Catalina Maynard in "El Huracan." Karli Cadel Photography
What’s a mere hurricane compared to the storms in the mind that make reality murkier and connections to loved ones more tenuous?
In the late summer of 1992 in Miami, Hurricane Andrew looms. Inside one Cuban-American home, Harvard student Miranda has returned to “help” her mother Ximena and grandmother Valeria, who is slipping gradually and heartbreakingly into dementia.
Before we even get there, we’re in the audience at the Tropicana Club in Havana where a young Valeria and a dashing partner are dancing to the joyous escapism of Frank Sinatra singing “In Other Words (Fly Me to the Moon”). The magic and music will give way to the helpless circumstances in the Miami household.
There are many layers to Charise Castro Smith’s beautiful “El Huracan,” now onstage at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town. It’s more than a story of slipping away, more than a so-called memory play. In the best local production of the year so far (I know, it’s only January, but you have to start sometime), the synergy of the playwright’s sensitivity and a superb cast results in a profound and enduring theater experience.
The Valeria we meet at the outset (Amalia Alarcon Morris) is disoriented and delusional, much to the frustration and pain of daughter Ximena (Catalina Maynard) and granddaughter Miranda (Sandra Ruiz). But dwelling deep inside precious memories she has other lives: the playful relationship with her sister Alicia (Carla Navarro) and the courtship by her true love Alonso (Manny Fernandes).
In spite of her friction with her mother, Miranda is able to connect with Valeria in a way Ximena cannot, even to the point of getting her to perform a little magic as she had when a performer. But Miranda’s flirtation with Fernando (Christopher Cruz), the young man who’s in the home to prepare and safeguard it from the coming hurricane, leads to tragedy.
It’s afterward when years pass right before our eyes that the subject of forgiveness becomes paramount in “El Huracan,” directed with great acumen by Daniel Jaquez. It’s also the point when the play centers no longer on Valeria but on Ximena, who has inherited her mother’s terrible disease.
In both English and Spanish, Castro Smith, who is Cuban-American and from Miami, articulates the desperation of loss: of memory, of course, but also to some degree hope. I wished my own Spanish were better, for I might have appreciated all the more the tenderness residing in “El Huracan.”
Maynard’s performance is a special one, particularly in the last 15 minutes of the 95-minute production. The distance in her eyes and the anguish of Ximena’s internal struggle are wrenchingly sad.
Ruiz’s transformations over the years of the “El Huracan” story establish Miranda as a woman whose heart was always in the right place even if her will was not. Morris does wonderful things with Valeria throughout, always able to be affecting and somehow luminous.
Hurricane Andrew is almost an afterthought in the telling of this tale, though sound effects by Eliza Vedar are a reminder of its fury. (It is still considered to be the most destructive hurricane to ever hit Florida.) Guaranteed you won’t be thinking about it when the lights dissolve into darkness at production’s end.
“El Huracan” runs through Feb. 19 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.
The cast of "The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci." Photo by Jim Cox
If only studying science or art history had been as engrossing in school as it is in Mary Zimmerman’s “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” in which the bromides, theses and philosophies of the great master are animated by movement, acrobatics and stage play.
The contradiction is that theatrical doesn’t necessarily translate to theater. While inventive and mostly diverting throughout its 90 minutes, “Notebooks” nonetheless taxes the attention span. Without a narrative arc or characters to invest in or any sort of palpable dramatic tension, this production of Zimmerman’s 1993 work at the Old Globe Theatre demands both patience and suspension of expectations.
Yes, the unpredictability of its sequences is part of the allure, along with scenic design by Scott Bradley that enables climbing, roping, perching and fanciful entrances and exits by the eight performers (all named Leonardo). Within this playground realm, they pose and perform while the words of da Vinci are heard as they move and react. I found myself mesmerized by what was onstage and only half-listening. I’m just not that receptive to intellectualized dissections of active processes such as painting.
