Remember the Venceremos Brigades, those giddy cadres of American leftists who swung machetes for the revolution in Cuba‘s sugar-cane fields? (The same cane fields Fidel Castro had once promised to burn as symbols of foreign domination.) They’re back in 2002, at least in Carlos Lacamara‘s witty play Becoming Cuban, presented by City Stage, in which the Fidelistas have sent a young woman named Michelle (Erin Fisk) to Cuba to work and learn. No quiet American, Michelle offers earnest opinions on every subject, often to her listeners’ bemusement. She‘s definitely no ugly American, either, and the willowy blond immediately has a pair of would-be suitors eyeing her in the fields.
Almost at the start, however, this rich girl machete chops more Michelle than cane, and the blood from a small cut rather symbolically draws the two men to her. Raul (Lacamara), her uniformed guide from the Ministry of the Interior, is affable and world-weary, even if his world is confined to an embargoed island. Ariel (Mark Adair-Rios) is a fellow cane cutter and doctor who bandages her wound and tries to open her eyes to his country’s deficiencies. Eventually he also tries to pry Michelle away from Raul, whose charm, political savvy and guayabera shirts steal her heart. This battle for Michelle‘s mind and body becomes a two-front war, and it is here that Becoming Cuba glides along as a deft political comedy, albeit one that blackens by play’s end.
After Michelle wisely puts away her machete and takes out a camera to work on a Cuban photo journal instead, Ariel introduces her to his friend Eddie (Patrick Rowe), a homosexual ”desperate“ to contract AIDS from foreign tourists so that he can get sent to one of the country‘s quarantine camps, where, he says, he can finally get three meals a day. His plan’s ghoulish absurdity reminds Michelle that indeed there is trouble in paradise. Ariel seconds the notion by revealing that his stint in the cane fields was no act of civic volunteerism, but punishment for illegally driving a taxi. It seems that, as a moonlighting hack, he could make $400 a month, as opposed to the $20 he receives as a doctor in a clinic chronically short of supplies — even while Cuba positions itself as a pharmaceutical powerhouse.
Although Michelle‘s no Marxist (she did, however, major in ethnic dance at Yale), she tries to cling to some form of Yankee guilt over America’s embargo of Cuba. But, as Ariel points out, his country gets everything it can afford from other countries anyway, and while Castro‘s island provides its citizens with health care, education and sports, it cannot give them breakfast, lunch and dinner — which is why ”everyone in Cuba is a whore.“
Lacamara, who himself is Cuban-American, threads these facts into the dialogue so effortlessly that we come away with a lesson on the country without feeling we’ve been lectured. The devil, it seems, is in the details: the scramble some characters make for Michelle‘s dropped sunglasses, the petty, almost amiable snooping of politically zealous neighbors and the legal hazards of serving unauthorized lobster to guests.
And, like Michelle, through most of the play we’re pretty much left to draw our own conclusions. That is, until the very end, when Michelle, who has decided not to return to America but to remain with Raul, winds up in a prison camp and, later, tries to flee the island in a gesture inspired as much by John Yossarian, the antihero of Joseph Heller‘s Catch-22, as by the dreams of Cuba’s Florida-bound boat people.
Becoming Cuban should come as a pleasant surprise to those who don‘t believe politics and theater can mix. Director Bert Rosario works wonders with the cramped Hudson Guild Theater space, allowing the play to breathe when necessary yet always propelling this episodic work along. The cast is committed and always on point, even if Fisk sometimes battles to become more than the cipher Michelle is written to be. Jossie Thacker shines in a small part that comes toward the end: Her prison-camp guard is a benevolently menacing sentinel, a kind of mother-sadist.
The play ultimately belongs to its author; Lacamara is both coolly suave and passionate as Raul, a man aware of the political necessity of having unskilled Americans cut cane by hand — while recognizing the absurdity, since the rest of his country harvests it by machine. His Raul is no red-eyed ideologue, but an existential patriot who shape-shifts from guardian of the revolution to a pragmatic opportunist arranging photo ops even while planning for a post-Castro Cuba.
Medea, princess of Colchis, wife of Jason and slayer of her own children, has of late been transformed into a feminist icon. As a woman wronged, she’s undeniably a sympathetic character. First there was that take-it-or-leave-it divorce settlement from Jason, who dumped her for King Creon‘s hottie daughter; then, she was left with two sons and no visible means of support. So perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to judge her bloody revenge with modern eyes. (Let‘s just say you didn’t want to be a single mom in 430 B.C. Corinth.)
Still, it requires all the juice a revisionist storyteller can summon to sell Medea as an empowerment figure rather than as a mere victim — otherwise, you‘re left with Susan Smith in a toga. Playwright Cherrie Moraga makes a game effort at the Celebration Theater with The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea. Her play, a production of the My Lucha company, takes place in the near future after a revolutionary apocalypse has created a new country in the Southwest called Aztlan. In this version, a Yaqui Indian–blooded Medea (Lina Gallegos) not only is estranged and exiled from Jason (Melody Butiu), she lives in a Phoenix, Arizona, colonia set aside for gays, thanks to a seven-year affair she’s been having with another woman.
Hungry Woman opens in a prison hospital; ”This is where all stories begin and end,“ a character intones, not so much in reference to the clinical setting but to the texture of night that shrouds this tale. This particular evening is obviously a hellish one for Medea, who moves the story back one year to explain why. Soon we meet her lover, Luna (director Adelina Anthony), who teaches Medea‘s son, Chacmool (Ramon Granados Jr.), about the mysteries of corn planting. We also learn some back-story details, such as that Medea breast-fed Chacmool until he was 3 and that Jason has taken up with a 19-year-old Apache virgin but will reconcile with his wife if she will only ”give up the dyke.“ The manipulative Jason, however, is merely trying to gain custody of his estranged son.
There is a certain amount of intellectual entertainment in watching Moraga play with creation myths and in the way she overlays Euripides and the Mexican folktale of La Llorona with gender issues and identity politics. But, while Hungry Woman avoids propaganda of any sort, it is filled with speeches laced with overheated poetry. The story also becomes confusing as we try to keep straight the politics and even the simple geography of Moraga’s dystopia. This becomes especially noticeable in Act 2, when, 20 minutes in, things really drag. Partly at fault is Anthony‘s direction, in which his stage movement, combined with Indalecio Lopez’s dark lighting, only muddies the plot turns instead of clarifying them. Then again, there is something about the comparatively small Celebration space, with its pesky posts, that invariably squeezes group choreography into crowded formations instead of airy tableaux.
The acting is a mixed bag; as Medea‘s young, doomed son, Granados at times is virtually unintelligible, although Gallegos proves to be an energetic force onstage, whether swilling tequila in fits of despair or lamenting the effects of gravity on her aging face.
BECOMING CUBAN | By CARLOS LACAMARA | City Stage at the HUDSON GUILD THEATER, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through November 16
THE HUNGRY WOMAN: A Mexican Medea | By CHERRIE MORAGA | My Lucha at CELEBRATION THEATER, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through November 23