The production, which began in 2019 and ended abruptly with the onset of Covid-19, made its first full showing since then on October 8 at Arena Stage’s Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle. The night was a bustle of logistics as the original cast and creative team alike reunited to put on their show.
“Celia and Fidel” is seventh in Arena Stage’s series of “Power Plays,” an initiative commissioning and developing 25 new plays and musicals from 25 writers over the next 10 years.
The story follows Fidel Castro and the inner workings of his social and political relationships in the hours leading up to the 1980s Havana Peruvian Embassy Crisis, in which 10,000 Cuban citizens stormed the gates of the Peruvian embassy in Havana seeking asylum from Castro’s tightening grip on power. Spurred by a deadlocked economy, the incident eventually led to over 120,000 citizens fleeing Cuba in the Mariel boatlift, a term describing the journey from Havana’s Mariel harbor to the USA between April 15 and October 31, 1980.
Coping with the recent death of his lover and right hand, Celia Sánchez (Marian Licha), Fidel Castro (Andhy Medez) begins to see and hear Celia again, as if she has returned from the dead to guide him through this unsettling time.
Though believing him to be crazy at first, Castro’s secretary Consuelo (Heather Velazquez) and childhood friend turned American envoy Manolo (Liam Torres) eventually become aware of Celia’s ghostly return as well. Their bereavement becomes short-lived joy, as Celia attempts to govern an increasingly emboldened Castro.
The entire two hour play is set solely in Castro’s office, a profoundly intimate space despite its utilitarian nature, and one which reminds audiences of Castro’s subtle and generous intellect. More than anything else, this production is a love story: a love triangle with Castro, Celia and Cuba herself. Consuelo grapples with her pious adoration for Castro and the feeling she will never be as good as Celia, but it becomes clear as the story progresses that Castro is merely a conduit for her love of Cuba.
Despite the seriousness of their circumstances, the play is adamantly funny. Humorous asides between ghostly Celia and Castro make ripe ground for comedic misunderstanding onstage, and Consuelo’s youth and intensity play wonderfully with Castro’s tired realism. Liam Torres as Manolo steals the show, an absolute delight of passion and life on stage.
Playwright Eduardo Machado’s story of Fidel Castro is unseen in American theatre or literature. Enduring anticommunist tensions reminiscent of McCarthyism means American audiences often only see Fidel Castro depicted one of two ways; the spiraling, unrestrained humanist, incapable of governing effectively, or the power hungry tyrant who would drive his own people into the ground to spite the USA. But Machado, a Cuban-born American, tells the story of a person rather than a scapegoat for anticommunist sentiment. Castro cries, laughs, dances, deliberates, struggles and celebrates. He makes decisions and regrets them. He mourns the loss of a lifelong love. Above all else, he is utterly and enduringly human.
“Celia and Fidel” runs now through November 21. Tickets are between $40-$95. Proof of vaccination and masks are required while inside the theatre.
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