A Tale of Two Productions

This is a tale of two productions. One is the eagerly anticipated opening of Anna In the Tropics, a Nilo Cruz play that South Coast Repertory had its shrewd little orbs on long before the play stunned the theatrical world by winning the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

The other production is H, a one-man experimental Hamlet currently on the boards at the Insurgo Theater Movement that is, well, bombing big-time at the box office.

To find out more about the disparate experiences of winning and losing, we checked in with both Cruz and Insurgo front man John Beane about their plays.

Cruz is a gifted writer whose play Two Sisters and a Pianowas a lyrical yet riveting portrait of two women caught in the tumultuous tides of the human heart and geopolitics in revolutionary Cuba. Anna In the Tropicsis set in 1929 in a Florida cigar factory. The lives of Spanish and Cuban workers are upended by the arrival of a "lector" who reads aloud from Tolstoy's Anna Kareninaas they work.

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OC Weekly: What does a Pulitzer Prize look like, and have you ever slept with yours?Nilo Cruz:It's a little sculpture—from Tiffany, I think—and it's made of glass. It's very small. It fits into the palm of your hand and is in the shape of a star. And no, I've never slept with mine, but I keep it close by. What do you hope people walk away with after seeingAnna In the Tropics?

That's always the hardest question to answer because it's very hard to dictate what emotion the audience will walk away with. I can't assume the responsibility that they'll walk away with anything, period. . . . But from the beginning, I was interested in documenting the presence of Latinos in the United States in the late 19th century and looking at this particular location. It was a little utopia, the way that people lived there who brought their traditions from Cuba and Spain. It has endless possibilities, and it did exist at one point in time, and art was very important in the work place. That's what I hope people will learn from this, that it did happen.

Why Tolstoy and not, say, Dostoevsky?

I've always liked Anna Karenina, and since so many cigar brands are named after women or romantic love stories, I thought the [novel in his play] had to be a love story. Plus, a lot of cigar workers in the '20s and '30s were socialist, so anything coming out of Russia they embraced.

What is a playwright's responsibility to the politics of his or her homeland?

I think it's important, but you don't always have to be didactic. . . . Sometimes choosing not to write about something political in a political climate is a political statement. When you have destruction all around you and choose to do something creative, to build something, that is a political statement.

So there's no overt politics inAnna?

The play is set at a time when the cigar companies are becoming industrialized and the machine is moving into the workspace and people are trying to hold onto their traditions in the midst of it. . . . But I think the play is more about the power of art. This novel starts to change the lives of the workers. They start to question their reality, so the book becomes a kind of catalyst.

If Fidel Castro walked into the room now, what would you say?

I think I would be very silent. Silence is sometimes more powerful than words.

Is there something truly distinct about your writing?

I was thinking the other day that the work I'm doing is very lyrical and quite poetic, and I think that's kind of radical at this point in time. No one is doing this kind of work anymore. In film and theater, it's like bad taste is in. It's about how sloppily or sensationally you can present your material. But to have a sense of beauty and present it onstage is very rare these days.

Why is it so rare?

I'm not sure. Maybe it has something to do with television or not going beyond the surface. It may also have to do with the mentality and materialism of capitalism. We're living the fast and easy life, and the works of art that [are produced in that culture] don't require a lot of thinking and are not very profound. Look at the objects that were being made at the turn of the century, the attention to detail. We don't get that kind of work anymore, but there are some of us who are interested in that type of beauty—and I don't mean pretty or nice: you can find beauty in an alleyway, in a homeless person who might be filthy and delusional but who sees the world in a different way, a way that can be very prophetic or pathetic. So it's important for me to look for that beauty and to focus on it and delineate it.

So, you won the Pulitzer. Does that mean it's time to retire?

It has invigorated me. I don't think the prize is as much about Annaas it is a way of telling me to write plays and go further with the art form—to continue what I was doing before, to do this kind of work and to help give the Latino experience a place in the American theater.

Closer to home, you can't help but wonder if John Beane, the big cheese at Insurgo Theater Movement, is contemplating hari kari. Beane is producing and starring in H, a one-man show entirely from Hamlet's perspective. Beane worked with director Tadao Ogihara on the concept.

The idea sounds interesting, but it has been a difficult business move. The play was a last-minute replacement for an adaptation of Robin Hood that Beane, the adaptor, didn't feel was ready for theatrical prime-time.

Through the first three weekends, four of the nine scheduled performances of Hwere canceled due to low, or no, audience. So far, less than 50 people have seen the show.

"It's below expectations," Beane said of the low turnout. "We knew going in that it wouldn't be a big hit and wouldn't garner a whole lot of attention. It was experimental for this company, which was the main draw for us. Personally, it's been a satisfying experiment."

But what about the business side of things? "Let's just say a lot of friends have seen it. The fortunate thing is it didn't cost much to produce."

Beane has learned a couple of valuable lessons. "It reminded me of how fricking hard acting is, especially when you're up there by yourself," he said.

He has also learned that you may start a theater company because you love to act, but that acting may get in the way of business. "I'm definitely pulling back my role in the performance of things this season," says Beane. "We're moving toward getting ourselves ready to being a long-term theater, getting the books straight and stuff like that. And I need to focus on running the theater."

H, which lasts a mere 70 minutes, does run three more nights. Hopefully. Anna In the Tropics at South Coast Repertory's Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Previews begin Sun. Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m.; Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m. $19-$38. Regular run begins Oct. 3; H at Insurgo Theater Movement, 4883 E. La Palma, Anaheim Hills, (714) 517-7798. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. $12-$15.

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