Rum & Coke
Carmen Pelaez's sweet and intoxicating solo show provides a new understanding of the Cuban-American experience.
The key line in Pelaez's richly embroidered show is spoken by one of the many characters she plays, when she refers to her people as "The Jews of the Caribbean." In a phrase, she creates a parallel that immediately evokes a suffering and wandering nation of upwardly mobile, educated people.
Pelaez frames her semi-autobiographical show as a search for beauty when her main character, Camila, rediscovers her roots in New York's Museum of Modern Art. It's there that she sees her great aunt's paintings on display and feels the pull of a Cuba that exists, at best, as a memory. (The works of her real-life great aunt, the much-admired painter Amelia Pelaez, actually grace the walls of MoMA.) She decides that she must go to Cuba to understand the meaning of that beauty. In her quest, Pelaez plays a variety of characters ranging from her own mother to a former showgirl in Havana's Tropicana Nightclub who now works as a lady's room attendant.
As a writer, Pelaez's greatest gift is the specificity of character that she creates. She wisely takes the time to allow her characters the digressive, humanizing details that make them three-dimensional. How wonderful, for instance, is the story that one character tells about giving up smoking. She promised God she would quit if only He would let her husband live when she thought he was having a heart attack. When it turned out it was only an acute case of gas, she was stuck with her vow. Now, a year later, the bitter comedy of her dilemma is richly observed. The story has no direct bearing on the themes of the play -- except insofar as it illuminates the humanity of her characters. And that's plenty!
As a performer, Pelaez isn't quite as elastic as some others who make quicksilver changes of personality and immediately transform themselves into other characters. Her voices tend to blend together more than they should but her characters, nonetheless, are easily differentiated less for how they sound than for what they say and how they say it.