Intrigue and Romance in Havana – Huntington’s ‘Becoming Cuba’ (4 Stars)

‘Becoming Cuba” – Written by Melinda Lopez; Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara; Presented by The Huntington Theatre Company, at The Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont St, Boston, MA 02116. Performances through May 3rd, 2014.

Melinda Lopez has done her homework, and it shows.

Becoming Cuba is a fictional but historically accurate tale of life in the midst of the 1890’s Cuban revolution. The location is a beleaguered apothecary in Havana and the view is from the perspectives of the warring parties, and one as yet, still-observing party. It’s also a lesson in how to make rebels – a mistake most large countries have insisted on repeating throughout history. The year is 1897 and this time it is Spain making the regrettable mistake. There is a global recession in the world at the time and Spain is eager to prop itself up at home by applying an iron fist to its colonies, squeezing all the resources it can from them. This of course leads to the rise of people within the culture who are unable to accept the harsh and undeserved treatment from a desperate foreign government. The Cuban people just happen to be in the right place at the wrong time, and so, like the Spanish Conquistadors centuries earlier, they are raped by a superior force – economically, spiritually and literally. Inevitably rebellion ensues.

Ms. Lopez is the daughter of two Cuban nationals so she not only looks to the history books for her detailed view of 19th century Cuba, but also to her own family heritage. Thus the story feels both exotic and familiar, as she is able to superimpose real lives from her past onto her characters to make the story believable and universal. The unseen character of Poppy sounds similar to her own great-grandmother, who it was said, ran off to join the mountain rebels rather than be herded into the deadly “re-concentration” camps set up by the Spanish government.

The lead character is Adela, played beautifully by Christina Pumariega. Adela is the owner of a sparsely-stocked pharmacy in Havana. She has inherited it from her late husband who has been killed in the war, by rebels. She truly treads a fine line, living in the middle of it all, with her own kin fighting for the side of the insurrection but her loving memories of her Spanish-born husband bringing her some comfort. She clearly feels the pull from both sides but steadfastly walks between both worlds with stubborn neutrality.

Her sister Martina (a bright and comedic performance by Rebecca Soler) works with her in the pharmacy and she is firmly on the side of the rebels. Adela’s half-brother Manny (excellently portrayed by Juan Javier Cardenas) is a soldier in the rebellion and we meet him as he sneaks in from the countryside to try and get supplies for the rebel camp. We find out their own father is in the mountains as well, fighting against Spain.

While The United States would eventually enter the fray on the side of the insurrection, it spent some time observing the situation through newspaper reports from reporters embedded with rebel fighters. America was also busy having an economic battle with Spain over taxes and tariffs on goods traded between Cuba, Spain and America. Lopez neatly uses a U.S. news reporter to represent America’s attitude and involvement in the affair. Christopher Tarjan is believable as a conscientious reporter empathetic to the native plight, but the alleged romance between he and Adela comes off as tepid at best. It’s not really that jarring though, as both characters are meant to possess a certain reserved dignity – especially Adela. Even still, they both acknowledge that “insane love is the only real love”.

Brandon Barbosa is an extremely professional young actor who plays a scavenging peasant boy, representing the plight of the majority of the islands inhabitants.

One contrivance I found a bit out of place was the conquistador character who occasionally spoke directly to the audience, hurling humorous insults and reflecting on the scene. I found it odd that with the apparent effort to be true to the times this character would intermingle modern day references (i.e., Florida Senator Marco Rubio) into his speeches.

The set decoration (by Cameron Anderson) is impressive and maintains the historical accuracy of the storyline. The shelves are high and full of empty bottles meant for those infamous turn-of-the-century chemicals and potions (like Coca-Cola, with real cocaine) but only the bottom few rows actually contain anything, as supplies are meager and graft and corruption are rampant among the Spanish oppressors. Partially visible behind the main scene and revealed at the end is a striking backdrop reflecting the chaotic environment outside the pharmacy.

All in all this was a great show. Direction and performances were polished enough to carry one’s interest through the few slow moments. But Lopez and director O’Gara proved very capable of filling scenes with compelling action and controlled mayhem mixing comedy, drama, romance and intrigue for a satisfying evening of theatre. For more info, go to: