Becoming Cuba, making its world premiere at the North Coast Repertory Theatre, is a product of patronage. When NCR produced Becky’s New Car a while back, the couple who had commissioned the play in Seattle came to see the production and to advocate for others to follow suit. Jenie and Vin Altruda rose to the challenge, and their funding resulted in playwright Melinda Lopez’s complex study of Cuban life leading up to the start of the Spanish-American war. Ms. Lopez is a canny writer, and there’s the start of a fine play here. A first-rate script will require a fair amount of revision, though.
The setting is an apothecary shop run by Adela (Eileen Faxas), a widow who was clever enough to learn the tools of her husband’s trade before he died. Working with her is Martina (Maritxell Carrero), her sister, who seems more interested in finding available men than in business. The shop is patronized by Davis (Richard Baird), an American journalist who is following the uprising that is making Havana a more dangerous place than usual. Also patronizing the shop is Fancy (Catalina Maynard), the wife of a local Spanish commander (Mark Pinter), who has health problems that traditional remedies might not cure.
It is difficult to maintain balance between the Spanish rulers who are a source of business and the Cuban rebels, and when Manny (Steven Lone) the rebel half-brother of Adela and Martina, shows up looking for supplies, what balance that may have existed becomes de-stabilized further. Adding to the chaos is excitement over the opening of the 1897-98 baseball season, as professional baseball had been suspended during the uprising.
Ms. Lopez seems to want her story to be about white/brown tensions and the effects of imperialism that were brought about by colonial rule (by the Spaniards but also by implication that of Americans who would soon invade – the play ends with the anchoring of the USS Maine in Havana harbor, and the bombing of that vessel became the means by which the U. S. began the Spanish-American war). To this end she includes visits by two historical characters, a Spanish conquistador (Mr. Pinter), and the revolutionary wife of Cuba’s first national hero (Ms. Maynard). These characters, speaking directly to the audience and freed from the demands of the story-line, get a lot of the best lines. If the rest of the show was as cleverly written it would shine.
Alas, such is not the case. Ms. Lopez starts her tale slowly but her narrative gets bogged down midway through Act 1 and doesn’t recover until the story-lines begin to converge in Act 2. The biggest problem, to my mind, is that there are a lot of potential ways of focusing the story, and Ms. Lopez doesn’t want to favor any of them. There’s even a child (played at alternating performances by Aaron Acosta and David Coffey) who seems to have wandered in from Les Misérables and whose function in the narrative was far from clear to me.
The other warning I’d issue is that the history being portrayed is pretty specific but it is not well known to U. S. audiences. There is a glossary that explains some references in the play, but my knowledge of the Spanish American war consisted of the bombing of the Maine, the fanning of the flames of war through the “yellow journalism” efforts of Hearst and Pulitzer, and Theodore Roosevelt setting up a run for president by organizing the “Rough Riders” and charging up San Juan Hill. All of these events, except the yellow journalism, occurred in time after the play concludes. Mr. Baird’s character is a journalist for Hearst, but he keeps insisting that he is trying to report the truth of what is occurring in Cuba, and besides, he’s got a romantic relationship going on with Adela that keeps audience attention away from his journalistic activities.
Director David Ellenstein has a long-standing professional friendship with Ms. Lopez, and he tries to do right by her with the production. He’s hired a solid acting company, and they all do credible work. Ms. Faxas particularly shines as the bright but conflicted Adela, Mr. Baird fits well into the role of an American foreign correspondent who sympathizes with the locals but wants to get the whole story, Mr. Lone makes for a sexy and charismatic rebel, and Mr. Pinter and Ms. Maynard both work to their usual high standards in less-than sympathetic roles.[php snippet=1]The technical aspects of the production are also entirely professional. I’d single out Alina Bokovikova’s sumptuous costumes for recognition amidst fine work all around.
Becoming Cuba marks the first of a series of world premieres that North Coast Rep intends to produce, including two next season. It’s a visionary move for a company of this size, and both the artistic staff and the donors are to be congratulated for making it happen.