Her one-person play demonstrates Carmen Pelaez to be an entertainer of considerable merit and a sly sense of humor. If fault is to be found in her performance, it is that its scope is rather narrow.
Pelaez plays five Cuban women, "as told to" a sixth, Camilla, a chunky Cuban-American girl with an ambition to be a supermodel. (She's confident that fashions in weight will come full circle, and the late-Renoir look will come back in style. But she can't be a supermodel until she loses her virginity, which is her next most pressing obsession.) Her characters include an aging emigree aunt, a psychic, a Cuban hooker who supports an ungrateful (and condemning) family, and a dancer at the famous Tropicana club of Havana who has fallen to working in the ladies' room, folding and selling toilet paper.
Two important critical criteria for such a show are the degree to which the artist separates the characters and the overall emotional range, often measured from the heights of comedy to the depths of some emotional or dramatic climax. That all the characters are Cuban or Cuban-American women is a built-in handicap for the first criterion. The emotional range, as measured from Camilla's self-deprecating humor as a fat would-be supermodel to the proud debasement of the brave hooker, is a similar built-in handicap. The dramatic focus of the piece is also fuzzy, as it could be interpreted as the realization that Cubans (in Cuba) are alienated from the finest things Cuban (they're not allowed in the tourist traps like the Tropicana, except as workers), or the realization that Cuban-Americans can never call America home and are not allowed to visit Cuba. (Pelaez was allowed in on humanitarian grounds, to visit an aging aunt.)
Still, Pelaez's characters are at once funny and touching, and the subject matter is sufficiently different to be interesting in its own right.
The set (lighting and set design, Christopher Landy) comprised a vine-strewn trellis with back-lighting, a white-painted wicker chair, a microphone on a heavy stand, and dirty, diamond-painted floor. The microphone was there to establish the supermodel/narrator character; the stand was there to be pushed over at one point. The stand got in the way and could have been dispensed with; ditto the microphone, as it tempted Pelaez into an intimate speech in which her diction tended to disintegrate. (She also sometimes emphasized words in nondramatic places, like "You'd swear the sun was setting on top of our house," instead of "You'd swear the sun was setting on top of our house.") The trellis, tilted toward the audience, produced a comical effect in foreshortening the actress's shadow when she went backstage to change into the psychic wig, for no discernibly dramatic reason. The lighting, with the exception of a spotlight that lent a yellowish cast to Pelaez's face, was subtle and helped establish the various moods. The Cuban music hit the right notes throughout.
Copyright 1997 John Chatterton