Theater Review - Havana nights

Day of the Kings makes soap opera out of Cuban history

Like New Orleans during Mardi Gras or Rio during Carnaval, 19th-century Havana surrendered its streets to the Day of the Kings festival. The Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6 provided one day a year when the country's slave population was free to dance, drink and celebrate with abandon.

The Alliance Theatre's world premiere of the historical melodrama Day of the Kings opens with masquerading revelers, but none proves so deeply disguised as Dr. Faber. With windswept, Byronic hair and a reserved manner, he's a dedicated physician and French expatriate - but he's not actually a "he." A doctor's educated widow, Faber (Katie Firth), passes as a man in Cuba to fulfill her passion for medicine, which was illegal for women of the day to practice.

The intriguing yet overheated play takes place on the Day of the Kings over three successive years in the early 1800s, as Dr. Faber successfully maintains her deception, yet burns with secret desire for Diego (Sandro Isaack), her strapping medical apprentice.

That's just one of the play's torrid storylines.

Day of the Kings also reveals the secret doings of overextended plantation owner Hector Nunez (Triney Sandoval), his formidable wife (Romi Dias) and their naive, rebellious daughter, Blanca (Maria Parra). The white-complexioned Nunez family surreptitiously crosses the color line when Hector has a bastard son with his black mistress (Crystal Porter) and Blanca educates house slave Esteban (Theroun Patterson).

Winner of Alliance's Graduate Playwriting Competition, playwright Daphne Greaves seems attracted to historic Cuba for its sharp divides between race, class and gender roles, and she engineers conflict to set them at odds. The fleeting liberties of the street festival make a pointed contrast with the social freedoms denied women and slaves.

But Greaves loads Day of the Kings with enough material for multiple plays, and the results are pure soap opera. With dialogue full of racing hearts and boiling blood, the play's title could just as easily be Forbidden Love! Greaves tries to recount so many stories that the characters lack dimension, and Hector and Diego amount to little more than tempestuous lunkheads.

The Nunez family subplots come at the expense of Dr. Faber. Based on an obscure yet fascinating historic figure, Faber should be a proto-feminist icon, yet the play focuses almost entirely on her passivity as she vacillates over her attraction to Diego. Day of the Kings finds humor when Diego gives the doctor comradely lessons in how to woo women, but Faber becomes too much a lovelorn cross-dresser, like Barbra Streisand's Yentl, and not enough of a female revolutionary, like George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan. Firth's performance only emphasizes her dithering tendencies.

Blanca may be a cliché of the poor little rich girl who resists her arranged marriage and envies the sensual ease of the "coloreds," but Parra nevertheless gives a heartfelt portrayal. When Esteban speaks of the inspiration he derives from Thomas Paine, Patterson hints at the slave's frustrated rage, but the script muddles his participation in offstage slave uprisings.

With telenovela-worthy scenes of torture, imprisonment, bedside confession and exposed secrets, Day of Kings veers further and further toward camp without seeming to realize it. Late in the second act, Maurice Ralston's drunken jailer gets laughs that feel tinged with relief, as if the audience finally has permission not to take the show so seriously.

Scott Bradley designed a lovely, Spanish-style set, but placed the stage so low that it has the worst sightlines I've ever seen in an Alliance production. When the actors sit on the furniture, they all but vanish from view. That could be a metaphor for the greater problems of Day of the Kings, a play rich with possibilities that loses sight of its most original and compelling qualities.


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