Theater / Film

Review: An artfully crafted ‘Two Sisters and a Piano’ by Nilo Cruz at Miami New Drama

Written By Christine Dolen
January 29, 2024 at 4:14 PM

Stephanie Machado as Sofia, left, and Thais Menendez as Maria Celia in the Miami New Drama production of Nilo Cruz’s “Two Sisters and a Piano” at the Colony Theatre, Miami Beach, through Sunday, Feb. 18. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

Cuban-born, Miami-raised playwright Nilo Cruz writes all sorts of plays – tender, bold, nostalgic, mysterious, provocative.

The first Latino winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama for “Anna in the Tropics,” Cruz is a sublime wordsmith with a distinctive style.  On opening night, Saturday, Jan. 27,  of Miami New Drama’s new production of Cruz’s “Two Sisters and a Piano,” artistic director Michel Hausmann described him as a painter with words.  And he is.

Stephanie Machado as Sofia and Gabriell Salgado as Victor Manuel get acquainted in the Miami New Drama production of Nilo Cruz’s “Two Sisters and a Piano.” (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

Cruz is also a director who understands deeply how to paint theatrical pictures, how to create art in three dimensions.

As he did when he staged an exquisite “Anna in the Tropics” for Miami New Drama at the Colony Theatre last season, Cruz the director has infused “Two Sisters” with a spirit of adventurous reinvention, no matter that the play was written in 1998 and had its world premiere the following year.

[RELATED: Read the preview story about “Two Sisters and a Piano”]

He also gave himself a playwriting assignment, creating a monologue for the handsome piano tuner who has, in the blink of an eye, stolen the younger sister’s heart.

A summary of the story he and his collaborators are telling:  It’s 1991, and the successful Pan American Games are wrapping up in Havana just as the Soviet Union is fracturing.

Sisters Maria Celia (Thais Menendez) and Sofia (Stephanie Machado) have just returned to the Obispo family home after serving two years in prison. Their crime? Signing a manifesto demanding changes in the repressive Cuban system – and more creative freedom for artists like Maria Celia, a well-regarded novelist, and Sofia, an accomplished pianist.

As they live under house arrest, their new “prison” is familiar yet changed.  Furniture and other household items have been confiscated, now existing only as memories suspended in midair.  Still present is the home’s most treasured object: a worn baby grand piano, out of tune, plagued with wear and tear from its 90-plus years as a family heirloom.

Stephanie Machado as Sofia is menaced by Gabriell Salgado’s overpowering soldier in Nilo Cruz’s “Two Sisters and a Piano.” (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

After ransacking the tidy colonial home with another soldier (Gabriell Salgado, doubling in a brief, brutal role) to look for anti-revolutionary correspondence between Maria Celia and her exiled husband Antonio, Lieutenant Portuondo (Maurice Compte) undertakes a different way of controlling the beautiful, outspoken writer.

If Maria Celia will tell him a particular story that fascinates him, he’ll read passages from Antonio’s letters – which he’s been confiscating for months.  Their relationship evolves, turns sensual, then implodes as the prisoner and her jailer remember what they really are to each other.

As for the ebullient, restless Sofia, she wills herself into instantaneous love with Victor Manuel (Salgado), a funny, music-loving piano tuner who would be a free spirit were he living anywhere except communist Cuba. Both characters supply moments of hope and comic relief along with fear and disappointment. And in this production, their chemistry is off-the-charts intense.

Under Cruz’s guidance, the actors deliver memorable, even extraordinary moments.

Maurice Compte as Lieutenant Portuondo and Thais Menendez as Maria Celia surrender to each other in the Miami New Drama production of Nilo Cruz’s “Two Sisters and a Piano.” (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

The Miami-raised Compte, best known for his extensive work in film and television, makes Lieutenant Portuondo a low-key enemy, calculating and seductive with Maria Celia – making the moment when he goes ballistic all the more frightening.

Salgado’s Victor Manuel is Portuondo’s opposite. He’s loose and goofy, but particularly with the addition of the monologue (a welcome way to bring the  character back after the first act), he illuminates the dangers of taking chances in a place where vigilant neighbors watch your every move.

