Pasadena High play mixes Tolstoy, passion and cigars

March 8, 2017 GMT

Art casts a spell over Latin laborers as they roll cigars while listening to a someone read aloud Leo Tolstoy’s novel of doomed romance, “Anna Karenina,” in Pasadena High School’s entry in University Interscholastic League one-act play competition, which begins March 21.

“It definitely has some telenovela moments,” director Danielle Foster said of Nilo Cruz’s 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Anna in the Tropics.”

“There is an affair, actually more than one affair, and characters looming in a doorway, unseen,” she said. “Our challenge is taking those moments and making them feel real.”

Foster and technical theater director Madison O’Brien said the show’s mostly Hispanic cast members have enjoyed learning about the tradition of the lector, a person who entertained workers in 19th-century Cuban cigar factories before lectors and workers were replaced by industrialization in the 1930s.

“We tried to make all of the details as accurate as possible,” O’Brien said.

How to roll cigars

“These kids eat research up,” Foster said. “They watched YouTube videos of the history of cigar factories and YouTube videos of the old-fashioned way of hand-rolling cigars, which they mimic on stage. They do an amazing job.”

The students were also captivated by the steamy aspects of Tolstoy’s 1878 classic and how the handsome, magnetic lector’s reading of it “changes people’s outlooks on life and makes them yearn for something better in their lives,” Foster said.

Portraying the lector, Juan Julian, is Paul Luna, who played George von Trapp in the school’s recent production of the musical, “The Sound of Music.”

“The biggest thing for the kids is the really meaty relationships and meaty characters,” Foster said.

Among them are a lusty family patriarch, Santiago, his proper wife, Ofelia, and their star-struck daughter, Marela; long-suffering Conchita and her wayward husband, Palomo; and vengeful Cheche.

Featured cast members include Pablo Cervantes, Reina Vasquez, Allison Rivera, Jia Wolk, Raul Arita, Cameron Conklin and Alex Torres.

The ensemble includes Christian Singletary, Maritza Valle, Viviana Perez, Ramiro Gonzalez, Caitlin Conklin, Suzanne Perez and Destiny Alvarado.

Understudies are Xavier Segura, Kiki Andrews, Andrea Juarez Garcia and Abigail Villanueva.

The stage manager is Isabel Bolanos, assisted by Estefania Aguilar, and crew members Jessica Rebollar, Juanita Salazar and Andrea Chavez.

Competition schedule

“Anna in the Tropics” will be performed at 4 p.m. March 21 when J. Frank Dobie High School, 10220 Blackhawk Blvd., hosts the District 22-6A one-act play contest for high schools.

The competition will begin at 10 a.m. with Deer Park High thespians presenting “Love of a Pig,” followed by Beaumont West Brook’s “The Ash Girl,” Dobie’s “Wit,” South Houston’s “Antigone,” Sam Rayburn’s “The Government Inspector,” Pasadena Memorial’s “The 39 Steps” and, at 5 p.m., La Porte’s “On the Razzle.”

Three schools will advance to bi-district competition, and winning productions will continue toward the annual state meet in Austin in late April.

Don Maines is a freelance writer who can be reached at donmaines@att.net