Theater / Film

Review: ‘El huracán’ is a Miami story whose time has come at GableStage

Written By Christine Dolen
April 18, 2023 at 2:14 PM

Adriana Sevan as Ximena with, from left, James Puig, Barbara Bonilla and Emma Garcia Seeger in “El huracán” at GableStage through May 14.  (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

Love and loss, fury and forgiveness are at the heart of Charise Castro Smith’s “El huracán” (“The Hurricane”), a profoundly insightful and moving play now getting its belated Florida premiere at GableStage.

After a successful world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2018, “El huracán” had several other productions, but like nearly everything else in theater, its momentum was disrupted by the pandemic.

Thais Menendez and Gabriell Salgado play the younger versions of a magician and her assistant in “El huracán” at GableStage. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

But maybe the “rough magic” referenced in “El huracán” and William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” an inspiration for former Miamian Castro Smith, was working overtime to get it to a theater in the playwright’s hometown at just the right time with just the right people involved. Certainly, the result is magical and as fine a production as you’ll see in South Florida all season.

“El huracán” is a 100-minute play in two parts, with a glamorous Cuban origin story at the beginning and a linking interlude in the middle. It is written in English, but certain words, phrases or speeches are in Spanish. Not a stretch for Miami-area audiences, but the playwright has other characters translate or restate that content.

In the first part, set in 1992, Hurricane Andrew is roaring toward Miami on its path of unfathomable destruction.  In the second, 25 years have passed.  Some characters have died, only to resurface as spirits; others have been born or matured or now face a frightening future.

Barbara Bonilla and James Puig are a magician-wife and her assistant-husband in Charise Castro Smith’s “El huracán” at GableStage. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

When we first meet Valeria (Barbara Bonilla), she’s a beautiful up-and-coming magician in pre-revolutionary Cuba, with the handsome Alonso (James Puig) as her assistant (the younger versions of those characters are played by Thais Menendez and Gabriell Salgado).

Then the play shifts to Miami and pre-Andrew urgency, as Valeria’s middle-aged daughter Ximena (Adriana Sevan) and granddaughter Miranda (Menendez) try to quickly pack Valeria’s most important things – the items used in her magic act, especially – to keep them safe at Ximena’s.

Three things become evident:  Alonso, Valeria’s devoted husband, is nowhere to be found; Ximena and Miranda, a student at Harvard, squabble frequently over their different agendas for Miranda’s life; and Valeria is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Frequently, she’ll have conversations with her long-gone sister Alicia (Emma Garcia Seeger). Now and then, she’ll put on the top hat from her act, grab a huge bag and announce that she’s going out (in the torrential rain) to find Alonso.  Ximena diverts Valeria by saying Alonso has gone to the pharmacy and will be back soon; in fact, he left after his wife’s diagnosis, unable to bear watching the woman he loved for a lifetime slowly vanish.

The middle-aged version of Adriana Sevan’s Ximena tries to calm Barbara Bonilla as her mother Valeria in “El huracán” at GableStage. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

Near the end of the first section, as Hurricane Andrew is about to pulverize so much of the world outside Ximena’s home, Castro Smith expertly propels the action from lust to tragedy. Miranda and Fernando (Salgado), a neighbor’s son who was a high school crush, have their own Cuba Libre-fueled hurricane party, one that will have life-changing consequences.

After they’ve retired to Miranda’s bedroom, Valeria awakens, grabs her hat and bag, and walks out the front door into that peculiar green light that can transform the sky during hurricanes. Hers is the ultimate vanishing act, though she and Alonso surface as spirits unseen by the living after the play jumps to 2017.

Now it’s Ximena, fierce as ever, who is facing Alzheimer’s.  Her Cuban cousin’s son Theo (Salgado) is staying with her as he takes the first steps toward forging a life in Miami. Inevitably, he has noticed her memory lapses, agitation and confusion.  So an emailed SOS has gone out to Miranda, who left home the day after her grandmother’s disappearance. The prodigal daughter returns to her still-furious mother, her own daughter Val (Garcia Seeger) in tow.  Expect fireworks and tears.

Castro Smith, coauthor of the Oscar-winning Disney animated movie “Encanto,” mixes realistic dialogue with evocatively poetic imagery, sometimes crossing into the terrain of magical realism.

