Associate Connecticut Theatre Critic
Yale Repertory Theater’s stunning season opener “El Huracán” begins with a series of magic tricks. Valeria (Adriana Sevahn Nichols, captivating) finds herself on stage in front of large, billowing curtains. She’s elderly, frail and seems more than a bit confused about how she ended up there. She wanders around for a moment and then, poof, a black-and-white cane appears in her hand. The curtains come down and we are in The Tropicana nightclub. It is the early 1950s in Havana and a magic show is in progress. Colored scarfs vanish and white doves appear out of thin air, all to the strains of “Fly Me To The Moon.” The magician is a beautiful young woman in a blue dress. Valeria watches all of this from the sidelines, mimicking the magician’s moves until you slowly realize the two women are the same. Set-up, presentation, reveal. Repeat.
After the performer takes her bow, the tricks may be over, but the magic is just beginning. The blending of real and imaginary, illusion and reality are at the forefront of Charise Castro Smith’s intimate and poetic play, which is making its world premiere at the Rep in collaboration with The Sol Project, a company devoted to promoting Latinx voices. That’s because Valeria is in late-stage dementia and caught between the present and shards of her turbulent past, which materialize in vivid hallucinations. In the present, it’s 1992 and Hurricane Andrew is rapidly bearing down on Miami. Packing up Valeria’s coastal home is her tough daughter Ximena (Maria-Christina Oliveras) and granddaughter Miranda (Irene Sofia Lucio), a PhD student who fled Florida to reinvent herself on the east coast. In the past, Valeria revisits conversations with her beau-turned-husband Alonso (Arturo Soria) and her bikini-clad sister Alicia (Jennifer Paredes) back in Cuba.
Right from the start, communication is already breaking down. Ximena doesn’t comprehend why her daughter never calls or visits while Miranda barely remembers enough Spanish to understand her abuela. Because Valeria’s Spanish is (wisely) never subtitled, we too are left piecing together what she’s trying to express. When a flirty childhood friend of Miranda’s (also Soria) comes to board up their windows and wait out the storm, things come to a boiling point, resulting in an act of oversight that will haunt the family for many years.
In another director’s hands, “El Huracán” could veer too close to melodrama or stagnant family bickering, but Laurie Woolery’s precise and utterly gorgeous vision is so full of life and its own kind of magic tricks that the piece never feels anything other than authentically engaging. This is the type of work that, despite minimal sets and only six actors, you don’t want to blink and miss a new piece of subtle but emotionally gratifying staging. As the storm grows, so does Valeria’s visions and Woolery perfectly meshes these specters (including Jonathan Nichols as the older version of Alonso) into the 1992 family drama. Both past and present play out together, exploring the tragedies and joys that brought Valeria to Miami and from a successful stage magician to a hotel maid who hid her love of performing from everyone, including herself.
Adriana Sevahn Nichols is heartbreaking in these scenes, alternatively full of girlish life and untethered from reality. From her perfectly executed mannerisms to the far-away glint in her eyes when she performs a long-forgotten slight-of-hand trick. The whole cast is uniformly splendid, but its Sevahn Nichols’ performance that carries “El Huracán” and will stick with me long after the show’s 140-minute running time.
The play’s second half, a bit weaker although still fully satisfying, takes place 27 years later. A new storm is brewing. Old wounds are reopened when Miranda returns to Miami with her adult daughter (also Paredes). This time it’s Ximena who is grappling with memory loss and visions of her past. This time it’s Valeria acting as a tether to the afterlife. This time it’s Miranda who must be the caretaker.
The repetition isn’t the problem, as the play is replete with mirror images, but Castro Smith’s script becomes rushed and a bit underdeveloped in this section. With a slightly longer running time and perhaps an intermission to separate the two acts, the new characters (like Miranda’s daughter and a visiting Cuban relative) wouldn’t feel as much like playwriting tools and more like the fleshed-out characters from the first half. We’d also get an ending that feels less rushed, one that fully earns its catharsis. You might even say, through-out, that Castro Smith overplays her hand just a bit. Some dialogue feels excessively lyrical or on-the-nose. A play that uses an incoming storm as its central metaphor and has a main character named Miranda probably doesn’t need to have its character call the hurricane “a tempest.”
But those are all quibbles that set in after I left the theater. There wasn’t a moment in “El Huracán” I wasn’t fascinated by the story or mesmerized by Woolery’s fluid visuals. Or moved by Yaara Bar’s brilliant projections that seamlessly played on Gerardo Diaz Sánchez’s raked, circular platform set. Or captivated by the magic, both of the stage illusion variety and the more elusive use of that term.
“El Huracán” is a play not about tricks but about how memory itself is magic. The visions of Valeria’s long-lost sister are as much an illusion as any disappearing dove. Can we even trust our own memories or are the narratives we tell ourselves nothing more than sleight of hand?
But Castro Smith and Woolery take this a step further, as “El Huracán” extends the metaphor to the art of theater itself. What is theater but a grand magic trick? Through light and sound and misdirection, we are to sit in a dark room and believe that we’re witnessing a storm, that we’re transported to Miami, that the actions happening in front of us are authentic expressions of emotion rather than actors spitting out dialogue they’ve said dozens of times.
They make this clear, midway through, by stripping the set and its actors clean of any kind of forced authenticity. The walls of the set are hoisted into the fly space; the actors change costumes and wigs on stage with the help of black-clad crew members. The mechanic of the theater – set changes and lighting rigs and wing space – are in full view. It’s a startling transition but one key to “El Huracán’s” vision. Memory, like theater, is a recreation. It is trying to construct a narrative from vastly disparate parts. They have another thing in common too: they both need an audience to live on and not be forgotten.
“El Huracán” runs through October 20 at The Yale Repertory Theatre’s University Theater in New Haven, CT. For tickets or more information, visit www.yalerep.org.
Noah Golden is an associate theater critic and columnist for OnStage based near New Haven, CT. Throughout his life, he has been involved in many facets of theater from acting to directing to playing drums in the pit. When not in or writing about theater, Noah is a video producer and editor. Twitter: @NoahTheGolden.