August 22, 2019

High Ideals and a Hot Bod

Writers as varied as Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott have written of the exotic beauty of Jewish women. But what about Jewish men?

In “It Happened in Havana,” a new play by Raul De Cardenas, that is playing at the Bilingual Foundation for the Arts, Marcos, a Jewish Cuban American, attracts the attention of three sisters and other assorted women, who describe him as “an appetizer,” a “dessert” and other delectations. They can tell that there is something different about him, an idealistic streak, a fierce integrity leavened by a kind of playfulness. Only later does he tell them he is Jewish.

De Cardenas, 67, is Catholic, but his work is informed by family ties to Jews and a lifetime of impressions. He remembers watching newsreels of concentration camps when his parents took him to movie theaters toward the end of World War II. And he grew up with a Jewish aunt and Jewish cousins.

In Marcos, De Cardenas has created a dreamer who is pragmatic without losing his humanity. In the plot’s love triangle, there is one woman who shares his imagination and independence.

The play conspicuously recalls “Romeo and Juliet” with its lovers from warring families, but lacks that play’s tragedy, taking on instead the magical quality of some of the Bard’s later plays. Cuba here becomes a stand-in for the enchanted island in “The Tempest” with Fernanda, the matriarch, a bigoted, female version of Prospero, trying to cast a spell over and rule the lives of all of the subjects in her sphere.

While the Bilingual Foundation for the Arts typically stages plays that were written or take place in the Renaissance, “Havana” is set on Christmas Eve, 1902, just after Cuba has become an independent republic.

A nice touch occurs when Claudia, a vibrant idealist herself, quotes Cuban patriot Jose Marti, only to have her sentence finished by Marcos, quoting Moses. The seamless connection underscores a shared spirit and the dream of all people to be free.

“You can send a message much better with a smile than a tear,” De Cardenas says.

“It Happened In Havana” runs through May 21. All remaining performances are in Spanish: Thurs., Fri., Sat. at 8 p.m.; matinees Sat. at 4 p.m., Sun. at 3 p.m. Bilingual Foundation for the Arts, 421 N. Avenue 19, Lincoln Heights, (323) 225-4044.