Cruz Control: Cuban Playwright Takes Two Sisters From Sundance to the McCarter

Cruz Control: Cuban Playwright Takes Two Sisters From Sundance to the McCarter I'll clobber him if he comes up with just one more rewrite," says McCarter theatre's dramaturg Janice Paran. She has championed and been closely involved with the development of Two Sisters and a Piano, by thirty-nine year-old, Cuba-born playwright Nilo Cruz. The play will have its world premiere on the McCarter's main stage, Feb. 16-March 7.
Playwright Nilo Cruz; the postcard design for his new play, Two Sisters and a Piano.
Playwright Nilo Cruz; the postcard design for his new play, Two Sisters and a Piano.

I'll clobber him if he comes up with just one more rewrite," says McCarter theatre's dramaturg Janice Paran. She has championed and been closely involved with the development of Two Sisters and a Piano, by thirty-nine year-old, Cuba-born playwright Nilo Cruz. The play will have its world premiere on the McCarter's main stage, Feb. 16-March 7.

It isn't that anyone would really think Paran would physically assault Cruz or consider placing him under house arrest. Over the past two years she has mentored Cruz with both a hands-on initiative and a respectful distance, whichever seemed right at the time. Paran has a strong feeling that Two Sisters will be Cruz's "breakthrough play."

At the very core of Two Sisters is the reality of house arrest. The idea for Cruz's play came to him after reading about the experience of a Cuban writer, Maria Elena Cruz Varela who, along with other artists, sent a manifesto to Fidel Castro in the late 1980s asking him to embrace Perestroika. After being forced to eat the manifesto in front of a demonstrating crowd outside her home, Varela was sentenced to two years in prison. Released during the Pan-American Games, she was placed under house arrest so she could not speak about the regime to foreigners.

In Two Sisters, also set during the Pan American Games, Maria Celia, a writer and her younger sister Sofia, a pianist, have just served two years in prison. They are under house arrest during a time Cruz calls "the special period in Cuba when the Russians were pulling out." Passion infiltrates politics when a lieutenant assigned to their case becomes infatuated with Maria Celia, whose literature he has been reading.

Acknowledging that "a breakthrough" would be nice considering that his previous plays have not been as successful as he would like, Cruz says that particularly for the very emotional Cuban population in Miami, he has "to create a whole new vocabulary on how to expose the political situation without being too graphic. But like Puccini, I want my characters to wear their emotions on their sleeves." "How people escape from their oppression," Cruz says, "is a recurring theme in my plays." Cruz draws keenly from his own experience when he talks about his family, Cuban exiles who came penniless to "Little Havana" (Miami) with 10 year-old Nilo. His father got work in a shoe store and his mother in a purse factory. Cuba, nevertheless, and its people remain firmly implanted in Cruz's heart. "Cuba is so full of drama, there are endless things to write about," says Cruz, who also considers the situation of his sister, who still lives in Cuba and is only permitted to leave if her husband, who is of military age, remains.

It was five years ago that Paran first came across a play by Cruz called Night Train to Bolina. It was "the dreaminess that was linked with the deprivation of its characters, two children who love each in a war torn Latin-American country," and "the depth of feeling and intimacy that wasn't about a physical relationship" that Paran says arrested her. On the strength of that play, Paran commissioned Cruz to write a one-act play for the first season (1995) of McCarter's Second Stage On Stage Festival. Cruz so impressed everyone at McCarter with his short play entry, Madrigal, he was asked virtually on the spot to expand it into a full length play.

A Park In Our House was born at McCarter and later produced at the New York Theatre Workshop. In 1996, Cruz wrote a thirty-minute opus called Two Sisters and a Piano, this for another McCarter series devoted to radio plays, The Radio Stage. Although enamored of the radio style, Cruz, encouraged by Paran, would once again see a short play of his more fully realized in an expanded theatrical form. I asked Cruz if he found it difficult to expand a play written in a short form or for a different medium. "No, because even though the style of A Park In Our House was very fragmented and Two Sisters more linear, I just let the additional writing find its own form. I'm a more character driven than a plot-oriented writer. My language is very lyrical, and I try to find poetry in all my characters." That's not an unreasonable quest coming from the young man who has taught playwriting at Brown, the University where he also earned his MFA.

I asked Cruz why Latin-American, Hispanic playwrights are almost expected to write in a style that has been termed "magic realism." Cruz said he doesn't shy away from that term but would prefer to understand it as "realism that is magical."

