Kissing Fidel, a CurtainUp review CurtainUp

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Kissing Fidel

Some of the characters appear in my other plays, but at different ages and in different locales. They’re family, and as one character says in this play, 'the worst thing that could happen to a family is a writer.' --- Eduardo Machado, about Kissing Fidel.

Javier Rivera & Bryant Mason  in<i> Kissing Fidel</i>
Javier Rivera & Bryant Mason in Kissing Fidel
(Photo:Carol Rosseg)
Eduardo Machado is an apt chronicler of the complex drama of Cuban-Americans and their need to come to grips with the you can't go home again dilemma faced by political refugees everywhere. Himself sent out of Castro's Cuba on a Florida-bound Peter Pan flight at age nine, he didn't see the land of his birth until 1999 as part of a cultural exchange program.

Machado's return visit prompted his Havana is Waiting in 2001. Two years later his still more ambitious and most satisfying play, The Cook, literally took audiences through a cook's tour of Cuba from Fidel Castro's overthrow of Cuba's Battista regime in 1958 through 1997. In the just opened world premiere of Kissing Fidel, Machado uses the funeral of a Miami-based Cuban-American family matriarch to return to Havana Is Waiting's dual conflict of sexual as well as national identity.

Unfortunately, the subtext of this family's sexual duality overwhelms the main plot revolving around one of the dead matriarch's grandson. That grandson is a novelist who feels that he and other Cuban-Americans can only find peace by ending their animosity towards the dictator the entire family blames for everything that has turned them into an economically strong but emotionally dysfunctional hyphenated Americans. Unlike the historically straightforward The Cook this new play, even more than Havana Is Waiting, once again illustrates not just Machado's dual concerns but the duality of his playwriting style which often mixes realistic political drama with surreally, farcial humor that tends to border on ludicrous excess.

The good news is that director Michael John Garcés again proves himself attuned to Machado's work, and the six-member cast is unphased by the need to move from real to surreal, from comedy to tragedy. Bryant Mason is properly jittery as the forty-ish, prone to fits Oscar Marques who, though long estranged from the rest of the Marques clan, has aired the troubled family dynamic in his novels. His only reason for attending his grandmother's funeral is that it coincides with his Miami stopover to Cuba for his planned kiss and make-up scenario with Fidel.

Oscar's Castro-hating family is unsurprisingly appalled at his plan to absolve Castro of being responsible for destroying their family business (a bus company) and forcing them into an exile that has stretched into thirty years. As his aunt Miriam Marques (a zestfully over the top Karen Kondazian) puts it "The past is the bullet Fidel blasted into our hearts. The past is an open wound. It's a rose that will not wither no matter how hard we press it against the covers of a book."

As in The Cook this play unfolds on a single set which Mikiko Suzuki has furnished just enough to evoke that this is an upscale funeral home, with a wall of roses to evoke the image of a flower blanketed coffin as well as these characters' red-hot passions. In this play, however, the back and present story are all squeezed into the single evening before the burial, during which relatives and friends come to pray and pay tribute. The coffee, gossip and prayers served to guests in an unseen adjoining room enable the Marques clan to enter and exit as called for by the script.

The very first person we see is Daniel Rodriguez (Javier Rivera), Miriam's thirty-year-old son, an architect. Daniel, though he is deluded to think that he projects a macho image, is quite obviously a closeted gay man. He's also the only family member eager to meet his older and openly gay cousin whose novels he's read and admired (mostly for the sex).

Without giving away too much: While you'll never see the title actualized, there is lots of kissing. Most of this is man to man, but the zaftig but still sexy Miriam, whose history with Oscar has contributed to his fragile psyche, gets a revelatory kissing scene of her own. And, oh, yes, look for more kissing with the second act appearance of another cousin, young Ismael Ruiz (Andres Munar), a newly arrived Cuban refugee (a somewhat superfluous character) who, having been raised in the restrictive Cuban environment, has more concrete reasons to hate Fidel than the rest of the comfortably situated family.

To further stir the smoldering undercurrents of this funeral there are also confrontations involving Osvaldo Marques (Lazaro Perez), who has embraced the American way of life in California with a younger second wife. He is Oscar's cold, paragmatic father and the brother of Miriam and her sister Yolanda (played with an understated mix of emotion and wry humor by Judith Delgado). And given that in this family in which homoeroticism is, like red hair or prominent noses, a family trait, don't be surprised if this unassuming little man also has a carefully guarded secret self.

In the final analysis, Machado's aim seems to tap into our taste for comedy with an absurdist flavor. Too bad that the over-emphasis on homo-eroticism gets to be somewhat more tiresome than funny.

As for his thematic intent, Machado does succeed in downplaying any effort to pinpoint what is real and what is imagined in his characters' memory and to instead evoke an image of Cuba as a force that (shades of Moscow for Chekhov's The Three Sisters ) has colored and will continue to color their lives. It is to be free from the emotionally crippling iron grip Cuba exerts on its exiles that Oscar feels he (and his compatriots and kinfolk) must "kiss Fidel."

LINKS The Cook
Havana Is Waiting

by Eduardo Machado
Directed by Michael John Garcés
Cast: Bryant Mason (as Oscar, the black sheep novelist), Karen Kondazian (as Miriam, his aunt), Javier Rivera (as Daniel, Miriam’s son), Lazaro Perez (as Osvaldo Marques, the novelist’s father), Judith Delgado (as Yolanda, the novelist’s aunt) and Andres Munar (as Ismael, a cousin from Cuba).
Set Design: Mikiko Suzuki
Costume Design: Meghan Healey
Lighting Design: Paul Whitaker
Sound Design: David M. Lawson
Running time: approximately 2 hours with 10-minute intermission.
Intar at the Kirk Theatre on Theatre Row 212-279-4200
From 9/06/05 to 10/16/05; opening 9/20/05
Tickets: . $25-$40
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on September 17th press performance
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