PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 22.3 (2000) 72-76
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Dancing in Place
Maria Irene Fornes, Letters from Cuba, directed by the author. Signature Theater, NYC, February-March 2000.
I've been saying words in my head to see if word spirits would come,
like move in, like to join other words that were there.
If they would do that then, to see if they would come in to form a poem. I think that's how poems get written."
-- Joseph to Marc (from unpublished manuscript, Letters from Cuba)
Words fall in space. Letters travel through the air. A young woman dances as if her very soul depended on it for life, for survival. Two young men circle her in a dance of infatuation, love, and yearning. A brother haunts his sister from Cuba with letters that will not bend to her will.
In February of this year, Signature Theatre Company in New York closed its 1999-2000 season devoted to the work of Maria Irene Fornes (a season that included re-stagings of Mud, Drowning, and Enter the Night) with the world premiere of her new play Letters from Cuba. An hour in length the play seemed slight, tender, and whimsical against the bleak New York winter light. However, its seeming slightness did not betray its wisdom and grace, which accumulated over the play's duration to produce an almost overwhelmingly emotional feeling in the audience. Once again, Fornes, through her meticulous staging, her eye for gestural detail, and her ability to elicit open, honest performances from her actors had worked slender theatrical magic.
A play that begins with the line "How does one write a poem?" puts us immediately in a reflective mode. Letters from Cuba is as much a reflection on the act of creation, as it is on memory and how it inhabits a mental space that is active despite an individual's choice to acknowledge it or not. At the center of the play is a young Cuban woman named Fran (Tai Jimenez), who is a dancer. It is clear she has recently emigrated to the US and, more specifically, to New York City, from Cuba, and is trying to make [End Page 72] her way in a new country both as an artist and as a woman. She expresses herself almost exclusively through movement. Her body is her text, and through it we see a whole life, a history of yearning and buried pain. Memory is in the body, in the sinews of the flesh. The letters that her brother Luis (Chris de Oni) writes to her from Cuba are enacted on a rooftop--another evocation of mental space--and sometimes the only way Fran can reply to her brother is through her art, her dancing. Art, then, becomes the conduit for personal communication, for expressions of private thought. Throughout the play, the question that is asked at the beginning is answered several times over. A poem can be written in many ways and forms. It can serve many purposes, but what is important is that it is breathing.
Constructed as a series of seemingly disconnected scenes--a "vaudeville"--the play toys with an audience's expected notions of plot and character. Fran's two roommates Joseph (Peter Starrett) and Marc (Matthew Floyd Miller) vie for her affections. It is a classic triangle, which Fornes has often explored in her work from Tango Palace to Mud to Abingdon Square. Here, however, the triangle does not disrupt the lives of the characters. There is no havoc, and relatively little cost. Instead, the three dance around each other lightly, fluidly, and carefully. Love in this play is as much a mental construct as it is a possible blooming thing. Joseph and Marc are infatuated with Fran, with her "otherness." She is the eternal exotic, the embodiment of Latin sensuality against their more WASPish (despite their bohemian sensibilities) natures. Fornes sets up a classic trope and spins it with economy and wit. The men here can't help but be boys. Their actions are tender...