Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Anna in the Tropics" is the second offering of Repertory Philippines for their current season. It was supposed to run from March 13 to April 5, 2020. Unfortunately, the run-up to opening night was already rife with increasing serious concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. There were still several theater shows which still managed to push through on that weekend of March 8, when a public health emergency was declared nationwide.
Even then, Rep was still planning to push through with its opening night on March 13 with social distancing precautions. But as the threat of a Metro Manila lockdown loomed, Rep sadly decided to cancel the run on March 12. That same night, they still pushed through with their preview show with limited audience of a few special guests only. That one show was already the first and final performance of Rep's "Anna in the Tropics." More than a month later, I was able to watch a video of that single staging, and I am thankful for the privilege.
It was 1929 in Tampa, Florida. There was an immigrant family from Cuba who were in the business of making traditional Cuban cigars. The family was headed by a middle-aged couple, Santiago and Ofelia. Their eldest daughter Conchita was married to a fellow factory worker Palomo. Their much younger daughter Marela was still single in her early 20s. Working with them was Chester, Santiago's younger half-American half-brother.
It was the tradition in cigar factories back then to hire a lector, or someone who read stories to entertain the workers while they were they were busy rolling the tobacco in paper. The new lector who just arrived was a handsome man named Juan Julian. As he read the steamy story of Leo Tolstoy's classic novel "Anna Karenina," long hidden frustrations and passions were roused among his rapt audience.
The setting of the play was uncommon and very interesting. The atmosphere of the stage was very exotic with all the raw wooden elements used in the set. Together with the muted lighting, the homey set evoked a heady sense of that bygone era. A most stunning technical element were those very stylish costumes designed by American costume designer Becky Bodurtha. Those clothes (mostly whites, creams and khakis), and the hairstyles, hats and accessories, completed the whole nostalgic picture and brought us back to the late 1920s America. The accent the actors used to deliver their English lines sounded like they could be transposed to pre-war Philippines as well.
There were no lead roles, as each character all had their turn to be at center. Gie Onida and Madeleine Nicolas played Santiago and Ofelia. They both reflected the pride of being the owners of a cigar factory which valued the traditional way, as well as the grounded relationship between a long-married couple. As they are both known for, Skyzx Labastilla and Brian Sy gave intense performances individually as Conchita and Palomo. But together as a couple, their chemistry was lacking, and their relationship unconvincing, but this may be what the story required. Gab Pangilinan had the verve and naivete of young Marela, making everyone want to take care of her.
Ricardo Magno was magnetic as the debonair Juan Julian, as the role required him to captivate all the females and gain the ire of the men. His natty white suit and fair refined features made him stand out in every scene he was in. Paolo O'Hara seemed to be miscast as Chester (nicknamed Cheche) in the physical sense, but this did not mean he did not give a potent performance. He had the most memorable scenes that were raising hell (modernization and change) and chilling to the core (desire and despair).
This casting was unique because all seven actors in the ensemble were portrayed by actors who were acting in their very first Rep play. Aside from Pangilinan, who had starred in imported musicals like "Side Show" and "Beautiful," the other six veteran actors were more known for their work in productions in the Filipino language. I first knew of Onida from PETA; O'Hara and Labastilla from Virgin Labfest; Magno and Sy from Tanghalang Pilipino and Nicolas from her indie films and telenovelas.
(from Rep FB page)
There was something odd about the play because major events that happened, be they scandalous or traumatic, were never mentioned again until the show ended. I wanted to see some sort of repercussion or justice, but these were not immediately forthcoming. The way New York-based set-designer and director Joey Gonzalez-Mendoza told his story flowed very well, with clear peaks of emotion along the way. However, as the play was written by Cruz, that climax came so abruptly (the lighting of Barbie Tan-Tiongco and sound of Fabian Obispo was remarkable in this scene), just when you wanted the story to flow some more.
Perhaps watching this play performed live will make a difference in final impact. Watching play on video may be the next best thing, but the experience is simply not the same. Hoping that the opportunity to see this play live may still come to pass some day, when the local theater scene comes back to life again after this health crisis blows over. May the Lord grant that day to come soon.