The Yale Cabaret’s mission statement this year is “a gauntlet thrown in the face of our future.” But its current production, “The Surrender Tree,” more aptly portrays the gauntlet thrown in the face of our past. The play is a staged-adaptation of a Spanish and English children’s book by Margarita Engle about the Cuban War of Independence.
It begins with a monologue over atmospheric, psychedelic music, which transitions into an intricately choreographed dance routine punctuated by castanets, wind chimes and the rattlesnakey vibraslap. The dance features each actor in turn receiving his or her mask to wear throughout the rest of the show, beautifully and intricately designed by Susan Stanton DRA ’10.
Director Rachel Spencer DRA ’10 and a company of her peers have adapted and staged what they call a “devised work” — a work designed collectively by the cast, crew and design team. Engle’s potent verse dispels any worry that too many cooks in the kitchen might yield an unfocused production.
The text is clear, short and overwhelmingly powerful, with wicked lines describing bounty collections of ears “shown as proof that the runaway slave died fighting, resisting capture.” Audience members who do not speak Spanish will have no trouble anglophiling the occasional Spanish dialogue. The actors quickly translate complex Spanish verse into English. The show is mostly narrated in a series of monologues of free-verse English.
Through the lens of Rosa, a witch-healer living on the lam, Spencer and co. outline the story of the Cuban War of Independence in the late 19th century. Though most audiences will have scant and Castro-centric knowledge of Cuba, the story remains accessible to those who have little knowledge of the conflict. “The Surrender Tree” is as much about the human interactions behind the conflict as the war-torn conflict itself. Humanity, poverty, love and hate are treated uniformly well in a smorgasbord of parts.
Drawing us into her world of herbs, riddles, healing and love, Rosa — portrayed by Christina Acosta DRA ’10 — inspires the audience to question the worth of her indiscriminate healing. She heals slave-hunter Lieutenant Death (Blake Segal DRA ’11) only to be later betrayed by him.
The play asks many questions along the lines of “How do we know friend from enemy, slave from slave-master?” Often they switch sides, blurring the line between friend and foe even more. Even Lieutenant Death has dreams of ending the war and living on a farm with a “ROCKING CHAIR,” — spitting out sentiments like a rotten tooth.
The acting is superlative, as the Drama school players prove themselves capable of diverse and changing roles that drive the story. The actors alternately play howling wolves, legs-in-the-air puppies, slave masters, escaped slaves and hilariously head-bopping iguanas to create a multi-dimensional work.
The entire production is anchored with the standout supporting performance of Ben Horner DRA ’11, who, though limited to only a few lines in the whole show, overtakes the stage with his physical presence. In “The Surrender Tree,” Horner portrays a compassionate church volunteer who buries dead-bodies just as ably as the cold-blooded killer who creates them.
The female cohort is equally able, featuring two actresses (Irene Lucio DRA ’11 and Acosta) who have a masterful knowledge of Spanish. Though the actresses’ Cuban (“Coo-ban”) English initially seems a little contrived and Dora the Explorer-esque, it becomes more natural as the play progresses.
The consistent elements of song and dance in “The Surrender Tree” usually mesh well with the dialogue, making the performance a viscerally appealing experience. The show urges your body to move just as much as it challenges your mind to analyze the complex issues in the text. The play concludes with open and morbid questions, like “How can I decide whether to weep […] or to celebrate the end of Cuba’s re-concentration?”
Peace cannot be the paradise the characters imagine but at least it gives the audience a chance to dream.
“The Surrender Tree” will be performed on Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m. at the Yale Cabaret, located on 217 Park Street.