Even if I personally would rather be mystified without explanation by what heights an artist or scientist can reach, da Vinci was compelled to break them down for us in the reportedly 20,000 or more pages of notes he made in his remarkable lifetime. You can be amazed by “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” if you give yourself over completely to its stagey exposition, directed at the Globe by Zimmerman.
The set pieces are meticulously conceived, to the point of appearing choreographed. They are also difficult to describe and to do justice to here, for each movement, paralleling da Vinci’s dissertations, is a significant part of the whole. They are pensive and thought provoking if not emotional, the representation of a brilliantly imaginative mind that operated like clockwork and gave the world order and understanding.
The athletic and expressive “Leonardos” are to be commended: Adeoye, Christopher Donahue, Kasey Foster, John Gregorio, Anthony Irons, Louise Lamson, Andrea San Miguel and Wai Yim. So too should Mara Blumenfeld for her costuming (based on Allison Reeds’ original design).
Chiefly, “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” establishes that with a genius, the left and right sides of the brain can not only function together but do so prodigiously and with eloquence. To some extent, this unusual piece is a journey inside that brain and its wondrous workings.
“The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” runs through Feb. 26 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.
Left to right: Karole Foreman, Ciarra Stroud and Anise Ritchie in "Blues in the Night." Photo by Aaron Rumley
In North Coast Repertory Theatre’s “Blues in the Night,” the illusion of a premise – three women occupying separate rooms in a Chicago hotel in 1938 – dissolves into the background pretty quickly. At the forefront are the songs, 25 of them, and three dynamic performers (Karole Foreman, Anise Ritchie and Ciarra Stroud) who sing their hearts out.
Sheldon Epps conceived this show 40 years ago as a revue, completely sung through and composed of blues songs, torch songs and no-good-man novelties. While its runs off Broadway and on were brief (less than two months in each case), “Blues in the Night,” named for the standard by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, enjoys production life today because the music is just so damned good.
At North Coast Rep, the vocalists, which also include Elijah Rock, are accompanied by a crack band under the musical direction of Larry Hartley: conductor Kevin Toney on piano, Roy Jenkins on bass, Danny King on drums, Thomas Alforque on trumpet and Malcolm Jones on reeds. Directed at NCR by Yvette Freeman Hartley, “Blues in the Night” is a smoky nightclub experience without the smoke, variously likable and heart-rending as each particular song dictates.
Many of the evening’s numbers are Bessie Smith compositions: “Baby Doll,” “Wasted Life Blues,” “Blue Blues,” “It Makes My Love Come Down,” “Dirty No-Gooder’s Blues,” “Reckless Blues.” Known as the “Empress of the Blues,” Smith brought a visceral baring of soul to the idiom, the sort of anger, heartache and world weariness that shadows foredoomed romance. Every ounce of that attitude is expressed in this revue, with the three women taking turns and intermittently singing together about good loving gone bad.
The characters are unnamed, but their descriptions are revealing. Foreman is the Woman of the World, one who’s seen and felt it all and carries the sadness to prove it. Ritchie is the Lady from the Road whose trunk of cabaret costumes is full of broken dreams. Stroud is the Girl with a Date who’s just finding out how fickle love can be. Rock is the Man in the Saloon, charming but likely to break any and all of their hearts “just like a man.”
Just as the sorrow emanates from performances like Foreman’s turn on Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” Ritchie’s rendering of “Lover Man,” the lament immortalized by Billie Holiday, and Stroud’s interpretation of Ann Ronell’s “Willow Weep for Me,” the humor crackles when Foreman exhorts, double-entendres flying every which way, about her “Kitchen Man” or Ritchie struts to “Take Me For a Buggy Ride.”
The choreography by Roxane Carrasco, like the mood shifts from song to song, ensure that “Blues in the Night” keeps moving, and its two hours never waver. Marty Burnett’s set provides a sultry backdrop for these immersive performances.
“Blues in the Night” won’t give you a case of the blues. Quite the opposite. It may, however, remind you that love can be an uneasy and capricious proposition.
“Blues in the Night” runs through Feb. 12 at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.