I feel really lucky to have seen Arena Stage’s new play Celia and Fidel right before it — and much of the world — shut down over fears of spreading the coronavirus. Arena canceled the rest of its season Wednesday and hasn’t specified when the show might be revived, but whenever that is, make seeing this one of your return-to-society priorities.
The 200-something-seat Kogod Cradle is by far the smallest of Arena’s three performance spaces (it always seems like it’d be perfect for chamber music, and this play is a kind of political chamber music), but even it was only half-full at last week’s press night, which made your heart go out to the cast and crew who 1. Were giving their all and 2. Have a real winner on their hands.
Havana, April 1980. Longtime leader Fidel Castro (a spellbinding Andhy Mendez) is riding high over his interventionist efforts in Angola when suddenly thousands of oppressed Cubans storm the Peruvian Embassy, demanding asylum. With the backdrop of an aggressive but attractive offer from Manolo, an envoy of the Carter administration (Liam Torres does a good job blending smarmy and reasonable), Castro spends most of the show’s runtime conferring, plotting, and reminiscing with two trusted advisers: the young Consuelo (Heather Velazquez finds a delicate balance between clear-eyed intelligence and true-believer fervor) and real-life fellow old-school revolutionary Celia Sánchez (Marian Licha makes you believe she’s truly lived history).
But there’s a twist: Celia died months ago (lung cancer killed the actual Sánchez in January 1980). Cuba’s leader-for-life appears to be talking to a ghost that (at first) no one else can see, a magical realism device that not only works better than you might expect, it finds rich founts of both comedy and pathos. One of the biggest laughs of the night comes when Consuelo wags her finger at Fidel for engaging in such romantic ideas: You’ve been reading too much Gabriel García Márquez, she scolds, and spiritualism and socialism don’t mix.
Performances in D.C. theatrical productions are typically pretty darn reliable — it’s rare for a truly “bad” one to make it all the way on stage — but these four actors unquestionably raise the average. Far more common is to see talented actors doing their best with a deeply flawed script — but that ain’t a problem with this new one by Cuba native Eduardo Machado. Machado has written my favorite kind of straight play: equal parts smart and fun, and it paints a sympathetic portrait of Castro without ever forgetting all the blood on his hands. Director Molly Smith, too, has done a terrific job, coaching a cohesive vision out of her designers and cast, and helping a story with tremendous emotional range never feel too wild or chaotic.
2020 presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) put his foot in it recently when he tried to talk about some of the good things the Castro regime has done for Cuba: its literacy program, for example. Turns out people are only but so impressed with universal health care when you keep gay people in camps and criticizing the party in power is illegal. Celia and Fidel presents Castro as a deeply complicated man. I do hope you get to see it soon.
The revolution may not be televised, but if it’s this good on stage, who needs the TV?