King of Cuba is having its World Premiere at Berkeley’s Central Works Theatre, directed by Central Works co-director Gary Graves. Writer Cristina Garcia has been wrestling with Cuban politics most of her life. In the play’s program notes, she states that half her family left Cuba and its “new revolution” when she was three while the other half, by choice, stayed behind. Her maternal grandmother backed Fidel Castro while Garcia’s mother was a “passionate opponent.” King of Cuba was originally Cristina Garcia’s dark, satirical comedic novel from which she adapted into the eponymous play. Her struggle to come to terms with the conflict, which engendered bad blood, near unsolvable problems, and seemingly never-ending propaganda for over sixty years gave her the impetus to come to terms with the “intransigencies on both sides of this political divide,” resulted in her writing her novel.
The casting of noted national and internationally revered writer/performer, monologist and stand-up comedian, Marga Gomez as El Comandante, is a definite draw. It was about a third of the way into the play before I realized with a start that the actor with the short, grey hair, wearing fatigues was she. Evidently reading the cast list that Gomez, billed as El Comandante, didn’t sink in, so used to seeing her alone on stage regaling us with her bitingly, hysterically funny takes on life as an urban, openly gay, Latina of Cubana/Puerto Rican heritage. The rest of the talented, small, and mostly Latinx cast, most from the Bay Area, has had years of experience having racked up an impressive range of rôles both here and abroad. However, three of the actors are tasked with playing more two or more characters. In fact, Leticia Duarte had to create believable, well-rounded deliveries for nine characters, plus an off-stage voice, with and without Spanish accents. I felt that this doubling, tripling of parts made much of the action confusing and, at times, rendered the play difficult to follow. Also. to differentiate, or clarify, actions and times, required a plethora of exits and entrances which exacerbated the confusion. The action covers a long time period in which character had to portray the aging process. Also, elements of magical-realism are introduced where deceased family members suddenly appear who advise, admonish and converse with their living relatives. They speak and give advice to the living. Steve Ortiz, who plays Goyo, is in practically every scene as Fidel’s long time compadre. He is an exile living grudgingly in Miami; unfortunately, Ortiz delivered his content-rich lines almost in monotones, regardless of the subject matter, especially the issue of old age. I’ve seen him in other plays where this was not the case; he must have had an off-night.
Central Works’ “stage” is a long, narrow, rectangular space with audience seated on two sides and at one end. Its productions are spare on sets and props which allows for concentration on the characters, dialogue and plot. The director utilizes existing exits. Debbi Shelly is a creative property manager in that she suggests a men’s room urinal with a couple of retractable chrome levers with sound effects by Gregory Scharpen. Chairs and small tables are arranged as needed. The play is enhanced by the award-winning Latin percussionist Carlos Caro on bongos, whose musical accents can be heard as a dialogue with the actors.
Central Works Theatre is located in famed architect Julia Morgan’s Berkeley City Club on Durant off Shattuck. King of Cuba has been extended through August 26. Thursday, 8/23 @ 8PM though Sunday, August 26, at 5PM. Go to: CentralWorks.org for more info and tickets.