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When a cigar is not just a cigar

In 'Anna in the Tropics,' the stogie and its assembly -- an art learned by the cast -- anchor the sultry tale.

October 20, 2003|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

One of the challenges actors face is figuring out what to do with their hands. But for the cast of "Anna in the Tropics" at South Coast Repertory, it's not such a problem. A good chunk of their time on stage is spent cutting, bunching, stacking, smoothing, pressing and rolling in ways as true as possible to the time-honored techniques that go into producing the handmade Cuban cigar.

Nilo Cruz's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama takes place in 1929, in a mom-and-pop cigar factory in Ybor City, Fla., near Tampa. In keeping with tradition, a lector, or reader, has been hired to engage the employees' minds while they work with their hands. Day by day, as he passionately progresses through Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina," the romantic entanglements and heartbreaks of the novel begin to play themselves out in the cigar makers' lives.

A play about flights of imagination needs a solid anchor in everyday reality, reasoned director Juliette Carrillo. Hence the production's extreme attention to the details of hand-rolled cigar making. "Because it's so much about how literature can transport people, I wanted a place, a really realistic setting, to transport them from."

In June, Carrillo and scenic designer Christine Jones decamped to Ybor City to soak up some authenticity. They measured and photographed vintage equipment at a cigar factory, returned with some donated items and had prop master John Slauson duplicate others.

During the first week of rehearsal in September, the seven cast members spent a day being tutored at Mursuli Cigars in Temple City, near Pasadena. There, the first thing a visitor sees is workers sitting at tables hand-rolling smokes, much as they did more than 70 years ago in Cuba, when owner Oscar Mursuli Jr.'s grandfather first got into the stogie trade.

The cast's star cigar maker is Jonathan Nichols, a native of Havana who grew up in Miami. He plays the tormented Palomo, whose wife pays him back for his infidelities by launching a torrid affair with the lector. Nichols knew about Mursuli Cigars, and he made it his steady, four-days-a-week hangout through much of the summer. Oscar Mursuli Sr., who dropped out of a Cuban grade school about 60 years ago to enter the cigar trade, taught Nichols to cut the leaves, to shape them into cylinders stuffed to just the right density, to firm them with a press, to wrap them with an outer leaf and to cut a neatly rounded end with a blade called a chaveta, so the cigar might be pleasing to the eye and mouth.

Mursuli shared his own memories of the lectores in the old-time cigar factories -- the good ones were great hams -- and coached Nichols in a cutting motion called the mezza luna, or half-moon. The old cigar maker figured the technique's graceful arc of the blade would be most pleasing for playgoers to watch.

Carrillo, a veteran director, says she has seen actors learn musical instruments for a role, but never has she known one who devoted quite as much effort as Nichols to learning an arcane new skill for the stage. Nichols -- a nonsmoker who typically puffs two cigars a year at most -- says mastering those techniques and knowing what his character knows helps his confidence and gives him a sense of authenticity on which to build a performance. "I wanted it in my bones, in my skin. It helps me feel like I belong in that space. If you just simulate, in the back of your head you think, 'Somebody out there is going to know I'm faking this.' "

The pros at Mursuli's each can roll from 100 to 200 cigars a day, earning 45 to 80 cents apiece depending on size and difficulty, says Mursuli Jr., who provided many props and sold South Coast the cigars that are puffed communally near the end as all the characters celebrate the factory's rollout of a new brand, the Anna Karenina. Nichols' task in the play is to put the final leaf wrapping on the cigars and trim the ends; he has been rolling about six during each performance.

Not every cigar detail of the production is authentic, says Slauson, the prop master. The bunches of tobacco leaves seen hanging on strings to dry are imitations made from brown-tinted paper. What's more, tobacco fronds didn't hang in cigar factories. Introducing them "made it look more theatrical," Slauson says.

But the rolling, cutting and pressing the actors do is an authentic representation of what goes into making hand-rolled cigars. Carrillo says there was only one step of the process, the sorting of tobacco leaves by color, grade and size, that she could not fit into a scene without disrupting the feeling and clarity of the dialogue.

The aim of all that detail isn't to impress the viewer, says the director, but to give the cast a platform from which the drama can soar. "What matters most is that it feeds the actors and creates a world for them to be in, and serves their imaginations."

The result, says Slauson, is essentially a hidden documentary on cigar manufacture within the show's larger discourse on passion and romance: "There's a ton of action that is just infinitesimal detail that most people are not going to see. You'd have to see it 10 times before you'd have seen all the different little actions."


'Anna in the Tropics'

Where: South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Tuesdays-Fridays, 7:45 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 and 7:45 p.m.

Ends: Oct. 25

Price: $27-$55

Contact: (714) 708-5555

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