Midnight in Havana
nytheatre.com review by Mitchell Conway
January 21, 2011
Just before midnight on New Year's Eve, 1958, in the Club Mar y Sol in Havana, the Cuban Revolution is about to occur. The premise is ripe for enjoyable club-style entertainment mixed with the complexity of personal and political conflicts amidst societal upheaval—but on the latter point the production Midnight in Havana is less satisfying.
The nightclub's showgirls (Jaclyn Ramos, Catalina Plaza, Freia Canals, Tiffany Huet, and Aqeela Ali) dance stunningly, and are attractively costumed by Vilma. Their choreography by Vivan "Zenaide" Garcilazo and Altagracia Bruno is the most engaging part of the production. Along with son/salsa moves, fans with flowing fabric have the showy effect necessary to make it feel like a nightclub. As Marisol, Jeannie Sol's singing numbers showcase her strong voice and are filled with life from her bursting personality.
I felt there was too little of this in the production, given its setting. More often, the play cuts from the backstage scenes to the Emcee, Choco (confidently rendered by Marcelo Rodriguez), humorously bantering with the crowd. He is able to mix spontaneous and planned riffing off audience interaction, and built energy in the small crowd.
Before the show begins, a number of cast members mingle in character with the audience in the lobby. That the showgirls are offering their "post-show services" seemed to be the main point here, reinforced throughout the show. I was disappointed that the girls I spoke with briefly were not developed as characters in the play itself.
The main subplots dealing with the approaching revolution concern the youngest showgirl and an American sailor involved in a love affair, and the club owner, Felo, obsessed with the lead showgirl who was his father's mistress. Also, an American businessman is planning to buy the club, even though the day before revolutionaries had taken the city of Santa Clara. Felo denies the American an evening with the young showgirl promised to the sailor, then refuses his offer to buy the club. Maybe this is one moment reflecting the Cuban transition from the U.S.-supported Batista, with its strong commercial and mafia links, to the autonomy asserted by Castro's July 26th Movement.
The play lacks any explicit political commentary or analysis of the revolutionary moment of its setting. Choco is rooting for the revolutionaries, but we never get an indication of exactly why, other than that he listens excitedly to Radio Rebeide. Close to midnight, a "revolutionary," who has not appeared on stage before this point, runs onto stage with an explosive, says something like "long live Castro and the revolution" and attempts to set off the bomb in his hands, which fails to go off. Then, he is chased offstage by Sosa, who we learn is one of Batista's secret police. Both of these characters really only appear in this one moment; maybe Sosa had one line somewhere earlier on. The playwright has chosen this character, named Felix, the rebel in the program, as the sole direct representation of the forces of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara that would take over the country. To have this man come in as a suicide bomber was surprising to me. I knew the revolutionaries used guerilla tactics fighting the army, but had assumed indiscriminate suicide bombing was not part of their manner of attack. In fact, based on some Internet research, it appears that most of these bombings avoided anyone's injury, with the exception of attacks on the army. This is not to negate the ruthless "cleansing" of Batista loyalists by Castro and Guevara once in power, nor to claim the revolutionaries were not fighting violently in the battles leading up to the shift of power. However, I believe it remains a quite significant point, that in the Cuban Revolution, the rebels were not generally suicide bombing with the intention of massacring civilians as a tactic.
So why was this moment included in the production, without a lead up, or repercussions afterword, yet functioning as the main manifestation of the revolution in the show's action? Is playwright Robert Dominguez intentionally grouping the old "enemy of America," the Communist, with the new "enemy of America," the jihadist?
Some characters become excited by the possibility of fleeing to New York City, but all of them decide to remain in Cuba. Also, characters initially framed as dubious make the "right choice" after confronting their respective dilemmas. Given this, I assume the production is somehow claiming that the good people make choices that benefit those close to them, and maintain things as they are instead of taking up violence that doesn't maintain order and dreams of prospects for better worlds. The revolution happens in Cuba, but it remains only on the surface a people's revolution: the good people just want things to stay as they are, and hope to be better to each other. Large scale change is a mirage; we can only change our behavior in small ways. So our attitude towards the "enemies," is to ignore them and let life go on as is?
I was confused by the way they had organized and utilized the space at the Snapple Theater, until I realized they probably weren't permitted to change much from the set of The Fantasticks that had played there earlier that evening. That's why an unused bar had unused boas hanging behind it: to cover it with decoration.
Midnight in Havana features some entertaining dancing and singing, but on the subject matter of the historical event it revolves around, its attitude isn't clearly expressed.