nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 17, 2005
"We lost. They won. We left, they stayed. They're destroying themselves.... We have forced them to be whores."
The American Immigrant Experience usually goes like this: people who were victimized by a repressive regime because of their ethnicity or religion or political beliefs, or people in search of economic opportunities unavailable to them in their homeland, made an arduous journey to America, seeking freedom and/or a better life for themselves and their families. This is the credo we live on and live with in America—the legend (mostly true) of the Melting Pot that helps define us as a nation.
But some immigrants have had a different experience. Many of the Cubans who fled Castro's revolution in the 1950s and '60s were rich and privileged, people who had been oppressing and exploiting the underdogs who, in the usual circumstance, would themselves have been the likelier refugees to the United States. They brought with them a deep and abiding hatred of Castro, who took away their livelihoods, homes, and homeland; that hatred coincided perfectly with official U.S. policy toward Cuba, which meant that opportunities for reconciliation, either national or personal, were squelched for decades.
So being a Cuban American means, often, something very different from being, say, a Mexican American or a Chinese American. Nobody understands this as well as playwright Eduardo Machado—or at least no dramatist has been so willing to explore this subject in his work. And no Machado play has dealt with the turmoil of the Cuban American experience as plainly and brazenly as Kissing Fidel, now at INTAR in a smashing production directed by Michael John Garces. This play—harsh, diffuse, bitter, and often darkly comic—has much to teach us, regardless of our ethnic origins.
Machado's play is about the Big Lies people tell themselves to survive: the layers of hypocrisy that can justify, for example, telling your mother that you're straight and Republican even though you're a gay Democrat. Machado explores the differences between those personal expediencies and the larger ones that essentially ensure that your less fortunate relatives and countrymen live in desperate circumstances while you thrive, spouting what amounts to hot air about the repressive regime you left behind but not doing anything substantive about it. (See the quote from the play at the beginning of this review.)
It's also about forgiveness and moving forward. The play takes place at an upscale Miami funeral home, where the matriarch of a Cuban immigrant family is about to be buried. Her daughter, Miriam, is dutifully going through the motions of saying goodbye to a mother she clearly disliked; Miriam's brother Osvaldo is also here, along with his sister-in-law Yolanda and Miriam's 30-year-old son Daniel, a successful architect (the closet case I was referring to a moment ago).
Into this dysfunctionally complacent morass of family come two strangers. First, there's Oscar, Osvaldo's son, a 40-something novelist, successful but badly battered psychologically. He has exposed his family history to the world in his books, and as a result is something of a pariah among this group; and as if that's not enough, he has arrived with the news that he is heading for Cuba, where he plans to kiss Fidel Castro and forgive him for what he did to his country and his family. The second stranger is the brilliant second act surprise that Machado uses to catalyze his play's searing climax and conclusion; he's someone no one is expecting, and therefore a grand theatrical device that it would be wrong to give away.
Garces's production is well-tuned to Machado's writing, which always feels a bit heightened, perhaps even a bit surreal: these are larger-than-life impressions of people rather than perfectly realistic depictions of them. Actors Karen Kondazian (Miriam), Judith Delgado (Yolanda), and Lazaro Perez (Osvaldo), in particular, seem in synch with this idea as well, offering outsized characterizations that are just this side of mythic archetypes. Bryant Mason is less assured as Oscar, but Javier Rivera (Daniel) and Andres Munar (as the second stranger, Ismael) are terrific here, offering very different, entirely contemporary takes on sons reaping the sins of their fathers in disparate ways. Mikiko Suzuki's chic, stark set—a spare but well-appointed anteroom in the funeral parlor—defines the play's environment with deft economy.
Kissing Fidel feels designed to agitate and aggravate, which happens too rarely in the theatre these days. But Machado has some useful things to tell us here—not just about the Cuban experience in America specifically, but about the ways that comfortable complacency makes it so easy for us to rationalize ugly truths about ourselves, regardless of where we come from. It really is not to be missed.