Reviewed by Yani Perez . . .
New Normal Rep digitally streams Two Sisters and a Piano written and directed by Pulitzer Prize Winning playwright, Nilo Cruz. The play features an all-star cast, with Emmy winner, Jimmy Smits, Two-Time Tony nominee Daphne Rubin-Vega, Florencia Lozano, and Gary Perez.
Two Sisters and a Piano tells the story of two sisters under house-arrest in Cuba. Maria Celia a novelist (played by Florencia Lozano) and Sofia a pianist (played by Daphne Rubin-Vega) are sentenced to imprisonment in their home after previously serving time in jail. The play is set in 1991, Cuba ,where the world is witnessing the dissolvement of the Soviet Union and Russia is removing itself from a Castro led country. Upon opening, Maria Celia and Sofia have been in confinement for two years. Maria Celia was arrested because her writing disagreed with the ideology and political rhetoric engulfing Cuba at the time. Sophia is also charged with revolutionary infractions. Food is scarce, supplies are rationed and they have been ostracized by their community. People are afraid to be seen with them in fear of political and military retaliation since they are carefully watched and obligated to daily inspections by military officials.
One of the lieutenants, Portuondo (played by Jimmy Smits) is in charge of the inspections and policing of the sisters. His job is clear-cut however, he has other intentions with Maria Celia. He has read her literary work and recent letters. Maria Celia’s husband has left Cuba seeking political asylum in Sweden and is trying to get her help as well. They correspond frequently but their letters are thoroughly examined and never delivered. Lieutenant Portuondo has all the letters in his possession, both Maria Celia’s and that of her husband’s. He will not let her read them but negotiates terms where he will read some of them to her, if she shares more of her literary work with him. This fuels their relationship into a friendship and later into a more intimate relationship.
Through these letters they are able to create and live in fantasies: Maria Celia of reuniting with her husband and Portuondo of being with Maria Celia. Amidst the codes and hidden meanings, she is able to gather pockets of hope. She knows her husband has not forgotten her and is trying to bring her to Sweden. Lieutenant Portuondo enters her world via her husband’s words. He fills a void as a stand-in. In doing so, he lives out his own fantasy of being close to Maria Celia. Their back and forth banter is poetic, rhythmic and at times cutting. Yet, this is what draws them to one another along with Cruz’s use of poetic language which is beautiful. The letters speak of their love, romance and moments shared by the couple. Although, Portuondo is aware of the secret messaging and encoded words, he continues until Maria Celia no longer wants to carry on with their relationship.
Sophia delves into her own dreams of playing the piano, listening to exquisite music and the potential of having a relationship. She becomes enthralled with the piano tuner, Victor Manuel (played by Gary Perez), if only for a brief encounter. During their conversation, he gives her glimpses of the outside world. He is the male energy she has been longing for since even before her lockdown. However, since every moment of their lives is controlled, Victor cannot visit her more than the allotted time. Victor is only there because he has a permit. In order, for him to tune the piano, Sophia had to submit a request to the government. Extra visits would be deemed suspicious. Activities or visitors outside of their usual restricted life would stand out and potentially put them in danger of being sent back to prison.
Two Sisters and a Piano explores themes of confinement, freedom, living and rules. Considering, The United States has also experienced confinement and being on lock-down due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this play resonates with audiences. Audiences may be able to connect with the anxiety and angst of being stuck in one place for extended periods of time. Maria Celia and Sofia do not see the end in sight and with good reason as they could spend many years restricted to the walls of their home.
The audience gets a sense of this overwhelming feeling of imprisonment through the carefully crafted set: a classic Old-Havana type house with shuttered windows. The backgrounds are spliced together flawlessly for a cohesive stage feel. The digital editing is overall seamless and visually engaging. Maria Celia and Sofia’s daydream moments are beautifully portrayed with digitally enhanced skies, clouds and oceans. The set’s aesthetics compliment the play’s poetic language.
New Normal Rep was formed during the pandemic to bring digital theater to audiences. They are “dedicated to presenting both new and underproduced plays via the internet, in ways that maintain the essential dramatic spirit and nature of both the works and the theatrical experience itself”. They definitely adhered to their vision with Two Sisters and a Piano.
Two Sisters and a Piano is a play of passion, poetry and fantasy. During a time of extreme restrictions and limitations, allowing the characters to drift even for a moment reminds them of their freedom and most importantly their humanity