A Bicycle Country
nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
July 10, 2009
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1985, the Cuban economy was headed for disaster. Having been dependent upon Soviet trade and economic aid, the Cuban people endured el período especial from 1991 to 1994: rations of food and supplies were scarce, utilities faltered, and a nation accustomed to automotive convenience took to the streets on bicycles. Seeking an end to their desperation, masses of Cubans braved the open sea on homemade rafts, taking their chances amidst sharks, hostile vessels, and the threat of death by dehydration, in pursuit of Florida's shores.
Such is the world of Nilo Cruz's superb historical fiction A Bicycle Country, and though a knowledge of fiscal models, trade relations, and the fall of European Communism is not essential to appreciate Cruz's play, the current staging by East 3rd Productions, enjoying its New York premiere at Theatre Row's Lion Theatre, benefits from a superb program-included primer by dramaturg Shari Perkins. Without this context, Cruz's story of three balseros plays out as a taut, character-driven survivalist yarn; with Perkins's insights, the production expands into a melancholic meditation on the loss of cultural identity.
Sullen, craggy Julio is recovering from a stroke, and his companion, Pepe, has arranged for Ines to take on the role of his home nurse. Over the course of A Bicycle Country's first act, as Julio regains his strength and mobility, the crushing world outside of Julio's ramshackle home permeates the walls. Times are lean and tenuous, and it becomes increasingly clear to the trio that if they are to survive with any semblance of human dignity, they must flee their native Cuba. Act Two finds our protagonists aboard a raft of driftwood and reconstituted tires, at odds with one another, the sea, and uncertainty.
Director Gil Ron deftly crafts this production to inhabit two very different stylistic worlds. While the brisk, 45-minute first act feels decidedly (and appropriately) kitchen-sink static, Act Two embraces the theatrical, even daring to rub up against the spectral. Almost imperceptibly, the play morphs from the trapped languidity of restlessness—another night by Julio's radio; another day in the dark—to a roller coaster unhinged. Elements of surrealism and cubism (including a savvy nod to Magritte's The Lovers) pervade the staging, culminating in a goosebump-inducing moment of brilliance and ambiguity: days after seeing A Bicycle Country, I am still struck by a final image that is—depending on one's interpretation—bereft of hope, a promise of further adventures, or the sharpest theological allegory ever suggested by a single light cue.
Ron elicits stellar performances from his ensemble. As the affable Pepe, Francisco Solorzano charts the journey of a reserved, charming young man's visceral decent into madness; his transformation by the seas suggests danger and primacy. Lorraine Rodriguez as Ines is a pillar of steadfastness and femininity. As Cruz's lone female voice, Ines demands some heavy lifting—including oft representing by metaphor the female Cuban demographic—and Rodriguez wades into the challenge with courage, sans inhibition; her penultimate scene aches with a tragic, collision-course trajectory.
But it is Luca Pierucci as Julio who is the production's true find. With a bio leaner than his costars' and a playing style that is markedly restrained, Pierucci's performance is a marvel of simplicity and generosity. Ever listening, ever reactive, it is impossible to take one's eyes off of Pierucci; he is our avatar in A Bicycle Country, and a welcome contribution to New York's indie theatre scene.
A Bicycle Country features a devilishly ingenious scene design by Michael Mallard, versatile lighting by Scott Hali, and an evocative sound design by James Bigbee Garver. East 3rd Productions delivers on the production values with spit, sweat, and polish.
The first act of A Bicycle County represents, in many respects, a kaleidoscopic view of Cuban culture circa 1993: the characters sing, dance, and tell tales of other times. However, they are also universally human: they drink, they lust, and they hope for something better. The decision to leave Cuba is all but made for them (necessity being the mother of exodus), though their departure requires the stripping of almost all ties to history and heritage; they must abandon their homes, their lives, and the artifacts that have lived with them and tell their stories. When Act Two finds the trio adrift in an endless sea, removed from all civilization, Cruz's metaphor strikes home; "Our night is almost coming to an end—like everything else," intones one character in a haunting moment of meta-theatre. For New York audiences circa 2009, who feel the ravages of an economy that continues to unravel while standards of living plummet and the employment rate nationwide spills over the 10% flood lines, A Bicycle Country's tale of balseros in search of dry land should prove urgently resonant, and quite possibly prophetic.