Theater / Film

Repression, creative freedom clash in Nilo Cruz’s ‘Two Sisters and a Piano’ at Miami New Drama

Written By Christine Dolen
January 23, 2024 at 7:50 AM

Gabriell Salgado, Stephanie Machado, Maurice Compte and Thais Menendez in Nilo Cruz’s “Two Sisters and a Piano” at Miami New Drama opens in previews on Thursday, Jan. 25 at the Colony Theatre on Miami Beach. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

Writers draw inspiration from countless sources and experiences. For a younger Nilo Cruz, a New York Times story about the 1991 arrest and imprisonment of Cuban poet and novelist María Elena Cruz Varela helped spark his play “Two Sisters and a Piano.”

“She and her friends wrote a manifesto asking for Cuba to open up, the equivalent of perestroika,” Cruz says in a Zoom interview from his Miami apartment on a rare day off from the production of “Two Sisters” he’s directing for Miami New Drama. “Brigadiers dragged her into the street and tried to force her to eat the manifesto. She spent two years in prison and another year under house arrest.”

Playwright Nilo Cruz gives direction to actors Gabriell Salgado and Stephanie Machado (at piano), Thais Mendendez and Maurice Compte in Miami New Drama’s “Two Sisters and a Piano.” (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

“Two Sisters and a Piano,” which previews at Miami Beach’s Colony Theatre on Thursday, Jan. 25, and Friday, Jan. 26, then officially opens with an already sold-out performance on Saturday, Jan. 27, follows last season’s box office and critical success with Miami New Drama’s Cruz-directed production of “Anna in the Tropics,” which was seen by 8,700 theatergoers, according to the Miami-based theater company. That play was a life-changing work of art that made Cruz the first Latino winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2003.

“Two Sisters” is an earlier play, a kind of prelude to “Anna in the Tropics” in its exploration of the power of literature, the escape that words and the imagination can provide, the relationship of two disparate sisters. It began in the 1990s as a radio play, then was expanded for its 1999 world premiere at the Tony Award-winning McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey, where Cruz found ongoing champions for his work in former artistic director-playwright Emily Mann and dramaturg Janice Paran.

Returning to “Two Sisters and a Piano” in Florida at this moment in time, Cruz says, seems right – particularly since so many school districts here have banned books.

Gabriell Salgado, Stephanie Machado, playwright Nilo Cruz, Thais Menendez and Maurice Compte are telling the story of two sisters under house arrest in 1991 Havana in Miami New Drama’s “Two Sisters and a Piano.” (Photo courtesy of Furiosa Productions)

“(Cuba is) a country we criticize because of dictatorships, but here we are in the United States where books are being censored, not just because of sexual content but because of historical content as well,” says the playwright, who came to Miami from Cuba on a 1970 Freedom Flight when he was 10. “I read books like ‘The Bluest Eye,’ ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’ ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ as a teenager.  They had an impact on me, understanding words as a way to escape oppression.”

[FROM THE ARCHIVES: Nilo Cruz’s ‘Two Sisters and a Piano’ Now a Story Told In Spanish]

Cruz’s two sisters are Maria Celia (Thais Menendez), a novelist whose husband Antonio has left for Europe, where he’s working to get her out of Cuba, and the younger Sofia (Stephanie Machado), a talented pianist and imaginative romantic.  After two years in prison, the women have come back to the Obispo family’s once-stately home, now stripped of much of its furniture and treasures – except for Sofia’s precious piano.

Thais Menendez as Maria Celia falls under the spell of Maurice Compte as Lieutenant Portuondo in Nilo Cruz’s “Two Sisters and a Piano” for Miami New Drama. (Photo courtesy of Furiosa Productions)

Two men – one a dangerous official with an agenda, the other an amusing romantic who loves music as much as Sofia does – enter the sisters’ closed-off world.

Lieutenant Portuondo (Maurice Compte) has been confiscating Maria Celia’s letters to Antonio, and his to her. He’s trying to crack the coded communication between the couple – while at the same time finding himself increasingly beguiled by the writer and her prose.

Although the sisters have a permit to have their badly neglected piano tuned, they wait, then wait some more, for someone to arrive.  Victor Manuel (Gabriell Salgado) finally does, and he proves to be everything that the yearning Sofia could desire.

