nytheatre.com review by Gregg Bellon
January 12, 2006
Carlos LaCamara’s Havana Bourgeois takes us back to eve of Castro’s coup and Batista’s flight, to a time when “la Revolucion” still seemed to stand for something, or at least a time when Cubans of many kinds believed it did. LaCamara attempts to peek through several P.O.V.’s on the Revolution but boils the argument down to taking sides, a ready trap and the ultimate subversiveness of its ideology: “Within the revolution, everything; without the revolution, nothing.”
November 1958. Havana. An ambitious young graphic artist, Alberto (James Martinez), working in a cosmopolitan advertising agency, Soria and Associates, yearns with youthful naivete for the Gilded Life. With accounts for Standard Oil, Matusalem Rum, and such, Soria and Assoc. provides Alberto the opportunity to be on the fast road there. Except Cuba in November 1958 boils with the passion of revolution, and in spite of Alberto’s enlightened view of the ideals of social reform, the middle-class capitalist lifestyle that he practices is the fuel that powers that passion.
The teams are assembled, and the players are introduced. The Capitalists are Alberto, Soria, Juan, and Panchito. Soria (Jaime Sanchez), the owner and figurehead of the company, bulges literally and figuratively with pomposity, courting clients, employees, and lovers alike with duplicity. Juan (Alexander Alioto), the opportunistic art director, sucks at the heals of Soria like a usurping prince ready to fill any vacancy in the Chair, stepping over his more talented peers in the process. Panchito (George Bass), the washed-up but still capable sketch artist, keeps tipping his flask in consigned defeat, a never-has-been already counting down his days.
The Comrades are Margot, Manuel, and the inchoate voice of Fidel. Margot (Selena Nelson), the curvaceous copywriter and mistress to Soria, not only sees the impenetrable glass ceiling but feels its weight crushing her, the dual nature of being female and mulatta. Manuel (Rashaad Ernesto Green), the guajiro (hillbilly) copy boy who can’t read but can draw, escaped the fighting in his town at his mother’s behest to go find a future where one is possible.
As the fighting in the Sierra Maestras and at Soria & Assoc. amps up, the sides start to clearly define themselves, eventually forcefully so. Alberto sits at the nexus of this divide, a social climber whose talents facilitate the move and whose personal history endears him to the cause of agrarian reform and the social contract. He introduces Manuel to the philosophical ideals of the Revolution, dubbing him a protégé and thereby providing the foot in the proverbial door for the eager yet humble subservient. New Year’s Eve, 1958, Batista flees directly from his formal gala with family and fortune in tow; Castro gladly rides into Havana to hordes of cheering comrades. Overnight, the home team is no longer the home team, with the Capitalists driven out by the rush of conversion of Comrades to the revolutionary movement. But the transition naturally involves some growing pains, and Soria’s agency is reluctantly annexed by the new regime, nationalized into a committee to serve pro bono its propaganda needs. Manuel accepts Juan’s duplicitous suggestion that he replace Soria as the agency’s head, and the group becomes a microcosm of Cuban politics and social order, mercenary justice based on fear, control, and retribution. Eventually the only decision of importance for Cubans is whether to stay or go, a question that eats at the identity of a person.
In spite of his attempt to give humanistic depth to his characters, LaCamara creates symbolic personifications of the us/them paradigm: the reluctant exile, middle-class idealist driven by reason, vs. the revolutionary simpleton, brainwashed peasant driven by vengeance. LaCamara’s narrative favors the view that the Revolution as an opportunity to fulfill true sovereignty for the Cuban people was squandered by fools who succumbed to Castro’s manipulation, tyranny, egotism, and greed, the consensus in the exile community but not a universal opinion.
The cast is solid all around except for the inconsistency of Spanish pronunciations and accents. Inevitably, a translation (which this clearly is in one way or another) must overcome the discrepancy of rhythms between the languages, and those of us who are bilingual become acutely aware of this. Particularly compelling to watch are James Martinez as Alberto, whose commitment to Alberto’s principled ideals never wavers; George Bass as Panchito who provides some witty zingers and a look at a lost generation too old to see the hope of the revolution; Ursula Cataan as Sandra, Alberto’s opera-singer wife, whose heartfelt torment over leaving her parents behind to save themselves in exile provides the truest glimpse of organic human perspective; and Rashaad Ernesto Green as Manuel, who, despite the simplicity of the guajiro’s character, succeeds in exploring complexities and authentic passion in the cause of socialism and revolution.