Havana is a city full of little gems, the problem is finding them – you really need to know where they are or know someone that does. Since there is no advertising in Cuba there are different ways of finding them. Let me unravel one of them for you.
One night, my friend the famous Cuban film director, Rolando Almirante, took me to see a theatre show. It was what I consider to be ‘theatre light’ – accent and pronunciation wise. My Spanish is far from perfect but I was able to follow this great piece about Galileo Galilei and how his discoveries risked the Vatican’s position in Italy.
The first surprise was when we arrived at a location in Centro Havana, not too far from Belascoain and Avenida Zanja. We descended through a gate to what seemed to be a tunnel. This was Teatro Bajo la Calle [Theatre under the street]. Black curtains were used to give the stage a feeling of a closed room but in fact the actors backstage were in a tunnel that crossed all the way to the other side of the street. It was only after the fact that I realized that every time they left in the direction of the audience, they ran upstairs through the gate, across the road, back through the tunnel, and showed up on stage again. What a brilliant concept.
Rolando introduced me to Antonia Fernandez, a very famous theatre director in Havana and the granddaughter of Rita Montaner, a famous world renowned Cuban star from the early 1900. Talent does run in the family it seems as Antonia’s daughter, who I think was about 13 years old, told me, exuding with confidence, that she was planning on becoming an actress as well. Obviously she’s been ‘breathing’ acting since a very young age.
The show was truly incredible – powerful, creative, and real. The actors worked extremely hard. It was the intense and superb acting combined with great story telling, and extreme creativity of inventing sets with simple wooden crates, topped with beautiful yet simple costumes, that created the feeling of a different era. Although there were only about eight or nine actors, it felt as if there were 20. Their acting was so powerful and the characters so distinct that it felt like a big cast.
Their transition between acts were humorous and entertaining, combining singing, acting and monologues. Although the storyline of one of the funny transition pieces was set in Italy at the Venetian mask carnival, the players used the clave and the sounds of the Cuban Conga and seduction to give it a distinctly Cuban feel. I loved the sexiness – how the Cuban flavor came out in some of the female characters – not something that I was expecting to see in Italy of that time. The country and Antonia’s rare talent have left a distinct Cuban mark on this piece.
The roaring laughter of the spectators told me that the mix hit just the right spot. While these little transition acts caught our attention, whole sets were being built from the crates in the background. I was in awe with how simple boxes could transform into a cellar, a standing podium, Galileo’s home and more. By the time they’ve finished their transition it was like waking up from a dream just to realize that you were in a new location and the plot has advanced.
I was seated in the first row. At one point, in one of the transitions, my favourite actress suddenly turned to face me and shook my hand intensely speaking so fast that I did not understand a word. Confused and a little panicked, I turned to Rolando to ask if I was expected to go on stage He laughed explaining that she confused me with a very famous Cuban actress named Ismersi Soloman who shares my physique. It seemed that she wasn’t the only one that got confused, some Cubans came later to shake my hand and I was almost tempted to pretend.
While Antonia Fernandez herself was sitting at a laptop controlling the lights and sound (it truly doesn’t get much more underground than that) the show was very slick and compelling. The performance in a tunnel added a unique flavor to this great adventure. It was the best evening ever!
For those who speak enough Spanish, you can find out about these kind of shows by either reading La Cartelera – a cultural publication in Havana focusing on artistic things, or by contacting Antonia Fernandez herself – email@example.com, Theatre: 07-870-1263. She requested that you will use My Seductive Cuba in the title so that she will make the connection.