Certainly, the media and others made a circus out of the Elián Gonzalez saga.
So, it makes sense that a new historical drama about said saga would call attention to itself as a show. That is the case in the often-metatheatrical “Elián,” Rogelio Martinez’s moving, riveting, and incisive play.
Miami New Drama (MIND) is presenting the piece in a fast-paced, touching, and at times hilarious world premiere production. It runs through Nov. 20 in MIND’s resident space, The Colony Theatre on Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road.
Controversial lobbyist and political operative Roger Stone is self-anointed as the play’s narrator.
“This is my play,” Stone proudly says. Further, he describes Martinez’s piece as “a story of resurrection. It begins with a death. However, this one is more complex. I am not the one to die, but I am the one who is resurrected.”
In particular, Stone found himself in a kind of political exile from Washington during the events of the play. Namely, Bob Dole’s campaign fired Stone, and he found himself jobless. Therefore, in Martinez’s vivid imagination, Stone uses the Gonzalez saga as a fresh start for him. His goal is to rise once again to the top in Washington.
For background purposes, Stone is an American conservative political consultant and lobbyist. He worked on the campaigns of Republican politicians such as Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, Dole, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump.
To his credit, Martinez’s use of Stone in “Elián” does not distract from the piece’s main focus. Rather, Stone’s inclusion illustrates how soulless individuals tend to use events and others misfortunes for their own benefit.
“Elián” offers fresh insight into the explosive custody battle for the youngster. You may recall that, in 1999, fishermen found the then 5-year-old Cuban boy clinging to an inner tube three miles off the Ft. Lauderdale coast. Elián and 11 others, including his mother, were bound for Miami in a small boat that capsized. While Elián survived, the others drowned.
A heated custody battle ensued between Elián’s relatives in Miami, and the boy’s father in Cuba. His Miami relatives and many Cuban exiles argued that Elián should be able to grow up in a free country. Meanwhile, the Cuban government and his father insisted that the boy return to Cuba to live with his dad, the lad’s closest relative.
The ordeal lasted several months before the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a last-gasp effort by Elián’s Miami relatives to keep him in the U.S. Instead, in a raid of the Miami relatives’ home, armed federal agents took Elián away at gunpoint. They eventually reunited him with his father in Cuba. Today, Elián is a technician in the island nation, and a father.
Although these events happened more than 20 years ago, many wounds remain raw on both sides of the debate. Undoubtedly, live theater can heal. And, in this case, “Elián” proves to be a cathartic experience.
Without being disrespectful to the many individuals whose lives changed forever due to Castro and his revolution, Martinez makes us laugh heartily in “Elián.” A big source of that comedy comes in the form of a puppet. It resembles Castro and speaks rapidly in a high-pitched, exaggerated voice. If you didn’t know any better, you would think you were watching one of Jim Henson’s Muppets, perhaps “Animal.”
Although we can clearly see Andhy Mendez, who speaks (and sometimes thunderously shouts) in sync with the puppet, the effect is no less comical. That is because Mendez plays the character with sincerity. If you think about it, it makes sense that Castro appears in the play as a puppet. For one thing, it allows us to laugh heartily at one of history’s most evil dictators. In fact, many individuals served as Castro’s “puppets” as he manipulated them to serve his or his government’s own purpose.
While Martinez based “Elián” on actual events, he hardly presents a history lesson. Rather, Martinez tells a very human story. For instance, the playwright takes us into the home of Elián’s relatives in Miami. We feel like flies on the wall as the worried relatives wonder how much longer they will have with Elián, to whom they almost instantly grew close.
“God brought him to us,” says Marisleysis, Elián’s cousin in Miami.
During another scene, Marisleysis recounts the time that she took Elián to Disney World. While there, the cousins went on a boat ride. For the little boy, the experience was apparently too similar to the ordeal that he experienced aboard the boat bound for Miami.
“He cried on the way home,” Marisleysis says. “And I promised him he would never set foot on another boat. We intend to keep that promise. I love my cousin.”
Martinez also takes us into the home of Manny Diaz, Elián’s lawyer, and future Miami-Dade County Mayor. While inside the Diaz home, we hear about the effect the saga had on Diaz and his wife’s marriage.
In the play, Diaz is fiercely determined to represent Elián and his Miami family as best as he can. When we hear about Diaz’s father’s experiences with Castro’s government, it is little wonder why the attorney is so committed to the Elián case. The lawyer speaks using Martinez’s eloquent words.
“What makes my story interesting is not its uniqueness,” Diaz says. “Please, you of a younger generation, you who have not experienced the world of an exile. I beg you. Listen to me. My story is an amazing one not because it's extraordinary. It's the story of half this town.”
