BWW Review: Arena Stage's CELIA AND FIDEL An Emotionally Taut, Gripping Piece of Revolutionary History
Given the political chaos around us, now seems like a perfect time to look back to another era of mass confusion, brought on by one of America's longest-lasting stalemates, against one of its most indomitable, ideological foes.
Eduardo Machado's Celia and Fidel, set at the beginning of the Mariel Boatlift crisis in 1980, explores the bravado, self-delusion, frustration and paranoia that were the hallmarks of Fidel Castro's rule over Cuba. Director Molly Smith has worked her cast into a taut, suspenseful emotional pitch, with nuances galore to enjoy and contemplate. We are given a 2-hour emotional roller-coaster in which Castro, confronted by an attempted mass exodus of his citizens, grapples with the fact that for many in Cuba, the Communist Revolution has failed. And he has to do this in the absence of one of his most trusted allies and one of the Revolution's most pivotal figures, the recently deceased Celia Sanchez.
In a self-referential nod to the genre of Magic Realism, the action takes place shortly after Celia's death. We see Castro conjuring and communicating with her beyond the grave-and when Marian Licha appears in the title role, radiant in costume designer Alejo Vietti's white silk suit, there is the inevitable question of whether she is simply going to be a spectral echo chamber, or an independent voice. Celia's (and Machado's) independence guarantees that we will be treated to much more than just your average, anti-Yankee agit-prop.
The crisis which prompts Castro's plea for Celia's posthumous advice erupts suddenly, without warning or even the (traditional) advance intelligence from the secret police. Thousands of Cubans have stormed the Peruvian embassy seeking asylum; they're not just a disgruntled elite, either-they are everyday Cubans, many of whom have only known life in Fidel's idea of a "worker's paradise."
Castro, confronted by obvious signs of his revolution's failure, ranges from denial and disbelief to rage, to blame (the USA makes a vivid scapegoat) and, plotting with his brother Raul, even toys with the use of brutal military force. Naturally, the United States' economic embargo was a huge part of the issue in those days-but embargoes do not explain everything, and Machado skillfully uses Celia as a means to force Fidel to confront the limitations, and flaws, of a revolution which has devolved into a Soviet-style personality cult.
The cast is led by the charismatic Marian Licha, who (although a ghostly presence, technically speaking) quietly but firmly rules the stage as Celia. Andhy Mendez's turn here as Fidel Castro is nothing short of volcanic, and Mendez has mastered the trademark arrogance and punchy gestures of this pivotal figure.
Supporting this revolutionary duo is the semi-symbolic Consuelo ("Solace"), Castro's office assistant. Heather Velazquez' skillful performance as Consuelo allows us to see both sides of the Communist persona, in Act 1 all charm and accommodation, in a Lewinsky-esque blue dress, and in Act 2-as the revolt veers out of control-as a worthy successor to Celia in her passion and revolutionary fervor, with fatigues to match.
There is also a diplomat-ex-machina in the form of Manolo Ruiz, a former comrade of Castro's who is now an American negotiator, sent to Havana by soon-to-be-rejected President Jimmy Carter. Diplomat Ruiz hides his true intentions, but offers a way out of the crisis. As Ruiz, Liam Torres is as slick and chauvinistic as one might expect of men of a certain age (Consuelo has, naturally, seduced him into giving up vital intelligence). And Machado avoids the temptation to make him a one-dimensional figure; Torees' Ruiz is neither angel nor devil, although like everyone else onstage he is definitely one for the power game.
Sound Designer Roc Lee provides us with a wonderful period soundtrack, which had some of the attendees singing along; music can always create a warm, communal atmosphere and Lee succeeds here. Riccardo Hernández's set, meanwhile, is a monumental library, books dotted with framed photos of the heroes of the Revolution. The only oddness here is the square, frontal orientation of Castro's desk, with two visitor's chairs clearly facing their backs toward the audience. Because the show is staged in proscenium style, this creates numerous truly awkward moments in which the cast has to pick up the chairs and turn them out towards the audience every time they want to talk; sets usually don't place obstacles in the actor's path like this, and it's a reminder that some plays thrive better in a thrust-stage or arena format, which would eliminate strange moves like this.
Now for the real issue here: because the production is currently on hiatus (thanks to the virus outbreak), there is one glaring gap which desperately needs to be filled. Given that the events in this play took place 40 years ago, when many in Arena's target audience were not even born yet; and given that the name of Celia Sanchez is hardly known to even moderately-informed adults from the Cold War era, it is outrageous that audiences don't even have a timeline for Celia's remarkable life and career to consult in the program.
If this show intends to set the record straight, and put Sanchez in the limelight as she clearly deserves, where are the biographical notes and timelines? Why do we only see her, un-named, in an easily-neglected, banner-sized portrait as we enter the theatre? And why, for that matter, do we have no information whatsoever about the historical and political context for the Mariel Boatlift to read? It's nice that the director, Molly Smith, and other movers-and-shakers at Arena got to go to Havana to prepare for the show, but the lack of even basic information, allowing audiences to appreciate Machado's and the cast's hard work, is truly disappointing. The dramaturg needs to be given the freedom to inform the audience-without it, we are left guessing.
The solution, for now, is a simple half-sheet inserted in the program, which will enable audiences to grasp the reason why the play is named in her honor-it might help to have a small photo, so that we can understand who the woman is and why she gets such a huge banner placed in the back of the theatre. The reverse side of this little sheet can inform audiences what the triggers were for the Mariel Boatlift. We need, and frankly deserve, more than a passing, purely aesthetic reference to Cuba's history. Machado can only do so much to inform audiences why this specific historical period, and these figures, still deserve our attention.
Going to the theatre, just prior to the mass hiatus we're seeing now, was admittedly a little daunting. The staff at Arena Stage were friendly as always-but with rubber gloves; and the programs were already in our seats. But the precautions made a difference, and set the audience at ease. So kudos and thanks to everyone there, for their sincere efforts at keeping us safe.
Running Time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
Performances of Celia and Fidel are currently on hiatus and will-we hope!-resume at the end of March or early April, at the Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, D.C.