The profound ecstasy of a free breath

Artists Rep's taut "Exiles" rides a tense and complex freedom boat out of Castro's Cuba, toward … what?

In the iconography created for us by the advertising industry, America is epitomized by those canonical products of wholesomeness: baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet. Strange, though, that the gods of Madison Avenue, with all their insight into our values and desires, did not think to include Vicks VapoRub.

For one of the characters in the Carlos Lacámara play Exiles, which opened Saturday night at Artists Rep, Vicks is one of those little – we might foolishly say negligible – things that represent a time past, a world changed and a life lost.

Living in Castro’s Cuba, this poor man has spent 20 years suffering the twin repressions of communism and hay fever.

It doesn’t help, of course, that he’s also profoundly mentally ill. So much so that when Exiles opens, he is tied to the railing of the sport-fishing boat where the play’s main action takes place. So much so that the script identifies him only as “the Lunatic.”

Bobby Bermea, taking a seat on the boat toward Vicks: the cogent Lunatic. Photo: Owen Carey

Bobby Bermea, taking a seat on the boat toward Vicks: the cogent Lunatic. Photo: Owen Carey

Nonetheless, he’s articulate in his derangement, so that the insidious forces of consumerism and nasal congestion lead him not just to memories of Vicks but to an almost Jeffersonian longing for “the profound ecstasy of a free breath.” Whereupon the even more insidious force of communist indoctrination quickly offers up an equally eloquent corrective: “That’s the pipe-dream that tempts us away from the path of virtue.”

As it turns out, freedom, virtue, and the prices we pay for them are the central issues in Exiles, a gripping combination of political drama and family squabble, given a taut, vivid production here by artistic director Dámaso Rodriguez.

The boat (an impressively realistic yet playable space by scenic designer Megan Wilkerson) in this storm-tossed tale belongs to Rolando, a Miami Cadillac dealer taking part in the 1980 Mariel Boatlift, during which Cubans briefly were allowed to leave the country. With his son, Roli, he went to retrieve his ailing mother, but instead has been forced to take on less desirable passengers: his brother-in-law Joaquin, once his best friend but now an object of contempt; Joaquin’s teenage daughter Saadia, sea-sick, sullen and wishing she could stay in Cuba; Pepito, fresh out of prison, tattooed and quietly intense; and the Lunatic, a former ad-agency artist, broken by his “re-education” for minor transgressions against the Revolution (a previous Lacámara play, Havana Bourgeois, tells the story of the Lunatic, then called Manuel, in the early years of the Castro regime). Dialogue on the boat occasionally tips the Lunatic into memories of persecution or fantasies of escape, and Rodriguez shows an especially sure hand in keeping the transitions clear and in rhythm as we drop out of the main action and into the mind of one character.

The situation is tense from the start. A storm has knocked the boat off course and flooded the engine, leaving Rolando and company dangerously adrift. When the play premiered in Los Angeles in 2010, a reviewer for the LA Weekly griped that “the breakdown of the boat seems like a forced plot development to keep the characters from being able to get anywhere.” But that’s not just so they have to talk to each other longer, it’s metaphorically apt. To the Cubans (except for the young innocent Saadia), their whole island feels like a stranded vessel, a trap in the middle of the sea. Rolando, by contrast, is bedeviled by the crosscurrents of his own bitterness and guilt, unable to steer the fate of those he loves most.

Surely the worry and frustration of their predicament heightens tensions, but even if this bunch were zipping to Miami on an America’s Cup winner they’d still be at each other’s throats.

And perhaps the audience never feels stranded here because Rodriguez has streamlined a two-hour, two-act play into a brisk, intermission-less 90 minutes. What could have been a visually static set benefits from the casters that allow the boat to be re-positioned from scene to scene, and from projections (by Megan Wilkerson) and lighting (by Peter West) that evoke waves, night skies and other atmospheric or narrative elements.

Rodriguez draws out some fine performances here. The main line of tension in the story – apart from whether they’ll find some way to make land before running out of food and water – is between Rolando and Joaquin. As Rolando, whose success in America seems only to have stoked his anti-Castro fury, Andrés Alcalá is a cauldron of spit and sarcasm, where the husks of old pains have settled to the bottom. Jason Glick as Joaquin is at first cowed by his former pal’s combativeness, but shows over time that what others might see as weakness is a weary caution shaped by his own more acute losses.

John San Nicolas, such a standout on this stage last season in The Motherfucker With the Hat, is a quieter presence this time, giving Pepito a mixture of Everydude cool and understated menace. And young actors Rafael Miguel and Sekai Edwards impart the right kind of bouncy dorkiness and bored dignity, respectively, to their teen characters.

The choice role, though, is the Lunatic, and Bobby Bermea finds the flow in mercurial shifts from paranoia to politeness, from frantic despair to impish wit. As broken as he is, he’s immensely likable, not pitiable, even as we see how politics and life have extracted a greater sacrifice from him than from the others. And anyway, we come to see that in certain very meaningful ways, he’s not so crazy after all. More than anything, he just wants to catch a breath.

One Response.

  1. Nicole Lane says:

    To note, both the projections and the set were designed by Megan Wilkerson Designs, light design by Peter West!

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