With another commission from McCarter in hand, Cruz took the play to its next step. The first of several readings begin at McCarter. Although there were additional readings over the next two years at New York Theatre Workshop lab at Dartmouth (Hanover, NH), South Coast Rep, the Public Theatre and finally at the Sundance Theatre Lab, Paran remains Cruz's primary dramaturg. It was at Sundance where McCarter was invited to develop Two Sisters, one of its two projects -- the other one being Emily Mann's Meshugah (already given a main-stage production this season at McCarter).

Cruz admits that the many readings and workshops were overwhelming at times because "each theatre wants you to re-write your play the way they see it. I had to be like a horse with blinders in order to continue seeing my own vision." While Paran acknowledges the inherent dangers of getting too much input from too many sources during the creative process, she feels that in Cruz's case, he reacted in a positive way. For Cruz, the benefit of seeing the various drafts of his play done over and over with professional actors is not to be minimized. Because a play has to be heard and seen, Cruz says, "it was the actors, the musicality they find in the language, and the succeeding communion that in the long run was the most important part of the process.

"From my first memories, my life has been shaded by politics. I always ask what are the political surroundings of my characters?" After quoting at length from Marguerite Duras' philosophy on "political loss," Cruz says, "In my play, although the sisters can not leave their house, the two sisters maintain their individuality and live like queens. They create a different environment, their own political environment. Even in my classrooms, I always say, `Yes, you are writing about these characters, but what is the bigger political picture going on at the same time?'"

Paran and Cruz acknowledge that they developed a compatible way of working with each other. "He likes to talk things out with me," said Paran. By asking questions, Paran feels she has helped Cruz fully realize the play he had in mind. Nevertheless, Cruz maintains how important it is to have enough room for the play to write itself. Even as the trust and the input of a dramaturg are necessary during the initial readings, a workshop production eventually becomes essential.

Although McCarter's artistic director Emily Mann had spent the previous summer at the Sundance Festival as a sort of roaming mentor director, she was pleased when McCarter got a yes from the theatre lab at the Sundance Festival to develop both Mann's play, Meshugah and Cruz's Two Sisters The goal at Sundance, now run and newly re-organized by former La Jolla Playhouse dramaturg Robert Blacker, is to offer a creative environment for a productive collaboration between the playwright and the director. And unlike other play development groups, it is the director who submits the application for the play at Sundance.

Despite the fact that Cruz did not come with a director, Sundance was intrigued enough to give the project the go-ahead. Brian Kulick, currently The Public Theater's artistic associate and the director of the well received Timon of Athens, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park in the summer of 1996, was familiar with a previous Cruz play produced at the Public, Dancing On Her Knees. Cruz said Kulick loved Two Sisters when he read it and made the commitment to come aboard for the workshop.

At the end of what Paran says is a "very long three weeks," the director has the option to have the play given either a sit-down reading, a concert reading or a staged reading. This is followed by a round-table discussion between playwright, director, Blacker, other dramaturgs and participating theatre professionals. Although Paran was in London during Cruz's Sundance experience last July, she was able to get there for the final reading. Looking back, she admits "it was a labor intensive project for both Nilo and me." Also looking back, Cruz sees the agenda at Sundance as clearly one of process over product. In this safe environment, "without critics," Cruz confirms that the collaboration worked and that Kulick, whose work (A Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds) for the New York Shakespeare Festival Cruz has admired, is directing the McCarter production.

The four-character play features Marissa Chibas, who performed the role of Sofia at the Sundance Theater Lab; Ivonne Coll, who was last seen on Broadway in Lincoln Center Theater's production, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, as Maria Celia; Bobby Cannavale, who can be seen as Jack in Sidney Lumet's just-released film "Gloria," as Lieutenant Portunondo; and Gary Perez, who appeared in Cruz' A Park in Our House at New York Theatre Workshop, as Victor Manuel.

Paran contends there is a tendency for regional theatres to put the plays of the newer young writers on small second stages for an audience of 100. "When Two Sisters plays for an audience of 1,000, it will demonstrate the faith of a dramaturg, the power of the playwright, and the force of a director."

No one knows the importance of workshops and rewrites better than Cruz, who will attest that he has come through the process without a clobbering. There is no order placed for a house arrest when Cruz's twelfth (or is it fourteenth?) draft arrives for Paran's perusal. It reads "Final draft."

-- by Simon Saltzman
(Special to PBOL, by permission of the author and "This Month ON STAGE" magazine)