08 Oct Review: Yale Rep’s magical ‘El Huracán’ a storm chaser for family guilt, forgiveness
New Haven Register
Charise Castro Smith’s mystical, poetic “El Huracán,” now in its world premiere at Yale Rep’s University Theatre, is a family play replete with metaphor and magic in its exploration of the healing properties of forgiveness for loved ones, especially one’s self.
In partnership with The Sol Project, a theater initiative created to bring Latinex writers to a broader audience, “El Huracán,” is epic insofar as it includes four generations of a Cuban American family clutching on to itself against the forces of nature that cyclically ramp up the chaos of daily life. Yet Castro Smith, director Laurie Woolery and their design team achieve this grand scheme through simplicity.
This is not to suggest that Christopher Rose, the production’s magic designer, skimps on the illusionary tricks. On the contrary, Adriana Sevahn Nichols, who plays Valerie, the materfamilias and one-time queen of nightclub entertainment with her snazzy magic act, indeed proves a convincing sorcerer in flashbacks to her heyday. Yet scenic designer Gerardo Díaz Sánchez, along with lighting designer Nic Vincent, sound designer Megumi Katayama and projection designer Yaara Bar, are the real magicians who create the illusion of not one but two monster hurricanes that antagonize Valerie and her family.
Inspired by Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” Castro Smith sets “El Huracán” amid two catastrophic storms: Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and the fictitious Penelope set in August 2019. If one storm resembles others, that only points up one’s sense of dread and deja vu, as the characters seem fated to repeat the sins of their predecessors, as, most assuredly, will their progeny.
While the storms are a theatrically apt and explicit metaphor of nature’s indiscriminate danger, guilt and grudges are the subtle, insidious storms that maroon these characters away from each other. As “El Huracán” exemplifies, forgiveness — especially for ourselves — is difficult to accept as guilt is a mighty obstruction.
The production starts with the aged Valerie (Nichols) alone on stage, as if in her own universe. The cruel ravages of time are poetically and poignantly evident as she watches Irene Sofia Lucio as young Valerie, dressed in a fashionable, cobalt blue 1950s dress, immediately accompanied by her assistant Alonso (Arturo Soria), formally dressed in tails. Valerie basks in the glow of her youthful invincibility. For Valerie, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, these bygone images supply nearly all of her lucid moments and soulful comfort.
Soon enough, Valerie finds herself mired in the present, confused as her daughter Ximina (Maria-Christina Oliveras), preoccupied by the coming storm, and granddaughter Miranda (Irene Sofia Lucio) look on. Castro Smith effectively depicts how chaos swirling inside and out of the younger women’s normally attentive minds causes them to lose track of what’s most important.
Henceforth, the play moves forward to next August, making several stops along the way as Valerie, or “Abuela” to her family, reverts to various episodes in her complicated past. She shares tender memories of her Alonso (Jonathan Nichols), who woos Valerie through her young years and even after they marry. She also flashes back to her invaluable time shared with her younger sister Alicia (Jennifer Paredes), who obviously affects Valerie long after Alicia’s physically out of her big sister’s reach.
Though the play runs 100 minutes without intermission, it features a virtual second part where Ximen and Miranda are 27 years older and responsible to the next generation, including Miranda’s daughter Val (Paredes again) and nephew Theo (Soria again). This shorter act may be a bit more predictable but nonetheless enlightening in how nature cruelly repeats its storms, both barometrically and mentally, on this family. This flash forward to the next general may confuse some audience members as well, busy tracking the various characters through the time shifts. Castro Smith mitigates much of this potential problem by having part two’s main characters, Ximena and Miranda, change costumes in front of the audience, delivering monologues as production assistants change their appearance.
It’s this style of “magic” that makes “El Huracán” visually and intellectually compelling. Castro Smith does the rest by infusing her characters with genuine heart and soul, proving that by creating a very specific world on stage, a playwright can strike a chord of universality.
E. Kyle Minor is the Register theater reviewer.