“Two Sisters and a Piano” has had a sporadic presence in South Florida, including a 2008 production at the now-closed Promethean Theatre in Davie, where actors Deborah L. Sherman and Ursula Cataan (who originated the roles of sisters Conchita and Marela in New Theatre’s 2002 world premiere of “Anna in the Tropics”) played Maria Celia and Sofia.

Cruz, who writes and publishes his plays in English, translated “Two Sisters” into Spanish in 2019 and staged a production for Miami’s Arca Images at Miami Dade County Auditorium’s On.Stage Black Box.  In June 2023, he directed a production at Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, using his original English script; ditto at Miami New Drama.

As he did with “Anna in the Tropics” at last season, Cruz has approached the new “Two Sisters and a Piano” with deep knowledge gleaned from past productions coupled with a collaborative willingness to take a fresh approach with the actors and designers, including Carbonell Award-winning set designers Christopher and Justin Swader.

Nilo Cruz watches a technical rehearsal of his play “Two Sisters and a Piano” at Miami New Drama. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

“I wanted to explore the metaphor of suspension. When you walk into the production, you’ll see the furniture that was taken hanging in midair. Later, you’ll see a suspended labyrinth of letters from Maria Celia and her husband,” says Cruz, who was inspired by his memory of a long-ago exhibition with suspended works of art at the Duomo in Naples, Italy.  “The suspension applies to the lives of the women, the island itself and the sisters’ future.”

Cruz has also added something to the script:  a monologue for Victor Manuel, the piano tuner who is deeply drawn to Sofia but afraid of the consequences if he continues to act on his feelings “in a world that is so vigilant,” says the playwright.

All four cast members grew up in Miami, though only Salgado still lives here.  Cruz has been inspired by them during the give-and-take of rehearsals, and vice versa.

The marquee name in the cast belongs to Compte, whose father Roman fought at the Bay of Pigs and later ran the Mutiny Hotel in Coconut Grove in its flashy heyday; a limited-series MGM+ crime thriller, “Hotel Cocaine,” starring Miami native Danny Pino as Roman Compte, should begin airing this summer. Of note: “Hotel Cocaine” was created by Chris Brancato, the co-creator of the Netflix series “Narcos,” which featured Maurice Compte as Horacio Carillo in a dozen episodes.

Gabriell Salgado, Stephanie Machado, Maurice Compte and Thais Menendez tell a story of repression and longing in Nilo Cruz’s “Two Sisters and a Piano” at Miami New Drama. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

The younger Compte has done theater in the past, some in his hometown where he went to Miami Senior High, but his very long list of credits is largely focused on film and television.  He said yes to “Two Sisters and a Piano,” he says, “because of Nilo and Miami New Drama.”

Compte has a vivid memory of going to the Colony Theatre in 1995 to see a production of “Romeo and Juliet” starring Pino and Blaine Dunham.

“I thought, ‘One day I’ll come back and be the lead here in a play,” says Compte.

The actor is enthralled with the discoveries that come during the rehearsal process, making tiny adjustments, solidifying choices.  He finds Cruz’s unique writing style both descriptive and colorful, lying somewhere between reality and a dream world.

As an actor, Cruz says, “Maurice has a certain mystery, ambiguity, rawness, danger, which is like what Marlon Brando had.”

Menendez comes from a Cuban American family, Machado from a Brazilian one.  Both grew up reading or seeing Cruz’s plays and seem a little in awe of working with him.

Gabriell Salgado as Victor Manuel and Stephanie Machado as Sofia in Nilo Cruz’s “Two Sisters and a Piano” for Miami New Drama. (Photo courtesy of Furiosa Productions)

Menendez appeared in GableStage’s intense production of Charise Castro Smith’s “El huracán” (“The Hurricane”) last season with Adriana Savan, who played Maria Celia in the 2000 Public Theater production of “Two Sisters” in New York. She says of Cruz, “Just because it’s his play doesn’t mean he knows everything. He knows what works. But you get the sense he’s doing it with fresh eyes every time.”

A Boston College graduate who speaks fluent Spanish and French as well as English, Menendez has found a key to Cruz’s distinctive style: “Nilo’s writing is like singing. It has melody, rhythm and crescendos. He writes in English, but the sentence structure is the way it is in Spanish.”

