A familiar presence at freeFall Theatre, Hannah Benitez has appeared in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Mr. Burns, Fiddler on the Roof, The Pirates of Penzance and White Fang. She’s currently in the six-member cast of Pippin, onstage through Aug. 11.
Yet this Miami-born, New York-based actress has an alternate resume, familiar – so far, anyway – only to audiences outside the Tampa Bay area.
She’s an accomplished playwright whose produced works include Adaptive Radiation, Dike, Ashe in Johannesburg and GringoLandia.
Benitez, who studied acting and playwriting at New World School of the Arts, and received a BFA in acting from Florida State University, has written five others still waiting to be produced. Fingers crossed.
The self-described Cuban-Jewish-American divides her scripts into those based on real life (including Ashe in Johannesburg, a commissioned piece about tennis great Arthur Ashe) and “ethnic identity” plays.
GringoLandia premieres in 2020 at Zoetic Stage in Miami. “It’s a play about a man, a Baby Boomer, who returns to Cuba for the first time since he got out as a kid,” Benitez explains. “He goes with his two children. It really is about American-ness in this day and age, and what that means to people. And what that might not mean to people.”
In other words, the story has direct parallels to members of her own family, and all those who left Cuba when Castro swept in. “It’s hard to write about Cuba without being a little political,” she admits. “It’s like, how do you get around it?”
Dike, which was produced by Sarasota’s Urbanite Theatre in the fall of 2018, tells the story of two sisters who haven’t seen each other in several years. In Benitez’s “spiritual coming-of-age story,” the older sister has come out as gay. The younger is dealing with crises of both faith and family.
“Sometimes,” Benitez explains, “I dream things, and I wake up and it’s like the whole play – and I’ll just voicemail the whole thing to myself, beginning to end. Like in a very, very specific, detailed dream.”
In the other cases – with the Arthur Ashe piece, for example – “I’ve written those in specific moods, in specific obsessions, if you will. So it just depends. It’s like cycles of the moon for me.”
Benitez doesn’t think of herself as an actor who writes plays, or as a playwright who acts. They are both equal parts of who she is.
Playwrighting “is a little bit of an addiction. I would say I’m a workaholic, but it doesn’t feel like work. I don’t like the word hobby, but I think a hobby is something people do because it feels good, and they like it … I just have a lot of ideas.
“And I enjoy doing it. I enjoy sitting down, pacing, walking around, sitting back down and pumping stuff out. Like I found my thing.”
The thing was first discovered at New World School of the Arts, which she entered – “reserved and shy” – at the age of 13. “I liked Greek plays,” she recalls. “I was a very morbid little teenager, into Madea, the brooding, the tragedies.”
The arts-focused education brought her out of her shell. “At first, I think, it just really felt good, in a very basic way,” Benitez says. “In a selfish way.
“In class, they would push us. And it’s true, that old cliché of pushing kids to be creative makes them better at school. It makes them more communicative with people. It makes them more functional adults.”
Benitez had already been cast in Under Fire, which was scheduled to close out freeFall’s 2018-2019 season. As with all regional theater actors, who have to lay out their schedules months in advance, she hadn’t accepted any work elsewhere for July and August.
When Under Fire was scrubbed, due to last-minutes rights issues, freeFall’s artistic director Eric Davis, the director and choreographer of Pippin (the replacement show), assured her she’d have a place in the new cast.
The ensemble (of six) is onstage for virtually the entire show, and in Act II Benitez takes her turn in the spotlight in the all-important role of Catherine, a fresh-faced young widow raising a son on her own.
In the show-within-a-show world of Pippin, the life of an entitled young prince is acted out by a mysterious cast of theatrical players. The son of Charlemagne, bloodthirsty ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, Pippin seeks fulfillment. He’s frustrated and easily swayed.
A character known as the Leading Player dogs him, prods him, goads him on and sends him down different paths, most of them supremely unfulfilling. “To me, very simply put, it’s a man’s quest towards humility,” Benitez says. “He learns how to be an unselfish person. He finally learns how to do something that’s not just for him. What he learns is, he’s not special. And that’s something that’s really hard for a lot of people.”
The Leading Player, she believes, is Pippin’s ego. His best friend, and his worst enemy. Which – in the admittedly murky logic of Pippin – explains why the Leading Player will periodically pick on Catherine, telling her she’s doing a bad job, doing things all wrong. Might Catherine, the antithesis of the pomp and privilege of the young prince’s previous life – be Pippin’s saving grace?
The sleight-of-hand that Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Roger O. Hirson (book) came up with back in 1972 remains: The show is so much fun, so fast, so freewheeling and so musically seductive, the actual plot – such as it is – doesn’t seem to matter all that much.
Davis and musical director Michael Raabe have created an enthralling Pippin, working wonders with a six-member cast (a seventh appears midway through the second act). The show was written for a much larger ensemble.
With such a small group, says Benitez, “You can’t be lazy! There’s a lot of six-part harmony in the show, and there’s six of us. So you can’t hide. You’ve got to sing your part correctly, because everyone will know. So it forces you to do your job better.”
She already has her next acting gig booked, for the fall, and then it’s back to her hometown to get GringoLandia off the ground.
Should one of her plays take off, Benitez says, she’s prepared to stay on the stage, under the lights, because she loves it so much. “If Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn’t quit acting, then I don’t have to quit acting,” she laughs.
“I’m not comparing myself to him, but if he doesn’t have to choose, then I don’t have to. They go hand-in hand.”
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