seen from Open Fist in years, and for those familiar with the company’s nearly three decades of excellence on the L.A. theater scene, that is high praise indeed.

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Open Fist Theatre Company @ Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village. Through June 22. Mondays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 4:00. Also Friday June 7 at 8:00. Reservations: 323 882-6912

–Steven Stanley
May 13, 2019
Photos: Darrett Sanders


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