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Havana Is Waiting

Ed Vassalo and Bruce MacVittie
in Havana Is Waiting
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
As a theme, the longing for home is almost always instantly affecting. It doesn't matter whether it's expressed by Ulysses on the wine-dark sea, Dorothy on the yellow brick road, or any of the other Flying Dutchman types that populate the history of literature. So in Havana Is Waiting, when Eduardo Machado's alter ego, Federico, decides to return to Cuba after 38 years of living uncertainly in America, he immediately gets a firm grip on the audience's heartstrings. Maybe it's because, no matter how tied to home an individual may be, there are times when everyone feels adrift and alienated, aching to reconnect.

Federico (Bruce MacVittie), after some initial wavering, undertakes his trip in 1999, hiring a cabby named Ernesto (Felix Solis) to help him find the house where he was raised. Perhaps the most daunting of the obstacles Federico encounters is psychological--he can't seem to determine whether he is an exile or an expatriate. "Did they throw me out or did I walk out?" he asks his best friend, Fred (Ed Vassallo), who is accompanying him on the sentimental journey. "Was I abandoned or did I set myself free?" Unmoored by constant anxiety, he finds solace to be elusive.

The source of his discomfort is the circumstance under which he left Havana. At age nine, Federico was airlifted to the States with his younger brother and 14,000 other children on a Peter Pan flight organized by non-Communist parents unhappy with the school system's sudden shift towards Marxist indoctrination. Since then, Federico's guilt has all but swallowed him, an experience familiar to abused children who become convinced they were the cause of their molestation. Federico, feeling bereft of a clear identity and also disturbed about his homosexuality, is unable to accept the Unites States as his home--but neither does he feel at home upon arriving in Havana. When he finally locates his childhood residence, he's repeatedly denied entrance by a janitor (whom the audience never sees).

While attempting to gain access to 330 Maceo, Federico becomes caught up in an unusual and ironically pertinent political situation: local protests demanding Elian Gonzalez's return to Cuba. Federico and Fred join the agitating Ernesto in carrying placards and shouting in the streets; but Federico angrily notes that, while young Elian has become a nation's darling, no similar outcry has been heard for the return of the displaced Peter Pan children. Juxtaposing the Gonzalez affair with Federico's childhood plight (and his own) is one of Machado's cleverest ploys here. Indeed, Elian's adventure in America may have been the event that convinced him (rightly) that there was a play to be made from his own visit home. Ernesto's response to Federico, like most of his volatile answers in the course of the play, goes to the core of United States/Cuba policy differences, covering the conflicts between democratic and socialist thought--and, most cogently, the continuing embargo.

There is little more than this to the plot of Havana Is Waiting. The play is primarily a debate that Federico carries on with himself and with Ernesto about the loss of identity, conflicts between freedom and citizenship, and what ultimately constitutes the sense of being at home and at one. Federico never does get inside 330 Maceo but eventually allows himself to feel that he's come home--home, for him, being a place where he finds peace of mind.

Havana Is Waiting (which was produced at Louisville's Humana Festival this year under the better title When the Sea Drowns in Sand) is also a debate between Federico and the good, well-heeled, heterosexual Fred, whose full name also happens to be Federico. He accompanies Federico for reasons that are never satisfactorily explained; ostensibly, he's helping a buddy complete a simultaneously dreaded and longed-for journey. Camera constantly in hand, Fred is there to create a record of Federico's excellent adventure. But Fred also serves a symbolic purpose--as often as not, he's meant to represent the other half of Federico's divided self. (Who can say why Federico's inner other is straight?) And if Fred's coming along for the ride doesn't make thorough sense in the play's reality, his place in the subtext is perfectly obvious: When he and Federico eventually embrace and kiss, there is no doubt that, metaphorically, Federico has learned to love himself.

Yet the theatrical conceit is awkward. It isn't unusual in plays written by homosexual men for straights to reveal homosexual longings. An understandable wish fulfillment is at play here, but it's not necessarily accurate observation. The compromising nature of Fred's depiction--added to the cumbersome, even confusing, quality of the heated political arguments--means there are stretches of Havana is Waiting that dilute the drama's deeply-felt passion and fervor.

Nothing, however, interferes with the passion and fervor of the performances. MacVittie as Federico is first seen and heard describing a fevered dream. (It's a poem that Machado could have written out of his long-term despair and then incorporated into the play.) Once Federico awakens and steps off the elevating pedestal that has been his bed, he remains as jittery as a yellow leaf in an October wind. Looking like a bantamweight fighter, and bobbing around like one, he keeps his emotion right on the surface. This is a weepy performance but it conveys all the frustration of a man looking to find a resting place for his battered soul.

Ed Vassallo may have had more of a challenge as Fred, since Machado seems more intrigued by what happens under the character's lines than what happens on them. Rising adroitly to the test, Vassallo makes Fred's affection for his troubled friend and concern for his own rootlessness real and touching. When Federico first tries to visit his old apartment, the action is not seen (this isn't helpful) but is reported by Fred in a long and demanding prose poem that Vassallo brings off beautifully. Felix Solis, meanwhile, shrewdly blends Ernesto's manipulation and patriotism into one seamless javelin throw of a portrayal. And he gets the play's best laugh--not that there are many of them--when, seeing Federico and Fred off towards the end of the play, he is suddenly carried away with warm feelings for the two men whom he's befriended in spite of himself and who are taking a letter to his long-lost sister. "God, I've kissed a man in the middle of La Habana airport," he says with sheepish wonder.

Director Michael John Garcés deserves credit for orchestrating these three outstanding performances, and thanks should also be given to Troy Hourie for impressionistic sets that look as if they've baked to a crisp under the Cuban sun; to lighting designer Kirk Bookman, who further helps keep the tropical heat on; and to costume designer Elizabeth Hope Clancy for the casual travelers' togs and other hot-weather wear that she's supplied. Percussionist Richard Marquez, sitting on an upstage balcony and intermittently seen through a scrim, underscores the tension as it mounts and eases and mounts and eases.


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