Saturday, October 9, 2010

Actors' Playhouse: The Color of Desire (5 reviews)

Actors' Playhouse opened the world premiere of Nilo Cruz's The Color of Desire on October 8, 2010.
Nilo Cruz, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright for Anna in the Tropics, creates a world full of lyricism in The Color of Desire, a new play set in Havana, 1960. As the revolution heats up, a dashing American businessman hires a young Cuban actress for a role unlike any she has ever played: the woman he loved and lost. A vibrant exploration of the lost love affair between America and Cuba, The Color of Desire tells a story of intrigue, seduction and the pursuit of freedom with both great humor and profound emotional resonance.
David Arisco directed a cast that included Jim Ballard, Hania Guillen, Isable Moreno, Tersa Maria Rojas, Barbara Sloan, Sandor Juan, and Nick Duckart.

Mary Damiano reviewed for South Florida Gay News:
Belen falls in love with Preston (strappingly sexy Jim Ballard) a wealthy American whose business is threatened by Cuba’s new regime. Preston courts Belen, not because he is in love with her, but because he wants her to help him recapture a tempestuous love affair he once had with a woman to whom Belen bears a striking resemblance.
The Color of Desire lags when attention is drawn from Belen’s aunts (whose bickering banter lends a humorous touch) and the story of Belen and Preston, to ex-pat couple Caroline (Barbara Sloan) and Oscar (Michael Serratore).  As luminous as Sloan is and as funny as Serratore is, they detract from the real story.  These characters deserve their own play, but they don’t work as second fiddles here.
Guillen shines as Belen.  In the course of two hours, she transforms from an ebullient innocent to a wanton, bitter woman.  That transformation is illustrated by Ellis Tillman’s sumptuous costume design. 

But the reason to see The Color of Desire is the play itself.  Few playwrights are able to integrate poetry into dialogue, but Cruz is a master.  Don’t miss this world premiere production.
Roger Martin reviewed for Miami Artzine:
...this is really where The Color of Desire loses its punch. Too much is made of the history lessons and too little of Belén's and Preston's relationship .
It is in these scenes where Cruz's famed lyricism is most on display, and where the stylized movements and dialogue slow down to almost a crawl. Yet still we need more. More of the former love, the fantasy figure, and more of Belén who starts out as an innocent and changes so quickly. And more, too, from Preston, who prefers fantasy to reality. And less of the well-known politics from fifty years ago.
This show is typical of Actors' Playhouse dramas: wonderful production values and staging and yet sometimes strangely wooden and desultory performances from the very professional actors.
Bill Hirschman reviewed for South Florida Theatre Review:
Cruz creates a premise that is intellectually dazzling and emotionally thrilling. But the actual execution, on paper and on the stage, ebbed and flowed unevenly at the world premiere Friday at Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables.
...the play meanders aimlessly until Preston reveals his proposal. And even then it’s not especially compelling until the couple make their first descent into the fantasy. That’s when Cruz’s genius meshes with David Arisco’s direction and the leads’ acting: The audience is as off-balance as the characters. We do not know if we are watching a recreation in the real world or a fantasy playing in his mind (or her mind) or a time traveler’s spying of the actual events in the past. It is an electrifying hall of mirrors scene worth the entire evening.

What simply does not work – and desperately needs to – is the growing dread of the impending and encroaching disaster.
Ballard, a fine actor in many shows, is only convincing here when lost in the fantasy and when he finally realizes his cherished life has been appropriated by the revolution. The rest of the time, there is little charisma.
Guillen, a stage actress better known for her television credits, is breathtakingly beautiful, but she radiates little heat as the tamped-down Belen. Again, it is only when she impersonates the sultry Emilia that she fully inhabits a character and in her final scenes when she rails against her fate.
But Sloan pulls off an equally difficult assignment: making us feel a twinge of sympathy for the shallow Ugly American as her world dissolves when the state takes her home.
Despite its flaws, The Color of Desire offers inspired theatrical moments.
Christine Dolen reviewed for The Miami Herald:
Now getting its world premiere at Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables, Cruz's drama reflects, through the prism of its vividly rendered characters, a rapidly changing Havana circa 1960. Though it has a setting and era in common with Carlos Lacamara's Havana Bourgeois (which was also done at Actors'), this script is pure Cruz: artfully crafted, affectionately funny, sizzlingly passionate.
Under David Arisco's direction, the cast... beautifully serves the play.
Ballard, who looks Mad Men-handsome in suits, a dinner jacket and various states of undress, pulls off the feat of making a guy who is (let's get real) a married user into a mysteriously intriguing figure. The ethereal Guillen takes Belén on a journey from innocence to grand passion to ruined hunger, looking magnetically beautiful in even the simplest of the many gorgeous dresses costume designer Ellis Tillman has dreamed up for her.
Set designer Sean McClelland, lighting designer Patrick Tennent and sound designer Alexander Herrin conjure the different facets of Belén's world -- the costume shop, a simple nightclub with a view of both mountains and water, Preston's made-for-loving pad.

