Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

Anna in the Tropics
Passions Catch Fire in the Cigar Factory
Desert Rose Playhouse

Review by Rob Spiegel

Also see Dean's review of The Pericles Project, Rob's review of Dividing the Estate, Stephanie's review of Immortal Longings

Aaron Lade and Dagmar Garza
Photo by Elizabeth Goldfarb
The set-up of this Pulitzer Prize-winning play is centered in history. Through the 1920s, cigar rollers were entertained by lectors, well-dressed men who would read to the workers to ward off the boredom of the daylong repetitive work. The lectors were paid by the workers. This practice continued until the 1930s when automation replaced hand-rolling. The story of Anna in the Tropics takes place in a cigar-rolling factory in Ybor City, Florida, a section of Tampa where transplanted Cubans produced cigars.

In the Desert Rose Ploayhouse production, the play opens in split screen. On the right, the two brothers who own the factory, Chester (Carl Green) and Santiago (Jim Duran), are gambling. Santiago is on a losing streak, and Chester loans him money against additional shares in the factory. Santiago can't pay him back, which gives Chester control of the factory. On the left, Ophelia (Talia Pura) and her two daughters, Conchita (Dagmar Garza) and Marela (Alexandra Uranga), are waiting on the dock for the appearance of the new lector who is set to arrive by boat.

Juan Julian (Aaron Lade) the lector arrives immaculately dressed in a white Panama hat and a bright white suit. Lade is perfectly cast, since he is a two-time runner up for Colorado's Prettiest Man in Theater award. As can be expected, the women love him and the men detest him, particularly Conchita's husband Palomo and Chester, whose wife ran off with a lector years earlier.

During his first day on the job as lector, Juan begins reading "Anna Karenina" by Tolstoy. Tolstoy's story of forbidden love, betrayal, and emotional desperation begins to come alive among the characters of the cigar factory as Juan makes his way through the novel.

In her Director's Note, Wendy Jay explains that she chose Anna in the Tropics "because of the poetry of Nilo Cruz's writing." And beautiful it is. The writing was strong enough to garner the attention of the Pulitzer Prize committe in 2003, even though the play had only been performed at the New Theatre in Coral Gables and was up against tough competition that year from Edward Albee and Richard Greenberg.

The power of the play is in its luscious language and a fiery romanticism that doesn't spill into sentimentality. As the lector moves through "Anna Karenina," the characters' lives spin out of control in unpredictable ways. Some are enhanced by the disruption in their lives, while others are driven to desperation. And it's all very passionate.

Amid the swirling emotions, Kay keeps a steady hand even while bringing the action nose-to-nose with the audience. Gotta love a small theater's ability to spill drama into the aisles. All of the acting performances are solid, and a number are exceptional. Garza as Conchita the romantic lead oozes passion. She usually works behind the scenes, but is a treasure who needs to be out front more. Durden as Conchita's put-upon husband is excellent, as always, even though his role here is to hang back and smolder a bit.

Pura, Uranga, and Lade are new to me. They are all great. I'd like to see more of them. Duran is also very good, especially in his breakdown before his wife. Another terrific performance is Carl Green as the resentful bully of a boss. His use of a cigar as a personality prop is superb all through the production.

The set design by Garza—she's still behind the scenes even when she's the lead—is just right, trim but sufficiently detailed. The costumes, lighting, and music are spot on. Rogelio Fernandez provided dialect coaching, a role on the production sheet that always prompts a bit of a cringe. He has done a nice job with the cast. The accents are flawless to me.

Thanks yet again to the Desert Rose for bringing this Pulitzer Prize winning drama to Albuquerque.

Anna in the Tropics by Nilo Cruz, directed by Wendy Jay, will run at the Desert Rose Playhouse through May 22, 2016. Performances are on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 2:00. Tickets are $15 for general admission and $12 for students, seniors, ATC, and TLC. For reservations, call 505-881-0503 or visit

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