There are a couple of understood rules in theater criticism, which I will now throw out the window.
Rule One: A play is not reviewed after the run is completed. Printing a review of a play that the reader will be unable to see is pointless.
Rule Two: The ending is not divulged in the review. It makes people less likely to see the play.
Both of these rules serve their purpose but can be discarded as a pair to vengefully criticize a horrendous production that never should have been staged in the first place.
The run of Portland Center Stage’s "Anna in the Tropics" is over, thankfully. I will now use it as an example of what not to do in a play.
The script is lyrically beautiful, the story is moving and the director did not seem to care. He decided that the collision of two cultures, the cold Russian demeanor in "Anna Karenina" being read in a sultry Cuban cigar factory, merited a complete reversal of caricature. Instead of wildly displaying their passions, these Cubans were as fiery as a wet mop. Even when they put a sex scene onstage, it felt more clinical than emotional. The man who wanted to rape his niece hugged her like an uncle and groped her shoulder blades and, later, he chased her offstage. Come on, where are the butt grabs? Where is the lip-licking, coochie-snatching letch we’ve all seen at the salsa club? Not here.
The director Timothy Douglas was, like the rest of the cast, imported into Portland for this production by Portland Center Stage. He was given a marvelous script and an incredible set that looked like an authentic warehouse, with space everywhere just begging to be used. But it wasn’t. Douglas confined all of the action to one of the four cigar-rolling tables and the catwalk above. That’s it. In a blackbox, this staging would have worked, but in such a huge set, without huge presences to fill it up, it left the audience wanting more substance to fill it.
And not just spatially, either. The ending was, bluntly, the worst end to a play I have ever seen staged.
The lector, who reads stories to the workers, has been stirring up (supposedly) all this latent passion in everyone. While he is reading, the passionless rapist walks in and shoots the lector dead.
Such an unexpected turn of events, a loud gunshot ending the lyrical beauty of the story, shocked the entire audience into full alertness. We were ready for anything: a ten-minute pause, twenty shrill screams, anything. Douglas had the opportunity to break every convention of the theatre and, instead, he did nothing.
He killed the lights on downstage center, where the body laid, and had all the actors move slowly to their next marks. After thirty seconds, someone said in a poor accent, "What a heavy silence."
There was no weight to the silence at all, because nothing was done during the silence – not even waiting! We were watching actors move to their next cues. And then, everyone takes a few lines to wax poetical about life and death, but the body is no longer there. Nobody acknowledges it, the lights are off where it lies, it just disappeared – like the murderer! He walks offstage, and nobody looks after him or cares where he went.
The gun, the most powerful prop you can have onstage, which introduces death, the most powerful act you can have onstage, should not be followed by numbness – especially from the Cubans! Where was the weeping, the wailing, followed by "a heavy silence?" Hysterical screaming (by someone who had just been raped, for example) followed by a convention-breaking five-minute heavy silence would have made the crappy accents, the unused stage space and the passionless acting all worth it. But there was no saving grace to this play, unless you count the lesson learned: Don’t ever do anything like this onstage.