BWW Review: ANNA IN THE TROPICS at Blackfriars Theatre
The building that was once Rochester's Blackfriars Theatre is no more. Instead you'll find a muggy, stifling cigar factory in one of Tampa's thriving Hispanic communities right on the cusp of the Great Depression. I say this because Anna in the Tropics, currently playing at Blackfriars until September 23rd, is one of the most transporting productions you'll see this theatre season. It will take you to a time when storytelling and literature were revered, even among laborers and poor folk, as a way to escape the harsh realities of life and experience the passion, romance, and intrigue of other people and other worlds. The gatekeepers of these exotic far-away places were Lectors, who read to factory workers while they toiled away at their monotonous tasks; think of them as the original podcasts or audiobooks. Stories and storytelling are the foundation for what happens on stage in Anna in the Tropics, because it is a play that is absolutely in love with characters and literature.
Anna in the Tropics is set in 1920's Tampa, and is an intimate show centered on Juan Julian (J. Simmons), a Lector hired by Santiago (Adam Rosenfeld) and his wife Ofelia (Adriana Riano) to read literature to the workers of their factory while they go about the monotonous task of hand-rolling cigars hour-after-hour, day-after-day. Juan Julian chooses to read Anna Karenina, the eight-part Tolstoy classic that deals in themes of marriage, desire, betrayal, love, and Imperial Russian society. It's not long before the reading of Anna Karenina sparks the character's lives out of control and, in many ways, begins to mimic the events of the book. Juan Julian engages in a steamy affair with Conchita (Mary Mendez Rizzo), one of Santiago's daughters and a worker in the factory; Cheche (Dimitar Kominovski), Santiago's brother and a part-owner of the factory, tries to modernize the factory's operations by bringing in rolling machines, thus eliminating much of the needed manpower and, more importantly, the role of the Lector; and Marela (Daimarelys Lara) develops her own feelings for Juan Julian.
Anna in the Tropics author Nilo Cruz is perhaps the most deserving recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (which he won in 2003) since Eugene O'Neil in 1957. The ways in which Anna Karenina weaves its way through this play via character, tone, and narrative arc are stunning. Even more impressive are the ways in which this play paints a picture of frosty 19th century Russia through the eyes of Hispanic cigar rollers in 1920's Tampa. It's a seemingly bizarre culture-clash that makes for a truly unique experience; Tolstoy's iconic work of literature really becomes an 8th character in the play, driving the actions, motivations, and decisions of every character on stage.
While the whole cast brought their A-game, J. Simmons and Adriana Riano steal the show as Juan Julian, the dashing Lector and Ofelia, the fiery matriarch. The set and production design of the show are outstanding, exactly mimicking what I imagine a 1920's cigar factory would look like. Even small details like the slowly-rotating ceiling fan helped created a mood and ambiance that transported the audience to a sweaty factory in Florida. Every aspect of Blackfriar's production of Anna in the Tropics is superb.
Blackfriars Theatre's production of Anna in the Tropics is excellent, the perfect way to kick off the 2018-2019 theatre season in Rochester. It's playing until September 23rd, for more information and tickets click here.