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THEATER REVIEW: “Becoming Cuba” at North Coast Rep

Alliances – political, personal and medical – are at the heart of Melinda Lopez’s new play “Becoming Cuba,” in its world premiere through June 23 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, which commissioned the piece. David Ellenstein directs.

It is 1897 in Havana, and Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain has made life difficult for everyone. Adela (Eileen Faxas), a rather mopey local pharmacist, lost her husband – Spanish loyalist Rafael – in the rebellion. A loyalist by marriage (and disposition), she finds herself pulled both ways. Now she does her best to keep her customers happy, but spotty and often unavailable supplies make that difficult, as does thievery of them at the dock.

Censorship problems keep American journalist Davis (Richard Baird) unsure whether his stories will run, or even be able to get them out of the country so they can run in the U.S.

Adela’s vivacious younger sister Martina (Maritxell Carrero) represents the pragmatic Cuban rebel, buzzing around customers, selling, even occasionally stealing from them. She’s in the market for a husband.

Chucho (David Coffey), a young Cuban boy, comes through the pharmacy on his daily rounds, in search of candy, money, food or whatever else is or available.

The arrival of the haughty (but ailing) wife of a Spanish lieutenant Fancy (Catalina Maynard) offers Martina a chance to turn on the charm and sell face cream (not to mention steal gloves) while Martina offers remedies for Fancy’s unspecified problem.

When a bedraggled, near dead rebel named Manny (Steven Lone) stumbles in, the family portrait is complete: Manny is the half-brother of Martina and Adela. He’s come to recruit his sisters to help out in the rebel camp, where their father awaits them.

Fancy’s husband Isidore (Mark Pinter), the Spanish lieutenant, comes to assure Adela that whatever his wife’s complaints, they are likely “imaginary.” This from a man who keeps a collection of ears in a box.

Lopez is an engaging writer, consistently interesting if sometimes a bit more prolix than necessary. Here she offers historical background in the persons of three ghostly apparitions. A personable Spanish Conquistador (in full, if a bit tattered armor, played by Mark Pinter) humorously explains the Spanish (not Shakespearean) origin of the phrase “blood will have blood.” Hatuey’s Wife, a native Taíno (Maynard) tells of the poor treatment natives received from their conquerors. And one of Columbus’ sailors (Pinter) gives an amusing account of the search for spices they did not find (Columbus got lost on the way to the East Indies).

The wonderfully droll and poetic comments offered by these three characters is a highlight of the play.

This is a wonderful acting ensemble. Pinter (an NCRT regular) is solid as always. Maynard is convincing in the unsympathetic role of Fancy (and as the Taíno queen).

Faxas and Carrero play well off each other as the sisters; the flashy Martina balancing the still emotionally vulnerable Adela. I wish Faxas would speak a bit more slowly, though.

Baird is fine as the Hearst journalist who wants to get the whole story (though that’s a somewhat suspect role, given the reputation of Heart papers as purveyors of yellow journalism). Lone is charismatic as the committed rebel.

Coffey does well as the ragamuffin Chucho, though exactly why that character is in the play is a bit murky.

The play boasts excellent tech work: Marty Burnett’s apothecary set; Matt Novotny’s lighting; Melanie Chen’s sound design and Aline Bokovikova’s costumes all add to the product.

Lopez could stand to shorten the play’s two and half hour length. She’s covering a lot of territory and spending perhaps too much time on repetition; a little less might sharpen the points she’s making.

But this is a wonderful start.

The details

“Becoming Cuba” plays through June 23 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach.

Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (858) 481-1055 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.