Theater / Film
Review: Robby Ramos’s ‘The Walls Have Ears’ looks inside a Cuban prison
David Zaldívar (left) and Robby Ramos in the world premiere of “The Walls Have Ears” at the Westchester Cultural Arts Center, Miami, which is being performed first in English, then with a run in Spanish. (Photo courtesy of Yaniel Cantelar/Alpha 42)
In the mid-1950s, Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl were imprisoned for two years in the infamous Presidio Modelo, a facility on Cuba’s Isla de Pinos (now Isla de la Juventud).
There they plotted and planned with their fellow revolutionaries, and after they seized power with the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista’s government in 1959, Presidio Modelo became a place where thousands of political prisoners and dissidents were held, tortured – and sometimes executed.
Actor-turned-playwright Robby Ramos, a Miami native who plays wrestler Diego Cottonmouth on the Starz series “Heels,” understands firsthand the experiences of families whose loved ones have been Cuban political prisoners. His grandfather was once held at Presidio Modelo.
Fueled by family stories, research and his imagination, Ramos has written his first play, “The Walls Have Ears,” which has the slightly different Spanish title “Las paredes oyen” (“The walls hear”).
The world premiere is up and running at Miami’s Westchester Cultural Arts Center at Tropical Park, through April 23 in English, then April 27-May 14 in Spanish. Its producers are the Alpha 421 Group (created by Ramos to support new works in film, television and theater), Ancestor (a bilingual multimedia company) and the not-for-profit Roxy Theatre Group.
Set during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, the play takes place in a space meant to evoke the panopticon circular cell block design at Presidio Modelo, where prisoners could never tell exactly when they were being watched by a guard in a dark central tower.
Set designer Andrew Rodriguez-Triana has created a slice of stacked-up cells above the prison office that serves as the central playing area, its circular floor adorned with political prisoners’ drawings. A sparse interrogation room is nearby, and farther off, a small studio at Miami’s powerful WQAM.
The audience is seated so that it totally surrounds the actors, even sitting at the very edge of that prison office. On the one hand, the seating arrangement greatly amplifies the sense of the characters being overheard and constantly watched, as the prisoners were at Presidio Modelo. On the other, theatergoers are packed around the stage, so those significant drawings aren’t visible to many in the audience.
Director Gabriel Bonilla keeps the actors moving through the space, sometimes threading their way along aisles and popping up in unexpected places. The scenes in the interrogation room and the prison office are often harrowing, while the ones in the WQAM booth are breezily entertaining as they epitomize so much of what the Cuban revolutionaries loathe about the United States.
Ramos’s story is this: A woman called Madre (Monica Steuer), aka La Madre de la Revolución, is running the show at the prison but taking orders from someone on the other end of various phone calls. She’s haranguing a comrade called Papo (Ramos), who has been unable to produce Rafa (David Zaldívar), a young man suspected of being behind posters of Che Guevara in drag appearing all over Havana.
When Rafa, bound and with a bag over his head, is shoved into the interrogation room, after much back-and-forth, we discover that Papo and Rafa are brothers, and that Papo’s mandatory mission is to get Rafa to sign a confession and implicate others.
Meanwhile, Madre is dealing with a seemingly unrelated incident in which a teen named Ava (Juliana Aidén Martinez) is being interrogated about a school assignment, a vulgar poem in which she calls Cuba “the whore of the Caribbean.” Ava isn’t savvy enough to comprehend the danger she’s facing. She thinks she should be able to speak up, express her views. But Madre soon disabuses her of that notion, caressing the girl’s ponytail, then using it to yank her head back hard.
Ava, as it turns out, is the sister of Papo and Rafa. So family loyalties and betrayals begin to figure heavily into “The Walls Have Ears.” And once Papo calls the revolution broken, perverted and immoral – to Madre’s face, no less – it’s clear this story won’t end well.
As tangential as he might seem, WQAM host Bill Kelly (Bill Schwartz) proves to be more than a voice booming toward Cuba from Miami. Madre calls him twice to spread the revolution’s philosophy, with the second call bringing the play to an abrupt, horrific finish.
Ramos’s writing injects a simmering unease from the play’s beginning, ratcheting up the tension until it explodes in a bloody fight between Papo and Rafa in Madre’s office (Emma Berry’s lighting reinforces the violence). Note to those sitting just outside the circle: You might want to reconsider and ask for a ticket farther back. Though some phrases – “no means no,” “I have issues,” “don’t let the door hit you where the good lord split you” – belong in 2023, not 1962.
Bonilla gets solid performances from his five-person cast (which will, except for Schwartz, change for the Spanish-language version of the play).
Steuer’s Madre is coolly observant, but there’s no doubt she can be lethal. Martinez, who trained at the Yale School of Drama, effectively walks Ava’s tightrope of defiance and fear.
The size differential between Ramos (who plays a hulking wrestler on TV) and the slight but gym-toned Zaldívar visually reinforces the danger in their interactions, and Ramos gets to make the dangerous journey from loyal revolutionary to repentant brother.
Schwartz, a veteran of productions at numerous South Florida theaters, adds a jolt of humor and polish whenever his Bill Kenny is in the spotlight. The character is very different from the others, and Schwartz’s stage presence helps make him captivating. And as the DJ plays a slew of hits from 1962, the tension is briefly put on pause.
On opening night, sound glitches kept much of the early dialogue from being heard (do actors know how to project these days?), so the plot was harder to follow. Obscuring sightlines with the seating setup benefits no one, even if it’s meant to serve a thematic purpose.
At the packed opening performance, some people decided to leave during the 90-minute play. Whether they were upset by the content hitting close to home, not engaged or simply in need of a personal break, they traipsed noisily over the wooden floor as they headed to the only exit, disrupting the play and the audience’s concentration. Not cool.
Without a doubt, “The Walls Have Ears” will speak to many, whether or not their families have lived some version of Ramos’s story. Presenting it in English and then in Spanish will broaden the audience – a smart move for any Miami theater.
WHAT: World premiere of “The Walls Have Ears” (“Las paredes oyen”) by Robby Ramos
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays; through April 23 in English, April 27-May 14 in Spanish
WHERE: Westchester Cultural Arts Center, 7930 SW 40th St., Miami
EXHIBITION: Paintings by Cuban-American artist Kiki Valdes, all inspired by the play, are on display in the lobby
INFORMATION: 305-456-6731 or wcacenter.org
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