“Anna in the Tropics” brings art of storytelling to the stage

“Anna in the Tropics,” the Yale Dramat’s first show of the season, brings both Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” and the Cuban immigrant experience to life.
“Anna in the Tropics,” the Yale Dramat’s first show of the season, brings both Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” and the Cuban immigrant experience to life. Photo by William Freedberg.

At the Yale Dramat’s first show of the season, audience members will see the complexity of the Cuban immigrant experience and the practice of storytelling converge on stage.

“Anna in the Tropics,” directed by Eric Sirakian ’15 and produced by Douglas Streat ’16, opens Thursday at the Yale Repertory Theater. The 2003 Pulitzer-prize winning play was written by former Yale School of Drama professor Nilo Cruz, and tells the story of workers in a cigar factory near Tampa, Florida.

As they hand-roll the cigars, the workers listen to a lector read out loud Leo Tolstoy’s classic “Anna Karenina,” and the Russian novel’s forbidden love storyline eventually unleashes their deepest and most suppressed desires.

Sirakian and Streat, who pitched the idea for the play to the Dramat Executive Board last spring, said they suggested “Anna” because it engages with the immigrant experience, which many members of the Yale community can relate to. Streat said he is particularly sensitive to the experiences of immigrants to the U.S. because he has seen his mother struggle to adapt her Colombian heritage to an American reality.

“We call ourselves a melting pot but in a lot of ways, as much as that means we combine our traditions, we also lose a lot of [them],” Streat said. “This play totally speaks to that.”

Sirakian said he is excited about the play’s use of narrative because the technique is both powerful and relatable. He described the play as a “real celebration of storytelling,” adding that the characters of the factory workers become so engrossed in the story of “Anna Karenina” that they begin to mimic the novel’s plot. The budding romance between the characters Conchita and Juan Julian, for instance, develops parallel to the affair between Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky.

Sirakian’s decision to screen short vignettes that call to mind the Russian novel’s plot at the back of the stage each time the lector reads to the workers is a testament to his appreciation of the art of storytelling and its role in the play. During the performance, a quartet will play a medley of Cuban street music and interact with the cast as background actors.

“Because we’re not reading the whole novel [during the play], we wanted some kind of visual support to allow our audience to experience that feeling [of] total immersion in the story that the characters in the play experience,” Sirakian said.

At the same time, Sirakian said he envisions the Tolstoy novel’s presence on stage as “transient, dreamlike [and] ephemeral,” an effect he said he thinks the crew will achieve through the screenings. The projector screen melds with the back wall of the set, representing the collision of two worlds — the world of Karenina and the one of the workers.

Sirakian and Streat envision the play as more than just a piece of theatre — they think of it as a tribute to the fields of literature, music and film. Cast and crew members as well as other interested members of the Yale community gathered on Cross Campus last weekend to stage a marathon public reading of the Russian novel in anticipation of the play’s premiere.

The play broke new ground with a scene in which a cigar remains lit on stage for roughly one minute. This is unconventional for a Dramat production since Yale College’s fire safety undergraduate production regulations stipulate that open flame is prohibited on stage. In order to stay true to the play’s script, Sirakian and Streat eventually secured permission for a one-time exception to this rule.

“[The cigar lighting] is just a moment of pure, unbridled joy … and it’s so necessary,” Sirakian said. “The artistic merits of this moment warranted this very special and rare exception.”

“Anna in the Tropics” will open on Thursday at 8 p.m. and will play at the Yale Repertory Theatre through Saturday.

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