But ultimately, it is through the alchemy of an imaginative playwright's words that the audience travels back to a forever-altered place, a world in which dreams morphed into nightmares.

Brandon K. Thorp reviewed for the Miami New Times, and boy, did he seem to have a bad night out:

He rips into the director:
Arisco's love of the big and obvious makes him well suited to many musicals. His Urinetown was sublime (that show's considerable subtleties are encoded within the music itself), and his Les Miserables, though hardly my favorite production, was at least directed with a subtlety commensurate with the writing.  Nilo Cruz's The Color of Desire  is very much not a musical, yet Arisco cannot help but direct its actors in such a way that they seem, at every moment, on the verge of forming a kick line.
He slams the actors:
The actors are generally overearnest, and the ones who aren't overearnest are playing for the most obvious laughs. They know how to ape basic emotions with their faces, but they have no ability to incorporate these fleeting impressions into lifelike fictional beings.
He picks apart the Cuban accent of a Cuban actress:
Isabel Moreno speaks with a Cuban accent only on certain occasions, while on others her speech dissolves into a distinctively Northeastern whine... I cannot account for this, because Moreno lived in Cuba for decades.
He disses the playwright:
Cruz's play is probably about things such as identity and false consciousness, and the way totalitarianism can be practiced in miniature in the bedroom. But what it communicates most of all is the senselessness of producing a play's first draft. The script is full of howlers, each of which is made doubly offensive by the fact that its author once won a Pulitzer.
But by the second act, he liked the costumes:
...appealing details begin making their impressions — most notably Ellis Tilman's costumes, which, especially on the ladies, exemplify both the beauty and the ridiculousness of the decadence Cuba's revolution was meant to abolish.
And manages to bitch-slap the playwright while complimenting the smallest roles in the play: can enjoy Nick Duckart, one of SoFla's finest actors, confined here to three small, almost nonverbal roles. Absent Cruz's words, he is free to do as he will ....
Compare these reviews to those for Rising Action's Fit To Be Tied; does it seem odd that Brandon is taking a position so wildly contrary to more mainstream reviews?  I mean, disagreements are to be expected, but this approaches diametric opposition.

The Color of Desire plays at Actors' Playhouse through November 7, 2010.


  1. Brandon's reviews have YET to steer me wrong. Gotta respect a guy who doesn't feel the need to go with the crowd, the South Florida Theatre community could do with a few independently thought out voices in it's midst.

  2. One voice rarely gives you an accurate picture: subjectivity is bound to skew one viewpoint. But between may views, you can discern a glimmer of truth. Chisel way all the conflicting opinions, and whatever's left will the thing that all agree on, and that's the most likely to be true.
    But when one person is marching away from the band, it's rarely the majority that took the wrong turn. Not saying it doesn't happen, but it's very, very, rare.

    IMO. YMMV.

  3. But are the reviews of Fit to Be Tied all that different? Thorp, like Damiano and Dolen, acknowledges the bad overacting, the shrill and flat performance by St. John, and the helluva effort by Marsh. The major difference is that for Thorp, Marsh's role turned the play into camp. (Having seen plays at Rising Action, camp may be the best they can shoot for. May as well make lemonade out of lemons.) Dolen and Damiano, on the other hand, simply didn't find her performance to be enough to save it. That doesn't seem to be "marching away from the band." That's just the subjectivity you yourself were speaking of. It's not as Thorp is off in some La La land like you seem to suggest. The guys gets it right a LOT of the time, which is more than you can ask of any critic.

  4. As much as I like reading Brandon's articles, he doesn't "get it right" any more often than any critic. It may happen that you and he have a similar view point, but it's like arguing which is better: chocolate, or vanilla? You and he happen to like chocolate. But that doesn't appease the vanilla loving crowd.

    But to see camp in the crap that was FIT TO BE TIED? He should share whatever it is he's smoking. It might help me appreciate the tea baggers.