“Anna in the Tropics,” Arena Stage’s latest production, had a praiseworthy reputation. As the 2003 winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the American Theatre Critics Association Steinberg Award, expectations were high, but scarcely met.
Set in the cigar-making factories of Tampa, Fla., “Anna in the Tropics” revolves around the dramas of a family who own a cigar business. In the early 1900s, factories would hire a “lector” to read books to the workers as they rolled the cigars. Juan Julian (Jason Manuel Olazabal) arrives and begins reading Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” which turns their world upside down.
While Juan Julian narrates Anna’s tale of adultery and lust, each character deals with a correlating drama of their own. Santiago (Mateo Gomez) and Ofelia (Marian Licha, a GW alumna) try to remedy their marriage and Santiago’s gambling addiction, while Cheche (Chaz Mena), Santiago’s brother, rebounds from his wife leaving him. Conchita (Yetta Gottesman) takes Juan Julian as a lover after her husband, Palomo (Felix Solis), has revealed that he is cheating on her. And Marela (Michelle Vasquez), Conchita’s young sister, becomes the object of desire for Cheche.
Eventually the book and the play become completely intertwined. The more that Juan Julian reads, the more the characters begin to play the parts of “Anna Karenina.” Though the play does not end as the book does, the characters’ outcomes are easily predictable.
Where “Anna in the Tropics” goes wrong, however, is in the play’s casting. Michelle Vasquez’s Marela was impeccably annoying and completely over-acted. Although she was playing a younger character, she tried to be too cute, which lent the production an amateurish feel. Chaz Mena, as Cheche, delivered nearly all of his lines by shouting. And even more irritatingly, the characters struggled between speaking in American or Spanish accents, lapsing into both throughout the production.
The most cringe-worthy part of the play occurred within the first five minutes. As Ofelia, Conchita and Marela are waiting for Juan Julian to arrive on a boat from Cuba, Marela exclaims that she is so excited she might “pee-pee” herself – and then promptly does, leaving her sister to clean the wet spot from the front of her dress. Kindergarten-style potty jokes in a Pulitzer-winning play? With such trite dialogue, it’s hard to believe the play received the award in the first place. Arena Stage can do better.
Arena Stage is located at 1101 6th St. S.W. Tickets are between $45 and $59. $10 tickets are available to students Oct. 14 and other select nights. The play will run until Nov. 21.
This article appeared in the October 14, 2004 issue of the Hatchet.