Anna In The Tropics - Rhode island College 2008

Anna in the Tropics plays RIC

By Larry O’Brien, Anchor Staff

This reporter made two trips to the Forman Theater in the past two weeks: once last week  for a rehearsal when the cast and crew had been working most of the day to prepare for last Wednesday’s opening of  Anna in the Tropics, and again this past Friday to see the Pulitzer Prize-winning (2003) play by Nilo Cruz performed.   

Set in 1929, the play tells the story of Cuban immigrants who brought the cigar-making industry to the U.S. in the 19th century and also carried with them another tradition. 

As the workers toiled away in the factory hand rolling each cigar, the lector, (historically well-dressed and well-spoken), would read to them.  It was the lector who informed, organized and entertained the workers until the 1930s, when the rollers and the readers were replaced by mechanization.  Tampa, Fl. serves as the setting for Nilo Cruz’s play and revolves around the new lector, Juan Julian (played by third year Adriano Cabral); as he reads Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to the workers, the spirit of the novel affects them.  With each chapter, new desires, conflicts and jealousies erupt in the factory.  Even the novel’s deadly love triangle starts to play itself out as Conchita (third year Allison Crews) considers whether to take a lover.
First, the rehearsal trip.

Nineteenth Century German statesman Otto von Bismarck once said that anyone who likes legislation or sausage should avoid seeing how they are made.  This is not the case with theater; visiting the set one can sense the camaraderie and enthusiasm everyone involved has and must have to bring these things together.  Nehassaiu deGannes, assistant professor for two years here at RIC and the director of Anna, and her stage manager, fourth year Molly Kaufhold, took a few minutes to talk with The Anchor.  Both are excited by the play and by how it’s going.  This is a lot better than deGanne seemed to feel only a few days before.  She said in an email on Thursday that, “the set is still being finished.  Alan Pickart, resident set designer, was away from campus last week.  Light cues are still being built.  Chris Abernathy (professor of theater and technical director) is fighting one of those awful colds that have been going around.  Everyone is working very, very hard to bring the show into tech.”

After the run through of the first act, Kaufhold was clearly happy to report that they had done it nearly flawlessly and on time.  As he had in Lost in Yonkers, fourth year Alex Duckworth plays a gun toting brother.  When asked why he performs, the theater major replied, “I love it; I audition for every show.”  The advantage of being an accounting major is that you might be able to find a job when you graduate; the advantage of being a theater major is that you get to do something you love.  (Maybe some people love accounting; no, I don’t think so either)

DeGannes clearly loves what she is doing: both with this play and in general.  She has described herself as “an artist-scholar, a poet, theatre-artist and playwright–––a vagabond, itinerant, educator and passionate troubadour.”  She brings the same passion to her work at the college that she brought to her performances at Trinity Rep. when she was a member of first the Conservatory and then the acting company, or to her poetry, or to the one woman show she has written and performed. 

When she was teaching at Goddard College in Vermont, she wrote that she enjoyed “collaborating with students and colleagues as we seek to articulate the ways in which our work can be rigorous and inventive, visionary and grounded, critical and forgiving.”  She loves this play about immigrants, about the power of words to transform life from mundane to sublime and about passion.  And she loves theater: “As theater artists we work and there’s a blank page—just a script and we bring it to life.  Our imagination takes shape; you can’t do it by yourself.”  This production has gone from actors and director sitting around a table reading their parts to the point where, ready or not, it opens tonight.  I was looking forward to seeing the finished product.  Ok, so now it’s on to the Friday night performance.

When I walked into theater, the full effect of Alan Pinkart’s now completed minimalist set blew me away.   Professor deGannes requested a set with enough “realism in which to ground the poetic language of the play.”  He completely understood and designed the beautiful windows and set them on that brilliant diagonal.  (That is exactly what the windows were:  three of them, bronze in color, maybe six by twelve feet, suspended from the ceiling diagonally to the audience and serving to at once let the outside world in and keep it out).  She requested some way of including the tropical foliage, the world just outside the doors of the factory and he designed silhouettes (black on a dark blue background); a move perfectly in line with what deGannes was thinking.  To DeGannes, the set underscored the action: “Like Nilo’s play, Alan’s set is a fusion of the domestic and the poetic.” 

The play itself was beautiful and delicate and deGannes had coaxed subtle performances from the cast.  While returning student Cilla Julia Bento and fourth year Kevin Killavey were touching as an older couple, and second year Candice Sampson will steal anything that is not nailed down, this play really belonged to Adriano Cabral and Allison Crews as the reader and his lover.  The test of a performance is its ability to draw an audience in and for a couple of hours.  I was willing to put my problems on hold and concentrate on their lives. This play closed Sunday.  You cannot see it anymore, but you can catch The Seagull by Anton Chekhov in February.