Certainly, Martinez makes Diaz a sympathetic character. And, Mendez portrays him as such. The actor, in a nuanced performance, lends Diaz a fierce urgency and determination. While Mendez conveys a business-like demeanor, he never makes the character seem unlikable. Rather, it is always clear that Diaz is sympathetic toward his clients.
Altogether, nine actors play more than 20 characters. The real-life people populating the play range from the well-respected, such as Diaz, to the despicable, such as Castro and Stone.
While Diaz was Elián’s lawyer, former Clinton attorney Greg Craig represented Elián’s father. In stark contrast to the polish, tension, urgency, and determination with which Mendez plays Diaz, Caleb Scott portrays Craig with a laid-back, cavalier demeanor.
But Scott’s Craig is polite compared to the shamelessness and sliminess with which Mike Iveson imbues Stone.
We first meet the character at the beginning of the play. Iveson, clad in a grey suit, wearing sunglasses, and sporting a full head of silver/grey hair, struts downstage toward the audience. He eyes us for a few seconds. It is as though Stone is deciding whether we are worthy of his attention. At some point, he removes his shades, revealing dark eyes. In a quiet, yet cocky voice, a showy Stone addresses us. This reinforces the play’s and the production’s Brechtian quality. Iveson’s Stone is convincingly despicable. At times, he imparts such a quality in a quiet, subtle manner. During other moments, he opens his mouth wide, and, in a loud voice, drips arrogance and cockiness. Iveson’s Stone actually speaks to audience members, up close and person, during parts of the play.
Iveson has appeared on Broadway, as well as in productions across the U.S. and internationally. He demonstrates a naturalness and spontaneity onstage that is impressive and is an inherent talen.
The eight other performers, most of them South Florida actors, also deliver intense yet natural and moving performances.
In particular, Carmen Pelaez is commanding, bitter, and forceful as outspoken, fiery, and fervently anti-Castro Radio Mambi talk host Ninoska Perez Castellon. By contrast, Pelaez portrays former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno with a much quieter, business-like demeanor.
Cristina Ortega, with tears welling in her eyes at times, plays Elián’s cousin, Marisleysis. The performer projects a sensitivity and emotional earnestness that endear us to the character.
Also, Jonathan Nichols-Navarro believably portrays sympathetic characters, including Lazaro Gonzalez. He is Elián’s great uncle. His family in Miami took Elián into their home during the months-long conflict between the local relatives, Elián’s father, and the Cuban government.
Nichols-Navarro plays Lazaro an honorable man.
On the other side of the conflict, Rene Granado is adamant but not hateful as Elián’s father, Juan Miguel, who simply wants his son back.
For about two years, MIND Artistic Director and co-founder Michel Hausmann accompanied the playwright on interviews with key figures in the Elián saga. But Hausmann’s involvement in the play and production hardly stopped there. He directs the production with sensitivity and attention to detail. And although most of us know how the Elián saga ended, we still sit in heavy suspense while watching this first-rate production.
This world premiere production often moves quickly, at a cinematic-like pace. This reinforces the fast-paced world of the 24-hour news cycle and the urgency many of the key players felt to get things done. However, the production moves at a pace that allows emotional moments to fully land and touch us.
Hausmann and his team pay close attention to detail. For example, at one point, someone places a small Cuban flag in attorney Craig’s pocket. This suggests perhaps, that Craig was one of Castro’s puppets.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, sound designer Salomon Lerner’s effects help reinforce suspense and a sense of foreboding.
The scenic design, by Christopher and Justin Swader, is simple yet effective. The main set piece is a projection screen. It extends across the stage in a semi-circular shape. The screen allows us to see and hear video clips, such as those depicting the media covering the saga. Even before the play begins, we see and hear on the screen the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean. Waves come at us slowly and forebodingly, setting the scene for the action (Yana Biryukova handled the projection design).
The projection screen also includes doors through which actors enter and exit. At times, one or more doors open to reveal simple set pieces. They stand for different locations, such as the Gonzalez home.
Lighting designer Kirk Baran-Bookman’s work is evocative and intense. It reinforces key moments and enhances mood. Also, behind the scenes, Christopher Vergara’s costumes help define character.
Thanks to Martinez’s sympathetic, detailed writing, characters come across as fully-developed, three-dimensional individuals. It is easy to pull for them.
In addition, it is easy to pull for this powerful play to enjoy a long theatrical life, which it most likely will. In his plays, Martinez writes about how politics and power affect ordinary citizens. In “Elián,” you may very well find a connection between your own life and the Elián Gonzalez saga.
- Miami New Drama’s world premiere production of “Elián” runs through Nov. 20. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.
- Ticket prices range from $46.50 to $76.50, including a service fee.
- The Colony Theatre is located at 1040 Lincoln Road in Miami Beach. For more information, call (305) 674-1040 or go to www.miaminewdrama.org.