Thais Menendez, Emma Garcia Seeger and Barbara Bonilla are family in “El huracán” at GableStage. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

One small example, as Alonso is translating what Valeria says in Spanish: “As old age floods your mind, hidden away boxes and trunks float to the surface. The things that the river of memory brings back to you sometimes feel random. But they are yours, and they’re home. Love is the only real magic. Although it is sometimes tricky, it is not a trick.”

Miami-born director Dámaso Rodríguez, who first brought “El huracán” to the attention of GableStage producing artistic director Bari Newport, has done a superb job of staging a piece with myriad challenges. They include time jumps, characters that are visible to some and invisible to others while making certain that lines spoken in Spanish are contextually clear.  And the performances he has helped shape?  They are exquisite and tonally cohesive.

Bonilla, seen last season in GableStage’s “Boca,” gets a far deeper and more intricate role as Valeria.  Now and then, her portrait of a woman in the last stages of Alzheimer’s is endearing, but as her face goes blank, she becomes utterly heartbreaking.

Sevan played Valeria in the world premiere of “El huracán” at Yale Rep (and won a critics’ award for her performance). Her Ximena is a towering achievement, as key to Castro Smith’s play as the aging magician Prospero is to “The Tempest.”  Her exhausted, fearful, raging Ximena is an unforgettable portrait of a strong woman shattered by loss and by a disease that would rob her of her memories.

Menendez, who grew up in Miami and is based in Los Angeles, is a beguiling performer who fully inhabits the college-age Miranda (her scenes of drunken flirtation with Salgado’s Fernando are irresistible). She then transforms before our eyes into a middle-aged woman who is, like her mother before her, now caught between caring for an elder and raising her own daughter.

The self-assured Garcia Seeger, a recent University of Florida grad, impressively meets the challenge of playing three distinct characters.  As Alicia, she’s a forever-young spirit in a one-piece bathing suit and white swim cap, a source of comfort and guilt to the aging Valeria.  As Val, she’s lovable and curious about the family she has never met.  As the neurologist Dr. Kempler, she is matter-of-fact and professional as she arrives at a diagnosis for Valeria.

As Alonso, Puig has to play notes of adoration and abandonment, defensiveness and the forever-painful realization that leaving when Valeria needed him most was the greatest mistake of his life.  He conveys the complexities of his character’s actions with a slight nervousness of a man who knows he’s doing the wrong thing.

Salgado, who has appeared at many of the region’s theaters since making his professional debut as the Creature in Zoetic Stage’s “Frankenstein” in 2021, plays two distinct supporting roles in “El huracán,” but both draw on the young actor’s comedic ability.  His Fernando is a Miami hunk who’s a magnet for Miranda. Theo is more serious – indicated by the glasses he wears – and funny as he switches from his Cuban Spanish to the English he’s trying to acquire.

Thanks to additional donor support, GableStage’s budget for “El huracán” was larger, and it shows.  Magician André Garré was hired to teach the cast the magic tricks specified in the script, while Jeni Hacker did the brief segments of choreography and intimacy coordination.

Set designer Frank J. Oliva has created Ximena’s house as a two-story playing area with walls that, if you look closely, combine old photographs with the imagery of swirling hurricane winds.  Jameelah Bailey and Constanza Celci dressed the set and gathered the props that convey place and era.

A scene from Charise Castro Smith’s “El huracán” (“The Hurricane”), a profoundly insightful and moving play, at GableStage. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

Lighting designer Blanca Forzán summons a Cuban club with an explosion of brightly colored lights.  Sound designer Rodolfo Ortega provides the sudden sounds of Hurricane Andrew, a faint musical underscoring and Frank Sinatra crooning “Come Fly With Me.” Costume designer Gema Valdés facilitates the play’s time travel and provides a beautiful blue halter dress for Valeria, a costume that will link her in youth and the spirit world.

Even before Castro Smith’s success with “Encanto,” she was focusing more on writing for film and television.  The movie’s Oscar (she was co-director as well as co-author) took that career path to a higher level, leaving her far less time for the developmental demands of writing plays and getting them produced.

The point is this:  “El huracán” is a made-for-Miami play.  It will resonate here most deeply, and it’s a thoroughly engaging story being given a great production. It will be at GableStage through May 14 – and then “poof,” like Valeria, it will be gone.

WHAT: “El huracán” by Charise Castro Smith

WHERE: GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables

WHEN: 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (additional matinee May 13), through May 14 (streaming version available during regular performances April 21-May 14)

COST: $45-$75 (streaming ticket $27)

INFORMATION: 305-445-1119 or gablestage.org.

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit source of theater, dance, visual arts, music and performing arts news. 

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