Cruz cast Menendez, who is younger than some actors who have played Maria Celia, because this time he wanted the character to be “someone who hasn’t had enough time in her marriage, someone longing for children. I wanted her to have physical beauty and a certain elegance, holding onto an Old World dignity.”

To play Sofia, he chose Machado, who has a master’s degree in acting from Yale, also because of the way she exudes elegance – and more.

“She has so many tools at her disposal – she embodies fragility and innocence, but she can also be comedic and tragic. I told her, ‘You’re meant to be in my plays,’” he says.

Machado, who speaks Portuguese as well as English, lives in New York where she teaches and acts (“I vowed I would never wait tables,” she says, laughing). When her father comes to “Two Sisters and a Piano” on opening night, it will be the first time he has seen her perform since her days as a high school musical theater major at Miami’s New World School of the Arts.

Cruz, she says, is a wonderful writer and director.

“I love heightened text. It’s what drew me to Nilo from the get-go. His language can get so poetic, but it’s rooted in truth.  His characters want big things,” she observes. “The way he directs is also poetic. He told me that the character I’m playing ‘is like a pomegranate about to explode.’ He has so much dignity and poise.”

Machado had a “pinch me” moment in rehearsals when she and Menendez were working on a scene in which the sisters “escape” by dressing up and dancing together.

“He helped us do the salsa.  It hit me all at once: Here I am dancing with Nilo Cruz, looking into his eyes, doing this play in Miami,” she says. “He’s not pompous at all. He just nonchalantly throws wisdom at us.”

Salgado, a New World college grad who appeared with Menendez in “El huracán,” has built an eclectic resume appearing at theaters throughout South Florida, most recently adding his turn as one very funny cook in “Clyde’s” for Miami’s Zoetic Stage.  Last season, he played the pivotal role of the dreamy lector in Cruz’s “Anna in the Tropics,” and though Salgado intended to focus on film projects this season, Cruz, “Two Sisters” and Miami New Drama drew him back to the stage.

“Nilo wrote this beautiful monologue, which I wasn’t aware of until the first day of rehearsals…There is definitely humor in this play. I’m practically doing clown work, borderline physical comedy for the scenes in the first act,” says Salgado.

Nilo Cruz directed a Spanish-language production of “Two Sisters and a Piano” in 2019 for Arca Images featuring (left to right) Ysmercy Salomón, Laura Alemán and Andy Barbosa. (Photo courtesy of Julio De la Nuez)

He adds: “I have never felt more in my wheelhouse than I do now. Every time Nilo does something, it’s like he’s doing it for the first time. He puts all the same sand in the sandbox, but when he takes it out he builds a new castle…What a genuine, present, vulnerable and gracious director and artist he is.”

Once “Two Sisters and a Piano” is up and running, Cruz will have very little time before going into rehearsals for his next project: the world premiere of “Sed en la calle del agua” (“Thirst on Water Street”) for Arca Images.  The Spanish-language production, which will have simultaneous English translation, will have a brief run at the On.Stage Black Box from Thursday, March 14, to Sunday, March 17. About an artist fighting to regain her sanity after a tragedy, it is set in a New York asylum, with flashbacks to earlier days in Mexico.

Cruz is also writing a new play for Miami New Drama, creating a historical play for Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C., working on likely New York productions of “Two Sisters and a Piano” at Classic Stage Company and “Anna in the Tropics” by an as-yet unannounced major company.  In 2025, “El ultimo sueño de Frida y Diego” (“The Last Dream of Frida and Diego”), with music by Gabriela Lena Frank and a libretto by Cruz, will mark the playwright’s Metropolitan Opera debut.

And he has other projects in the works too.

The workflow, he says with a smile, can make him “feel like Sisyphus” as he does the playwright’s equivalent of rolling a boulder up a hill over and over again.  But at the same time, he’s happy about what’s on the horizon.

“I’ll just be glad to be working in New York again,” says Cruz, who lives in Miami. “It’s my second home.”

WHAT: “Two Sisters and a Piano” by Nilo Cruz

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

WHEN: Previews 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 25, and Friday, Jan. 26; sold-out opening 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27; regular performances 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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