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'Cuban' puts human flaws before politics

November 01, 2002|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

Putting aside the clash of ideologies played out in headline propaganda, Cuban American writer-actor Carlos Lacamara's "Becoming Cuban" at the Hudson Guild Theatre illuminates, with a keen insider's eye, some of the complexities and contradictions of life under the present-day Castro regime. In the process, Lacamara and director Bert Rosario achieve something rare and notable: an insightful, informative new play whose broad political and social commentary never overwhelms the involving personal drama at its core.

Recognizing that the embargoed island is an enigma to most of us, Lacamara skillfully plays that unfamiliarity to great theatrical advantage by showing Cuba through the eyes of a perky, naive American heiress named Michelle (Erin Fisk), a crusading international volunteer and would-be journalist. Laughably maladept as a field laborer, Michelle falls under the patronage and romantic spell of Raul (Lacamara), a suave, pragmatic party official who, despite his sincere affection for her, does not hesitate to exploit, betray and sacrifice her to further his agenda of shaping the transition to a post-Castro society. Although some of each character's motives emerge through stagy monologues rather than natural interaction, the distractions are short-lived.

In a remarkably complex performance, Lacamara's ostensible villain Raul remains sympathetic, in part because of his longing to create a better world. Equally riveting is actor Mark Adair-Rios, supplying a worthy antagonist of equal moral ambiguity as Ariel, a cynical doctor who guides Michelle through the horrifically impoverished and brutally repressed underbelly of Raul's great society. But Ariel's halo is also tarnished, by a selfish desperation that is all too understandable. Lofty principles, Michelle must learn, are a luxury no one in Cuba can afford.

Although Michelle's role in the plot requires her to remain a clueless simp through most of it, Fisk finds a compelling tragic rationale for the girl's blindness in her need for approval from her father (or father figures, including "Papa" Fidel). Among a seamless supporting cast, standouts are Jossie Thacker's chillingly effective Orwellian interrogator, and Patrick Rowe as Ariel's comic and touching gay friend, who wants to contract AIDS so he can join his infected lover in a quarantine camp.

The play ultimately takes a stand on the Cuba question, but only after showing the human flaws on both sides. The real secret to "Becoming Cuban," Lacamara teaches us, is to see clearly.


`Becoming Cuban'

Where: Hudson Guild Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood

When: Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.

Ends: Nov. 16

Price: $20

Contact: (323) 856-4200

Running time: 2 hours

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