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Ice cream, political ideology, and identity politics made for an irresistible mix in the Oscar-nominated 1992 film Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate), a modern-day Cuban fable about a dedicated young revolutionary, David, who learns the virtues of individualist thinking from a 40-ish Havana sissy named Diego. Senel Paz’s 1994 stage versionbased, like the picture, on his 1990 short story “The Wolf, the Forest and the New Man”is at once more intimate, more theatrical, and more predictable; in Gala Hispanic Theatre’s new Spanish-language production, it’s also less successful, at least for English-speaking audiences.
Granted, this last caveat is a big one. By all indications, most of the theatergoers at Gala’s Mount Pleasant playhouse last Sunday afternoon were having a rip-roaring good time. But then they were getting the story straight from the source: Cuban actor Vladimir Cruz, re-creating his student Stalinist role from the film, and his countryman Jorge Félix Alí, stepping into the embroidered slippers of Diego, a flighty but formidably cultured queen with a penchant for forbidden literature and contraband comestibles. (In Paz’s scheme, it’s only natural that Diego turns out to be the greater patriot.) The rest of the audience, though, had to rely on Gala’s simultaneous audio translationwhich, delivered without conviction or even discernible inflection, tended to undercut what appeared to be excellent work onstage.
This isn’t always the case at Gala. A few seasons back, Hugo Medrano directed and starred in a Kiss of the Spider Woman that lost none of its bite in translation, primarily because the voices in the headset gave line readings so natural and nuanced that they eventually became transparent, like the subtitles to a particularly engrossing foreign film; it was easy to listen to and appreciate the rhythms of the Spanish without being distracted by the translations.
Here, though, Ric Herrera and Chuck Lipman race ahead of the actors in slow scenes and fall badly behind when the action gets intense; it’s like watching one of those badly dubbed ’70s kung-fu flicks, except less agreeably cheesy. In one particularly dramatic confrontation at Sunday’s performance, Herrera and Lipman got discombobulated enough to drop a whole chunk of dialogue. (To their slender credit, they’re apparently aware of their shortcomings: “This is the tough part,” one whispered frantically to the other just before the critical scene. And afterward: “I’m Diego now, right?” Several in the audience tittered at this, which no doubt unnerved the actors.)
This is a doubly distressing shortcoming in a production as otherwise stylish as this one. Gala has clearly spent some serious money on Tony Cisek’s lavishly arched and comfortably appointed set (though Luis Baltierra’s sound seems a little aggressive), and the principal cast members, at least to the uneducated ear, handle snappy repartee and reflective monologues with equal aplomb. Ali may not be quite as sensitive an actor as Jorge Perugorria, the film’s Diego, and there are times when his sissy act seems a little studied, but he still manages by evening’s end to create a character with a convincing sense of his own dignity. Though he has apparently worked in both mediums, the doe-eyed Cruz seems perhaps more comfortable with cinema’s subtler acting style than with theater’s extroverted gestures; still, his is a solid characterization, too.
Medrano’s brisk, unstudied direction brings the one-act play in at just over an hour-and-a-half, but he and his cast don’t stint on the little touches that make memorable drama. The script, for instance, calls for David to shower vigorously after Diego first attempts to seduce him. His militantly revolutionary roommate, Miguel, to whom he has described the encounter, walks in and tells him he has “figured out what we must do.” In this staging, David starts visibly at those words, assuming that now Miguel, too, is coming on to him; the moment underscores the way rigid conformity can breed paranoia, the way insecurity can breed intolerance.
What will most surprise Gala theatergoers who’ve seen the film but not read the story is that this is essentially a two-character play. Nancy, the brittle and lovely ex-prostitute neighbor portrayed vividly in the film by Mirta Ibarra, isn’t anywhere in evidence here; Colombian-born New Yorker Juan Pablo Shuk scowls sexily as Miguel, and there’s a teeny part for Cuban actress Gilda Guerra as a waitress who helps fill in narrative gaps in one of those across-the-footlights speeches. But they’re bit players; all the versions of Fresa are about the clash of two worldviews, and in doing away with Nancy, who seduced David physically while Diego won his heart and mind, Paz has forced the play’s focus exclusively onto his two main concerns: the unlikely relationship and deep mutual respect that develop between the two men, and the political system that denies both of them their full freedom. Sadly, he has also eliminated an enchanting subplot and a prime source of ambiguity, robbing the play of much of the unpredictability that made the film so quirkyand so delicious.CP