He, too, is adept at painting with Cruz’s words as Victor Manuel stands with his blue bicycle outside the sisters’ house, willing his newfound love to realize he’s there: “Sofia, if only you would open your window. If only I could sneak in through the blinds and come in and out, the way light enters and leaves your house.”

Stephanie Machado as Sofia in Miami New Drama’s production of Nilo Cruz’s “Two Sisters and a Piano.” (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

It’s another great, inventive performance for Salgado to add to his impressive theater portfolio.

Menendez, who appeared last season in GableStage’s production of Charise Castro Smith’s “El huracán” (“The Hurricane”), contrasts clearly with Machado in playing the elder of the two sisters. Her Maria Celia is self-possessed, unwilling to capitulate to the government that has robbed her of freedom and her beloved husband.  She is dignified, sensuous, playful and motherly with Sofia.

As Sofia, Machado is a perfect complement to Salgado, matching him in physical comedy and intensity of feeling. She’s such a ball of energy that you fear she may jump out of her skin. Childish petulance, sexual hunger and deep frustration at her inability to move forward keep her emotionally suspended.

As she says to Maria Celia, “It just feels like all my life I’ve been waiting and I haven’t lived.”

The creation of this arresting piece of theatrical art would not have been possible, Cruz would doubtless tell you, without the contributions of his collaborators, though the idea of suspension-as-metaphor came from him.

Carbonell Award-winning brothers Christopher Swader and Justin Swader have designed a set that adheres to the playwright-director’s increasingly minimalist aesthetic.

The set design at the Colony Theatre for Nilo Cruz’s “Two Sisters and a Piano” at Miami New Drama. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

An archway serves as a portal to the tiled living room – as much an isolated island as Cuba itself – with metalwork and plantation shutters on the opposite side. The smattering of remaining furniture puts the focus on the all-important piano. In lieu of wallpaper, massive versions of Maria Celia’s handwritten letters from Antonio descend to serve as a visual reminder of lost love and political stakes.

Lighting designer David Lander’s work is stunning, often utilizing supersaturated colors to create Havana sunsets, the dark blue of a dangerous nighttime, the sun-fired heat of daytime.

Michiko Kitayama Skinner dresses Compte in uniforms and, for a visit when Portuondo arrives bearing rum (which he has obviously sampled), earth-toned casual clothes. Salgado wears glasses (maybe to make him look a wee bit nerdy?), but after he removes his rain-soaked shirt and stands around in an undershirt that showcases his toned arms, it’s bye-bye nerd.

Skinner costumes Maria Celia in skirts, blouses and eventually some lovely nightwear. Sofia’s look is younger, mainly dresses that suggest a love of style despite the sisters’ now-meager mean.  By contrast, when they invite Victor Manuel for dinner, both put on striking party dresses (a shiny magenta-and-black  print for Maria Celia, sunset orange for Sofia), do their hair and makeup, and dance with each other as they wait, then wait some more.

Maurice Compte as Lieutenant Portuondo in Nilo Cruz’s “Two Sisters and a Piano.” (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

Composer Salomon Lerner supplies original music, evoking Cuba and threading the sound of the piano through the play as an aural reminder of its significance. Intimacy choreographer and associate director Samantha Pazos sculpts the ecstasy of unlikely lovers, while fight choreographer Lee Soroko shapes the agony of Portuondo’s fury.

As much as imagination has granted the sisters brief reprieves from the suspended state of their lives, no one escapes the oppressive reality depicted in “Two Sisters and a Piano” – not even the piano itself.  As writer and director, Cruz delivers an entrancing, cautionary story about art and the ache for freedom.

WHAT: “Two Sisters and a Piano” by Nilo Cruz, in English with Spanish subtitles

WHERE: Miami New Drama production at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach

WHEN:  8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through Feb. 18

COST: $46.50, $66.50, $69.50, $76.50, $83.50

INFORMATION:  305-674-1040 or www.miaminewdrama.org

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com.

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