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Smoky drama ‘Anna in the Tropics’ bows at Stageworks

Bill DeYoung

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Marlene Peralta plays Conchita in Stageworks' "Anna in the Tropics." Photo: Christopher Jackson/Cineview Studios.

It’s the summer of 1929 in Ybor City. Inside a Cuban-American cigar factory, temperatures are high as a half-dozen workers roll brown tobacco by hand.

Into their lives comes a lector, hired by the boss, to read to them while they make cigars.

So begins Anna in the Tropics, the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Nilo Cruz opening Friday at Stageworks Theatre in Tampa’s Channelside District.

It’s fiction, but it’s based on historical fact.

“The workers, frequently, were not literate,” explains director JL Rey. “They could not read or write themselves. The lector would read five major newspapers, from all over the world, in the morning. And then in the afternoon he would read great works of literature.”

The lector in Cruz’s play, Juan Julian, chooses to read Anna Karenina by the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy.

“Consequently these people – these workers who were listening the whole time – were incredibly highly educated about the world, about current events and news affairs,” Rey continues. “And about literature.

“It was a way of keeping them engaged and entertained. And because the lector is in the background, they could listen and do the work. The work that they did, did not require a certain level of concentration because they were all expert artists at it.”

The central characters are Conchita and her husband Palomo, who’s a philanderer. The appearance of the handsome lector – and of headstrong, frustrated Anna Karenina herself – creates a new sense of understanding about life, and about relationships among all the factory workers.

“The women hear the story differently than the men do,” says Rey. “That’s discussed in the play. But then the events of the novel start to happen to the people in the factory.

“It’s just a beautiful device. It’s beautiful writing, the way Nilo Cruz manages to tell that story. We end up learning as much about the novel as we learn about these people in the play.”

There’s something dreamlike and intoxicating about Anna in the Tropics, a sense of something deeper happening under the surface. Maybe it’s the palpable humidity of the factory environment.

“The words are written a lot like music,” Rey points out. “And there is a heightened romanticism in the language of Nilo Cruz. He’s not writing realism; he’s not writing naturalism. He’s writing something that’s heightened and romantic. So as a director or a lighting designer, it lends itself to those sultry, dreamy pictures.”

For the first time since 2018’s In the Time of the Butterflies, Stageworks is producing the play in both English (seven performances) and Spanish (five performances of Anna en el Tropico).

For Rey, the Cuban American who also directed In the Time of the Butterflies, this meant hiring a fully bilingual cast. “We worked the first week of rehearsal totally in English, and the second week totally in Spanish. The rest of the time, we alternated a couple of days in each language, coming and going, so the actors could get acclimated to both languages.”

He did it this way, Rey says, “because it’s like two different plays. Even though it’s the same words and the same ideas, when you speak in another language you express yourself differently.

“When we did In the Time of the Butterflies, audience members who saw both versions were shocked at how different the experience was.”

Performance details and tickets are here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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