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The Long and Twisted Route to 'Islands' : Eduardo Machado attempts to address the Cuban American experience in a complexly plotted four-play drama. He succeeds only when he lets his characters go.


Few playwrights in this country have explored the Cuban American experience. Eduardo Machado's six-hour two-part, four-play drama "Floating Islands," which has received a lot of ink and a lavish production at the Mark Taper Forum, helps to fill that gap. The problem is that Machado's epic, which opened Sunday, doesn't so much evoke this particular experience as over-explain it.

"Floating Islands" follows the Ripoll family from middle class to affluence in late 1920s Cuba to exile in Woodland Hills in 1980, and the story is rife with personal upheaval--infidelity, loss of business, suicide, exile, separation, supernatural occurrence and incest between brothers, to name a few.

In weaving so many plot twists into a story of massive political upheaval, Machado raises questions that are not germane to an already complicated dramatic schema.

What separates tragedy from hyperbole? Does a vast historical backdrop dignify soap opera? Historical events drive much of the personal anguish, and those events define the characters more than the author's insights or his ear for dialogue, which is leaden. Arguments do not erupt; they sound purely scripted: "We believe in fairness! Greed, my son, is a terrible thing!" says a patriarch. Motivation is painted on. "We'll find justice by making ourselves rich!," says a man whose father-in-law has just been murdered.

The first play, "The Modern Ladies of Guanabacoa," establishes gender roles in pre-revolutionary Cuba. A mother and daughter sneak cigarettes and inhale the dream of independence, which takes the form of a short haircut like the ones in fashion magazines. But, it is stressed, an unmarried daughter should remain unkissed.

The sons expect to be waited on, and they enshrine their mother and sister in worship while firmly demanding they go fetch a cup of cafe. Male infidelity is expected; female is shocking. When a daughter-in-law is seen dancing the tango with a man other than her husband, matriarch Maria Josefa (Miriam Colon) takes the terrible news to Arturo, her tyrant-anarchist husband. "I want our family to be respected," she tells him, something he no doubt already knows.

Machado can rarely let go enough to let his characters just live. But when he does, particularly in the third play, "Fabiola," he tends to go overboard, as if he doesn't trust himself to convey their pain. By now, it's the early 1960s, the time of the Bay of Pigs, and two families related by marriage are living under one roof in Cuba. The Ripolls have lost their thriving bus business to the revolution, and the families are deeply divided on the Castro issue.

Perhaps to exemplify the decay of their society and their sense of dislocation, and also to show the flip side of the macho ethic, two brothers are engaged in a rather passionate incestuous affair. Perhaps to show the irrationality that is all around them, their lust spills over into the living room on an evening when the family is at home. As one of the brothers pulls their sister into the sex play, the scene reeks more of melodrama than of the anguish Machado is trying to convey.

The pain of the Ripoll family and, later, the Marquez family into which they marry, takes many nasty turns through four generations, providing the actors with much to chew on. Under the direction of Oskar Eustis, the actors get to switch roles and play their own offspring, or, occasionally, step outside the family altogether. This kind of thespian reshuffling is often fun for the audience, and provides a chance for the actors to show off their range. But, because Machado's dialogue doesn't vary much from character to character, the technique often muddies the picture.

For example, Oscar (Joe Urla), the animated, nervous suitor who marries into and becomes the head of the Ripoll family, is replaced in the second play by the actor (Victor Argo) who formerly played the ramrod patriarch Arturo, Oscar's father-in-law. But Argo's Oscar is completely different in mannerism and energy, far more than the passing of years could explain.

In fact, Machado doesn't explain why certain characters change so drastically over time or how they can simply leave their pasts behind, as if they had been endured by another person (or actor!). Osvaldo is one of the incestuous brothers in "Fabiola." By the fourth play he has divorced his wife Sonia for an Argentine woman yet is still drawn to Sonia. "Oh," said the man sitting behind me, "so he's not gay anymore?"

Some individual performances stand out. Miriam Colon is especially good as the servile Maria Josefa becomes a crusty old woman who can finally say what she thinks. Alma Cuervo is a life force, and she is the only actor who actually plays off what the actress who preceded her in the part did physically. Joe Urla is vivid as the nervous young Oscar, but by the time he takes on the play's contemporary Oscar, a rather swishy cocaine addict, he seems to be conducting a seminar in overacting.

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