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THEATER REVIEW

A Cuban daughter's gripping story

January 18, 2007|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

ACTOR and playwright Marissa Chibas seems to be standing entirely underwater in the opening scene of "Daughter of a Cuban Revolutionary," her powerful one-woman show that previewed Tuesday at REDCAT in downtown Los Angeles. She is drowning and sharing the stream of thoughts flooding her mind as she floats between life and death, oblivion and fulfillment.

The near-drowning -- re-created economically but effectively through waves of blueish light rippling on the stage -- actually happened to Chibas during a trip to the Venezuelan Amazon. That dose of reality makes for chilling internal dialogue as she weighs whether to succumb to the peace of the deep or fight for her survival.

She gasps for air, eyes wide, mouth agape. It's the same expression we will see throughout the 70-minute play, each time a memory suddenly floods her with awareness, as if taking her breath away. In choosing life, Chibas discovers the drive to dive into her family's fascinating history in Cuba, lost to her through exile.

To live, she realizes, is to remember.

Cuba has held our attention both culturally and politically for almost half a century, since Fidel Castro took power. What could possibly be left to say about the island and its exiles that doesn't sound redundant?

Chibas manages to keep her story fresh by making it intensely personal as well as passionately political. Her narrative weaves through Cuba's byzantine pre-Castro politics with just enough explanation to avoid becoming a history lecture. But she hooks us emotionally at the outset, and we're right with her for the rest of her journey of self-discovery.

The actor tells her tale though three vivid characters. Her uncle Eddy Chibas was a fiery muckraker and popular presidential candidate who killed himself during one of his live weekly radio broadcasts. Her father, Raul Chibas, was a leader in Castro's revolution who soon became disillusioned and took refuge in New York. Her mother, Dalia Chibas, was an actress, socialite and runner-up for Miss Cuba 1959, a distinction that serves as the play's comic relief. ("Everybody said I should have won.")

Chibas has a remarkable gift for impersonation. In a split second, she embodies her various characters, like Robin Williams but with a purpose. Her spot-on accents and eye for subtle gestures breathe life into her characters, creating an illusion of the documentary she originally wanted to make.

At times, the effect is uproarious. In one delightful scene, her first dance lesson during a family party, she captures the quirks and idiosyncrasies of everybody's dance style, as a Beny More tune plays like a scratchy LP in the background. In another, she tells her atheist father she has become a Quaker, then draws laughter by capturing his instant reaction in a facial expression that is sour, skeptical, puzzled and disappointed all at the same time.

Opening night nerves may have led the star to stumble on a few words in the play's torrent of dialogue, but that didn't detract from her gripping performance. Chibas tells us she is the first in her family to return to the island, "going back to a place I have never been." Her visit unearths a tape of her uncle's final broadcast, which she dramatically reenacts by translating his impassioned words while the tape plays in Spanish. Three loud gunshots then reverberate through the small theater. Meanwhile, a long and narrow video screen spanning the set projects grainy newsreel footage of her uncle's massive funeral.

The kaleidoscopic montage captures the tumultuous meeting of memory, history and personality that is at the center of the play. At the end, Chibas is on her knees, sifting the sand and singing "Todos Vuelven" (Everybody Returns), the nostalgic Peruvian song about the pull of the past, popularized by Panamanian singer Ruben Blades.

Chibas, who heads the acting program at CalArts, had a captive audience of students for Tuesday's preview. The diverse crowd proved her performance is relevant to a universal audience, regardless of nationality. Because at the core, Chibas touches the human need to know who we are and where we come from.

agustin.gurza@latimes.com

*

`Marissa Chibas: Daughter of a Cuban Revolutionary'

Where: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles

When: 8:30 tonight through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday

Ends: Sunday

Price: $10 to $24

Info: (213) 237-2800; www.redcat.org

Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

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