“El Huracán”: The Script Can’t Compete with the Magic
The first, and among the loveliest scenes in Charise Castro Smith’s world premiere, “El Huracán,” running at Yale Repertory Theatre through October 20th, is a magic show set at the Tropicana in Havana, Cuba, during Frank Sinatra’s time. As Old Blue Eyes sings “Come Fly With Me,” a beautiful brunette woman in an electric blue chiffon evening dress—halter bodice and bouffant skirt—combines ballroom dancing (with her dashing, tuxedo-clad assistant) with magic tricks: a top hat produces brightly colored scarves; scarves become red roses; roses disappear, the scarves return, and white doves fly out of them into the sky. Most striking and delightful, though, is the playful, winking charm of the woman: she is supremely confident, but in the way of a child having the time of her life.
As we learn in the ensuing scenes, this was, in fact, the most wonderful time in the life of Valeria, who is now in the midst of Alzheimer’s disease and living with her daughter, Ximena, in Miami—the Miami of 1992, about to be decimated by Hurricane Andrew. Ximena’s daughter, Miranda, has come home from college to help her mother and to try to re-connect with a grandmother she barely knows and who no longer recognizes her.
Completing this group is Fernando, the boy that Miranda grew up with and who not-so-secretly had a crush on her; Valeria’s frolicsome, effervescent sister, Alicia, who flits in and out of the action, ominously young; and a shadowy middle-aged man who walks endlessly around the circular playing space: Alonso, who was once Valeria’s husband and magician’s assistant, and is now a memory—sometimes a memory of love and passion, often-times a memory that fills her with the anguish of loss.
As the family waits out the storm (which, of course, acts as a metaphor for relationships and for the fragmented past that swirls within Valeria’s mind), an unforgiveable action drives grandmother, mother, and daughter apart. When we see Ximena and Miranda again, we are in 2019, in the aftermath of the most devastating hurricane in history—Hurricane Penelope—which has flooded even the highest ground in Florida and irreparably damaged Ximena’s home.
The makings of a high-stakes drama are somewhere here, and yes, it is intriguing and welcome that “El Huracán” is set amidst Latinx culture and the characters speak both Spanish and English. However, once we see past the magic in director Laurie Woolery’s remarkable staging choices, and the special effects created by Scenic Designer Gerardo Dias Sanchez, Lighting Designer Nic Vincent, and Projection Designer Yaara Bar, we find that Castro Smith’s story has been told many times before. Too, its attempts to bring us into Valeria’s scattered state create unclear dramaturgy, and the script’s nods to the life-altering effects of climate change are more superficial than they are deeply and inexorably woven into these characters’ lives and motivations.
The glimpse into another culture is more successfully written, and certainly here, Woolery’s direction, in tandem with a group of remarkable performers, almost carries the evening. As the elderly Valeria, Adriana Sevahn Nichols is winsome and sparkling—until she breaks our hearts, over and over, with her shattered mind. Irene Sofia Lucio is the gorgeous young Valeria in the blue chiffon dress, as well as a cocky, funny college age Miranda, and the adult Miranda, weighed down with twenty-seven years of daily anguish. Maria-Christina Oliveras has been directed to play Ximena as a somewhat one-note character—perhaps in an attempt to capture the extent of her bone-deep weariness, caught, as she is, between caring for her very ill mother and trying to control her headstrong daughter. By contrast, Jennifer Parades is electrifying as Alicia; completely convincing as Dr. Kemper, testing Valeria’s memory; and as a key character we meet in the final scenes of the play.
The men are equally terrific. Arturo Soria plays Valeria’s young and handsome assistant and husband, Alonso, and provides some delightful humor as Fernando in his scenes with Young Valeria. And Jonathan Nichols, as the older Alonso, gives a complex and nuanced performance.
Woolery makes many brilliant directorial choices, and one of those is a kind of technical coup de theatre. Where normally there would be an intermission to signify time passing and, more practically, to allow two characters to don costumes and make-up that would appropriately age them, instead Woolery has these actors stay in character while dressers put them into their costumes in our full view. Instead of breaking our belief in the story being told, this choice brings us all the more intimately into it: this moment is the opposite of a magic trick: “See,” it tells us. “Aging looks like this.”
Unfortunately, the playwright, or Woolery, or both, don’t trust the audience like this again. At the end of the play, we receive the ultimate—and most disappointing—magic trick of all, and I do mean to emphasize the word “trick” here. This is not a story that can possibly have a happy ending, but apparently, Smith doesn’t believe that we can tolerate anything less. So she gives us a toe-tapping song that has no relation to Frank Sinatra, and that all but destroys the seriousness of the play’s themes in one phrase. If only climate change and Alzheimer’s disease could be solved so easily.