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The Leningrad Siege

Two Sisters and A Piano

Ay, Carmela!

In Development

Two Sisters
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"In 1990 a Cuban poet, Maria Elena Cruz Varela, sent a declaration to Fidel Castro outlining her objections to his regime. Her courage earned her beatings, incarceration and disgrace until, four years later, she was allowed to leave the country. Her story inspired the Pulitzer-winning playwright Nilo Cruz’s Two Sisters and a Piano, a tale of love, loneliness and loyalty in an atmosphere of oppression.

Like her real-life counterpart, Cruz’s heroine Maria Celia is an outspoken writer. It’s 1991, the Soviet Union is on the verge of collapse, and she is under house arrest with her pianist sister, Sophie, in their crumbling Havana house. Her husband is an exile in Europe, searching for a way to help the women escape – but all their mail is intercepted.

Their only source of information is one of their jailers, Lieutenant Portuondo, who, fascinated by the strength of Maria Celia’s convictions and by her beauty, offers to read parts of her husband’s confiscated letters in return for a simulation of friendship. Such is the sisters’ boredom and isolation that Maria Celia’s reluctant co-operation gradually, dangerously, grows tender. Like the lush ferns and spiky succulents thriving on the patio, the twisted, complex relationship between captive and captor begins to flourish.

There are faint echoes of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in the play’s title and in the conflicts and complexity of its relationships. The price of Maria-Celia’s principles is paid no only by herself, but also by her younger, sensual sister. Her intimacy with Portuondo is a triple betrayal – of her absent hudband, of her ideals, and of Sophie.

The play’s gentleness sometimes belies the underlying brutality of its subject-matter, and it is not always as dramatically gripping as it might be. But it is full of delicacy and intelligence, and Paola Dionisotti’s production has a languorous quality that eloquently conveys the sense of long, indistinguishable days and an energy-sapping tropical heat.

The performances too, strike all the right notes. Catalina Botello is a passionate Maria Celia and Eva Alexander a sloe-eyed, sexy Sophie. Robert Cavanah makes a handsome, hopelessly confused Portuondo, while Stephen Hudson is touchingly comic as a piano tuner who falls under the seductive spell of the romance-starved Sophie.

Hudson and Alexander are both accomplished pianists, too, and together they play a joyous duet of officially discouraged music. As poignant praise of freedom of expression, that scene, like much of the play, is difficult to resist."
Sam Marlowe, The Times

Dance of defiance under Fidel’s gaze

"This passionate and colourful production exudes the warmth and vibrancy of Cuba at the same time as it articulates its political evils. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz has poignantly brought to life the psychological tortures experienced by the writer Maria Elena Cruz Varela, who was first imprisoned, and then kept under house arrest after she challenged Fidel Castro in a document that detailed everything she thought was wrong with his regime.

She was seized from her house in November 1991, by state security agents who beat her and her coterie of fellow intellectuals in front of her daughter.

Although this is a play about oppression, it is impossible to enter the auditorium without feeling as if you have stumbled into a bohemian front-room in Cuba. On Nick Barnes’s lavish set, ornamental palm trees, generous drapes, and a low sofa all provide the backdrop to a young girl who sits and plays a decaying grand piano as unselfconsciously as if she had only the cobwebs to watch her.

The obvious painful paradox of this idyllic scene is that nothing this girl or her sister ever do is unobserved. In Paola Dionisotti’s subtly poetic production, both Catalina Botello(Maria Celia) and Eva Alexander (Sophie) demonstrates the insidiousness of a torture that seems to grant its victims access to their own lifestyle, but laughs at their need for liberty.

This play excels in investigating how political oppression destroys when it becomes deeply personal. The scenes where Lieutenant Portuondo (Robert Cavanah) reads Maria Celia’s husband’s letters to her sizzle with anguished sensuality – and Cavanah himself is superb, fuming first with suppressed desire, and then with bullying post-coital disappointment.

Dionisotti – who won the Evening Standard Best Actress Award in 2000 – also brings out the sense of the conspiratorial love and sisterly solidarity that creates a foundation for survival. Alexander’s accomplished piano-playing rounds off a vibrant emotional mix."
Rachel Halliburton, The Evening Standard

"Based loosely on the experiences of Cuban poet Maria Elena Cruz Varela, Nilo Cruz’s play is a peek into the fiercely restricted lives of Maria Celia (Catalina Botello) and her much younger sister Sophie (Eva Alexander). It’s an intriguing play, and very well acted

But as an examination of power-play it’s a cleverly constructed microcosm of a repressive regime, with an optimistic punchline. Art, like Maria Celia, is ultimately indomitable, whereas the might of the military is endlessly compromised by the mind behind the gun."
Nina Caplan, Metro-London

“Paola Dionisotti’s production for Out of the Box puts untouchable desire at the play’s heart, where words and music are the only things that remain pure, and, by default, so very very dangerous.

With a quartet of performances fully engaged with the transcendent power of the imagination way beyond philistine legislators power-broking tunnel vision, you night think it’s just a story, but, in this case, it’s a whole lot more.”
Neil Cooper, The Herald

“Out of the Box is a London-based company that specialises in bringing new Hispanic writing to English-language audiences; and the quality of this thoughtful four-hander by the Cuban-born Nilo Cruz certainly suggests that it’s an idea worth pursuing ...

... There are ghost of Lorca here, of the imprisoned, frustrated women in The House of Bernarda Alba and Dona Rosa The Spinster. But there’s also a passionate effort to get to grips with the political pain and scar-tissue of contemporary Cuba ... the mood of Paola Dionisotti’s production reaches heights of emotional and dramatic intensity that makes the journey worthwhile.”
Joyce McMillan, The Scotsman

“ … a sharp production which have some intense moments both sensual and cerebral. Cruz’s play makes us examine whether it is the political idealist left behind in her own country who is impotent and fruitless or the exile who is self-seeking and neutered.
… Catalina Botello’s portrayal of the older sister gives us the whiphard will of the political idealist who desires to ensure she keeps her intellectual soul. … Eva Alexander makes the audience quiver with her longing…. the sisterly sparring are some of the delights of this production, well cast and directed by Paola Dionisotti.”
Thelma Good – EdinburghGuide.com

"If for no other reason than its disturbance of Cuba’s iconic status on the Left, this is a much tougher play than its rather twee title might suggest. Although it features the eponymous silblings and ivories, it is essentially a political lament for the good intentions of the Cuban revolution. Its domesticity is enforced: the sisters Maria Celia, a writer, and Sophie, a musician, are under house arrest after a period of imprisonment. Maria Celia, inspired by Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union, has signed a manifesto calling for democratic change.

Written by the US-Cuban Pulitzer Prize winner Nilo Cruz, Two Sisters is, however, unusually subtle in its politics and dramaturgy. The sisters, skilfully played by Eva Alexander and Catalina Botello, are no plaster saints. And the representative of the state is no monster. Lieutenant Portuondo(Robert Cavanah) is all ambivalence: jailer and would-be-lover, secret policeman and secret sympathiser.

Beautifully designed and intelligently directed, the play builds into a complex, thoughtful and gripping portrait of a society caught between fear of the future and the inevitability of change."
Fintan O’Toole, The Irish Times