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Entertainment & Arts

Review: ‘Anna in the Tropics’ lights a powder keg of passion

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Javi Mulero is witness to Presciliana Esparolini and Byron Quiros getting carried away in “Anna in the Tropics.”
(Darrett Sanders)

Nilo Cruz’s 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Anna in the Tropics,” is set in 1929 at a cigar factory in Florida, but the Anna of the title is Anna Karenina. Tolstoy’s adulteress never actually appears onstage, but her subversive passions do.

As her story is read aloud to entertain cigars rollers on the job, the sultry air gets hotter. Blood boils. Blouses fall away. It seems inevitable that guns will go off.

Open Fist Theatre Company’s lovely revival proves that Tolstoy isn’t the only Russian literary giant presiding over the ruin of this Cuban American family. Like Chekhov, Cruz situates his characters on the brink of cataclysmic change: A new, not necessarily better, era is dawning.

Santiago (Steve Wilcox) and his wife, Ofelia (Jill Remez), make hand-rolled cigars in the old Havana tradition. Santiago’s illegitimate half-brother, Cheche (Antonio Jaramillo), hopes to mechanize the factory. He comes across as a doofus at first, then grows steadily more malign. He even resists hiring a new lector, who reads aloud to the workers, when the old one dies.

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Ofelia overrides him, managing to snag the rock star of lectors, Juan Julian (Byron Quiros). As soon as he steps off the boat, with his wire-rimmed spectacles and thick, leather-bound volumes of Tolstoy, the women swoon.

Their doomed world is gracious: Christopher Scott Murillo’s brick-walled factory is orderly and clean, and Mylette Nora’s white period dresses look effortlessly elegant. But life is also a bit dull, especially for Santiago’s two daughters, the unhappily married Conchita (Presciliana Esparolini) and the ripe teenager Marela (Jade Santana).

Director Jon Lawrence Rivera deftly conveys their ineffable yearnings, creating an atmosphere so delirious that the high-flown dialogue only occasionally jars. (Conchita expresses a desire to “be like a shell that shouts with the voice of the sea.”)

In the second half, the characters must face the consequences of their lust and openness to change, but their comeuppance feels a little clunky. Every bad outcome hinges directly on Cheche, rather than, say, the mysterious workings of fate or the accumulation of tiny choices. Cheche becomes a caricature. Jaramillo does an excellent job of acting despicable but maybe at the expense of a more nuanced tragedy.

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‘Anna in the Tropics’

Where: Open Fist Theatre Company at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Mondays, through June 8

Tickets: $20-$30

Info: (323) 882-6912 or OpenFist.com

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

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See all of our latest arts news and reviews at latimes.com/arts.

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