Nancy Rodriguez and Greta Sanchez-Ramirezin Two Sisters and a Piano
Nancy Rodriguez and Greta Sanchez-Ramirez
in Two Sisters and a Piano
The sounds of construction fill the theater and a light film of dust settles on the empty rows of seats as the interior of a once grand but now fading Havana home begins to take shape on the stage. There is the usual bustle of activity in the days leading up to a theatrical opening, in this case the Studio Theatre of Washington, D.C.'s premiere of Two Sisters and A Piano by Cuban-born playwright Nilo Cruz. But the audience can expect more than the usual degree of authenticity from this production, both in the physical details of everyday life and in the performances of the actors. This is the result of a slight thaw in diplomatic relations between the United States and the Castro regime, two governments which don't often speak to each other.

Director Serge Seiden, his set and costume designers, and the two lead actors recently traveled to Havana at their own expense for some highly unusual on-site research, an opportunity made possible under a special exemption from the U.S. trade embargo which bans visits to Cuba by Americans. The visit occurred under the sponsorship of The Washington Ballet, which had received permission from the U.S. Treasury Department, enforcer of the embargo, to take part in a cultural exchange program. Director Seiden said he was able to "piggyback" on the ballet company's license, designed to allow participation in a Cuban dance festival.

Two Sisters And A Piano is set in Havana in 1991. The sisters, one the author of romantic novels and the other a talented pianist, are under house arrest. Their crime: supporting political reform. Unable to leave their home or have contact with the outside world, the sisters support themselves by crocheting as they cope with loneliness, frustration, and anger. Visits from a police watchdog and a piano tuner result in a convergence of politics and passion.

Playwright Cruz left Cuba at the age of 10 when his family fled Castro's rule. His writing is infused with first-hand memories of Cuba and its people. Now, having been given an up-close-and-personal look at political and cultural life on the island nation, Studio Theatre's artistic team is able to recreate that world with heightened realism.

"This was a life-changing experience for me," says Seiden. "I learned so much. We often do a lot of dramaturgical research, but you don't usually get first-hand contact with the subject of the play."

During the course of their five-night stay, the group took pictures and shot video of everyday life. They recorded street music. Set designer Daniel Conway studied architectural details, noting colors and textures. Costume designer Helen Q. Huang looked at how the natives dress, and purchased clothing. Seiden and actors Greta Sanchez-Ramirez and Nancy Rodriguez observed how people convey political thought in a Communist dictatorship, where the most important information may be unspoken.

"To see the way people talk in code or say things with double meanings or even shift the meaning of the conversation, to experience how much subtext goes on in their minds when they're having a conversation, was great for our actors," Seiden explains. "Also, it made the play real for us, as opposed to it just being a play. It's very real for those people."

"It's physical, it is in the gestures, definitely," adds Ramirez, who portrays the imprisoned author, Maria Celia. "When you think of voice as part of energy, it becomes a part of your voice, your breath. There's a rhythm in how you breathe and how you choose your words when you're under that level of paranoia."

Another view of Rodriguez andSanchez-Ramirez as the two sisters
Another view of Rodriguez and
Sanchez-Ramirez as the two sisters
Rodriguez says that the experience has helped her to intensify her performance as the pianist Sofia: "It's definitely a memory, it's definitely a sense. You have smells, sounds. My character talks about the ocean, and I got to see that sea wall and that ocean. It's great, when you have a place in a play that's so specific, to actually experience it rather than assume what it's like." That sea wall and the harbor beyond, captured in the company's photographs, has been painstakingly recreated on a huge skydrop at the rear of the set. Working from these pictures, set designer Conway has copied the colors of the peeling paint and the look of missing chunks of plaster in the wall, now transferred to a scrim.

Seiden notes that other architectural characteristics of Havana, which he described as an "absolutely beautiful but rapidly decaying city," have been incorporated into the set. A highlight is a fan window, which he saw above many doorways or square windows in Cuba. Using materials found locally, his crew created what appears to be an elegant wrought-iron, fan shaped window frame for the house set. Because of the omni-present heat and humidity, the homes the troupe visited had few fabrics and little wood, a look designer Conway maintained. The floor of the stage version of the Havana house is designed to look like painted concrete with a tile-like pattern etched in, a practice the company members observed on the island.

The visiting "sisters" had the opportunity to spend time with artists and writers in Havana, models for their interpretation of the parts. They visited a home that two real-life sisters share with a piano, an out-of-tune instrument just like the one in the play. One of two outsiders to visit the fictional sisters in the play is a piano tuner, and recreating the sounds of readjusting the instrument presented a challenge; recorded sounds have to be carefully integrated into the action to sustain the sense of reality.

Actors Ramirez and Rodriquez discovered by chance a 300-year old trade school that teaches crocheting, which both have to convince the audience they know how to do. After a few lessons, one of them achieved a bit of expertise, while the other has to find enough "business" to do with her hands to maintain the illusion. Actual crocheted items from Cuba were brought back to the states to star as the sisters' handiwork.

For Seiden, one Cuban woman who was crocheting brought the essence of the play home to him, as life imitated art. "She said to me, 'You're looking at three products of the revolution right here,'" he recounts. " 'I'm a PhD professor of history, the woman sitting next to me is a dialysis nurse, and the one behind me is an X-ray technician. But none of us can find work in our fields, so we've given up our professions to sell crochet in the market.' "

According to Seiden, the Cuban government did express some irritation when it learned of the visit and the content of the play after the troupe returned home. But the sponsoring Washington Ballet's trip was not ultimately jeopardized. Playwright Cruz has said he does not have a political agenda, but seeks to explore the spirit of the Cuban people and the human costs of their political situation. He drew upon the real-life situation of Cuban writer Maria Elena Cruz Valera, who endured jail and house arrest because of her writings, in creating Two Sisters And A Piano.

For this production, cast and crew now have their own real-life memories to draw on.

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[For more information about Two Sisters And A Piano, see the Studio Theatre website at www.studiotheatre.org, or phone the company at 202-332-3300.]