By Ian Rigg
“Esto es nuestra historia.”
This is our story.
In a shimmering nightclub, time falls away. Fact, fiction, and myth coalesce. Walls disappear.
From the minds of Playwright Sandra Delgado, Director Cheryl Lynn Bruce and the myriad of memories of an entire community, Teatro Vista has put together an utterly tremendous production. Its scale is as intimate as it is grand, as small as it is seismic, mirthful, mournful, mystifying.
These titanic theatre practitioners have revived the 1960s Caribbean night club, La Havana Madrid, a once-thriving hub for Latinos just arrived in Chicago. It was a place to celebrate and a place to remember. And that’s precisely what this show does: celebrate, and remember.
This phenomenal production paints vivid portraits of people’s lives in an age not long gone, but seemingly an ocean of time away. Delgado has constructed a compelling compendium of tales, expertly woven together. She hasn’t exhumed stories long buried; she’s resurrected them.
Cheryl Lynn Bruce presides over the production with a grace and genius for storytelling. Bruce and her team of resurrectionists keep the lifeblood of the show pounding. Scenic designer Ashley Ann Woods, with the help of Andrei Onegin and Seagull Works Scene Shop, has transfigured the Steppenwolf 1700 space into a glittering nightclub. Candles flicker on every table. Stars and disco balls twinkle from the ceiling. There are even flyers for upcoming gigs. This, together with Elsa Hiltner’s dead-on, carefully-curated vintage costumes, lends the production a sense of vivid verisimilitude. The other artists behind the scenes are in the business of dreams.
Mikhail Fiskel has summoned sound design from beyond the pale, providing old Latino tunes that waft through the air and allowing Delgado to move about the stage with a whimsical air. Heather Sparling’s sensational lighting design always conjures a pitch-perfect mood, particularly working in tandem with sound and projection. Liviu Pasare’s fantastic projection design permeates through the whole production, providing scenes of home, be it Bogota or Belmont, and scenes of state violence, separated from today only by black and white.
What better accompaniment to memories could there be than music? Carpacho y Su Súper Combo (Roberto “Carpacho Marin, Yendrys Cespedes, Carol MacPherson, Cristobal “El Animal Flores and Guido Acevedo) create a polyrhythmic paradise with their pulsing passion.
While La Havana Madrid appears on the surface to be a monologue play, it is really a mosaic of Latinx experience. Some hail from Colombia, others from Puerto Rico, some are Cuban refugees, but all are welcome at La Havana Madrid. Es para todos. Each knockout performance is a thread in a larger tapestry of identity.
Krystal Ortiz plays the young Maria, separated from her family by waves of water and political unrest. She has an unbridled earnesty as she recounts being 13 in a strange land, dances to The Beatles, likens Lake Michigan to the ocean, and heartbreakingly wishes “that we could all float away together.”
Tommy Rivera-Vega is completely charismatic as Henry, and Phoebe González is utterly endearing as Maruja, with a beautiful voice to match. Together they recount the story of their love and marriage, equal parts hilarious and heartwarming, to the point where it will pain audiences to witness a portrait of a love so pure.
Donovan Diaz dazzles as Carlos, a young photographer who struggles against rival gangs, racism, and the crushing force of gentrification. He possesses an affable air, an uncommon blend of thoughtful sensitivity and righteous fury. Combined with actual photos from the artist Carlos is based on, audiences will do well to heed his words: right outside the theater doors, in the height of well-to-do, once lived people like him.
Mike Oquendo is Tony, the club’s owner, former military man, and seeker of harmony. His casual delivery, his condemnations of the world’s evils, and his extolling of its virtues are wonderful to watch. His words ring true. “Music is love. It has no color. No class.”
Beauty queen Myrna is tasked to the capable hands of Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel. With a presence that pervades the space, her tale shifts from comedic to tragic, recounting police shootings and riots as glass shatters around her. Her horror and scorn are palpable.
Based on the bass player himself, Marvin Quijada plays Carpacho with a lovable passion for music, completely committing to the comedic capers as he constructs his own instrument, works far too hard, stays up far too late and evades immigration authorities, all in the name of what he loves. Quijada’s conviction will make audiences want to hug him and his namesake both.
And throughout all performs Sandra Delgado herself, playing the titular role as an embodiment of music, art, culture, change and connection. As both star and playwright, she is (quite literally) a force of nature. Wind chimes and ocean waves echo as she beckons each patron to tell their tale. She undulates through songs and ebbs through different characters in each person’s life. Like water as a motif, she is at once the center of the show and its periphery, its star and its scenery, living now in order to reveal what once was. It is a masterpiece of writing and performance.
As audiences enter this hallowed hangout, they may not know these oral histories. They may not realize the sidewalk they stroll on once housed endless plains of grass. They may not be cognizant of the struggles and sacrifices these people endured when coming to Chicago, may not ever understand the depths of discrimination and fear they still face. But one thing is assured: theatregoers are guaranteed to come away from La Havana Madrid with un espiritu nuevo.
Teatro Vista presents “La Havana Madrid” through May 21 at The 1700 Theater at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre, 1700 North Halsted Street, Chicago. and June 2-11 at The Miracle Center, 2311 N. Pulaski Road, Chicago, through the company’s new program Teatro Vecino (neighbor). More information and tickets may be found here. Photos by Joel Maisonet.