Lively cast makes the most of Cuba-set comedy ‘Clouds’
Four men, one woman, a vintage Cadillac, and miles and miles of hot, dusty roads on the island of Cuba, 10 years after the Revolution. Are they in Paradise or Hell, on the road to destiny or disaster? The answer is all of the above as the opinions of these characters—and the audience—shift like errant trade winds from moment to moment, in Michael Frayn’s comedy, “Clouds,” the lively inaugural production of the sixth season of Santa Cruz’s own Jewel Theatre Company.
British playwright and novelist Frayn, best known for the boisterous backstage comedy “Noises Off,” and the philosophical drama, “Copenhagen,” combines both comic and meditative elements in “Clouds,” one of his earliest plays. Directed with zest and clarity by Susan Myer Silton, the story is set in Castro’s Cuba in 1969; it imagines a combustible encounter between three Western capitalist outsiders, writers who have come to get the scoop on “the real Cuba,” and two native Cubanos, a bureaucrat and a working-class driver, who are squiring them around on a seven-day tour of the island.
Owen (played to snarky perfection by Shaun Carroll) is an uptight, perpetually harried and sarcastic British reporter writing a story for one of the fluffy Sunday “color mags” inserted into London newspapers. Nevertheless, he fiercely guards his exalted status as a “professional” journalist—unlike, for example, Mara (the dynamic Julie James). Another Brit, on assignment for a rival magazine, Mara is primarily a writer of fiction, a business roundly disparaged as “making up stories” by Owen, who clings to his outmoded Shavian opinion of “lady novelists.”
Complicating their already prickly relationship is Ed (a rip-roaring comic performance from Erik Gandolfi), an American from the University of Illinois working on a non-fiction book about Cuba. Big, bluff and hearty in the Hemingway mode, Ed thinks Cuba is “the greatest place in the world!” He speaks Spanish, and believes in immersing himself in the culture, whether chatting up a waitress in the bar, or grabbing a machete to help the workers cut sugar cane.
(As opposed to Owen, whose chief investigative method is to keep asking “stupid questions” in hopes of prompting an illuminating answer.)
Assigned to shepherd them all around is Angel (Jake Vincent), a minor official in the government PR department. Vincent grounds the production with a nicely evolved performance, first playing deadpan straight man to the more colorful outsiders, then working up to a wry poignancy as the one character capable of honest introspection as the story plays out. Rounding out the cast is Hilberto (a funny, appealing Yahel Townsend), the cheerful driver who speaks no English, has no clue what the others are nattering on about, and quietly barters anything he can get his hands on throughout the journey, from cigars, to a shovel to a small bunny.
The theme of the play is the way people from differing viewpoints project their own ideas on whatever they see, like kids making up shapes in the passing clouds. While the visiting writers profess their eagerness to get off the official circuit to uncover and expose the “truth” about Cuba, none of them actually does it, trooping dutifully from farm collective to fertilizer plant, ever more wrapped up in their own unfolding alliances, rivalries, and sexual tensions. The play also suggests that however new or enlightened the times seem to be (“the present is history!” opines Ed, who sees “the future” where Owen can only see dirt), humankind continues to be driven by reckless desires as old as time itself.
That said, Mara’s transition from demure divorcee writing romances in her kitchen to tropical temptress isn’t always credible in the text, although James plays her with verve and humor. The young Frayn, still trying to establish his comic rhythm as a playwright, is too fond of having his characters echo the same deadpan punch lines back and forth to each other, as if repetition made them funnier.
But Silton’s production is wonderfully inventive, especially given the intimate confines of the Broadway Playhouse. Mark Hopkins micro set design (six chairs, a low bench, and a table) is both functional and evocative (morphing into a bar, various hotel rooms, and, of course, that Cadillac in which they all spend so much time). He makes brilliant use of four simple gauze panels to define separate rooms, simultaneously onstage, behind which the characters clatter away at their typewriters, describing dueling versions of the day’s events. And a hilarious sequence of climactic blackouts concludes the production in high style.
Through Sunday, Sept. 26, at the Broadway Playhouse (at the Art League). Visit JewelTheatre.net, or call 454-1143.