STAGE REVIEW : 'Piano': Playing Politics in Revolutionary Cuba

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Elegant old furniture, burnished black. A white lace canopy. A grand piano. The parlor Timian Alsaker designed for "Piano," at Los Angeles Theatre Center, is a serene retreat.

But come the revolution. . . .

Anna Deavere Smith's play is a portrait of people caught in the middle of a political firestorm. Under Bill Bushnell's direction, it's an evocative and intriguing spectacle--but its characters teeter close to the edge of cliche and occasionally topple over.

We're in Cuba, 1898. Spain is on the run. The insurrectionists are burning the sugar cane fields and refugees are streaming down the roads.

One of them, a young girl whose mother has just been killed, wanders into that perfect parlor, inside the home of a plantation-owning couple, Alicia (Pamela Gien) and Eduardo (John Castellanos), and their adolescent son (Andrew Glazier).

The girl doesn't say a word, but she sees everything that goes on. She sees how Alicia is instructed in santeria (the Afro-Caribbean, Yoruba-Catholic hybrid religion) by her black housekeeper Susannah (Madge Sinclair). She observes the shadowy political activities of the Chinese-Cuban cook, Chan (Benjamin Lum). She listens as Alicia plays the piano and Carlitos plays the cello.

Finally, she sees Eduardo's slimy brother, a Spanish general named Antonio (Tony Perez), arrive and begin to take over the house.

The adult characters are all at different positions on the political spectrum. Antonio the reactionary is at one end, and Chan the revolutionary is at the other. Susannah is an ally of the political revolution, but she is even more of a cultural revolutionary--and not a completely selfless one. She is the great survivor here.

Alicia, whose family house this is, sympathizes with the rebels but is too securely aristocratic to fully comprehend what's happening. Her husband Eduardo arrived from Spain only 12 years ago and prefers not to think about politics.

The two children come from radically different backgrounds. Yet as their political consciousness is shaped during the course of the play, they emerge in roughly the same camp.

Finally, Uncle Sam is another important presence in the play--though he isn't personified in any of the characters. Early on, we hear that Alicia prefers the piano works of contemporary American composers to anything Spanish, and the family learns what's going on just outside the house from American newspaper accounts.

Yet this image of the United States as a beacon of free expression changes. Wires arrive bearing news of the battleship Maine's arrival--and then of its destruction, setting off the Spanish-American War. At the end, we're told that the United States has co-opted the revolution. "History takes a long time," notes Susannah.

Smith tries to weave a lot into one play; the strain shows in a glancing reference to Freud, late in the second act. Nevertheless, she refrains from telling us absolutely everything, thereby enhancing the sense of mystery around the edges.

The storytelling and the mood making are fairly accomplished; it's the characterizations that could use some polishing, especially those at the opposite ends of the political spectrum. As Chan, Lum maintains a frozen composure that ought to tip off anyone to the fact that he's actually a secret revolutionary; his tai chi on the fringe of the stage is another clue that something's brewing behind the mask.

On the other side, Antonio is a veritable Simon Legree, spouting racial slurs and leering at Alicia and the girl, even as he wages war and rounds up the peasants into concentration camps. Perez plays into the stereotype with a vengeance, yet his vocal projection isn't always focused.

Sinclair's role isn't particularly fresh, but she invigorates it with ease. It would be interesting to see her play Mother Courage.

Gien is a revelation. She has melting eyes, a distinctive accent that is perfectly comprehensible, an intense presence when it counts--and she plays the piano with the necessary sensitivity and facility. Musically speaking, Glazier is equally adept as Carlitos, the young cellist. The program indicates that he has been studying cello since he was 6, and the lessons have paid off.

The girl's role alternates between Brandi Royale Petway and Mya Risa Maury. On opening night, 8-year-old Brandi cast quite a spell with her searching eyes.

Marianna Elliott costumed the cast in lustrous blacks and whites, with one dark-red gown added as an accent. Todd A. Jared's lighting adds suggestions of other colors in the world outside the parlor. So does Jon Gottlieb's masterful sound track.

At 514 S. Spring St., Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., through March 18. Tickets: $22-26; (213) 627-5599.

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