Cristina García puts the “dic” in dictator in the theatrical adaptation of her own novel King of Cuba (through Aug. 26, at Berkeley City Club). In this exploration of Cubans at home and in exile, Garcia creates a fictional double of Fidel Castro. El Comandante (Marga Gomez) introduces himself by bragging about the size of his cojones. He delivers an ode to his genitalia which seems to account for his long-lasting endurance as the self-confident and unflappable ruler of that Caribbean nation. Gomez inhabits the role with panache. Her accent is louche when she means to charm and forceful when the communist leader reasserts his status as alpha male. She may be better known as a monologist and stand-up comic (Pound, Not Getting Any Younger), but Gomez plays well with everyone else in the ensemble.
García happened to be sitting next to me when I saw King of Cuba. When asked if the play was autobiographical, she waved her hand away as the lights grew dim and said, “It’s satire.” During the intermission, however, she said that while her parents emigrated to the United States when Castro came to power, her grandmother stayed. That tension, between those who stayed behind and those who fled the island, informs King of Cuba‘s atmosphere. García’s protagonist Goyo (Steve Ortiz) lives in a Floridian exile. He’s a widower who’s still struggling with his sense of displacement decades after leaving Cuba. He also has two grown children, a daughter Alina (Elaina Garrity) and a son Goyito (Marco Aponte). They have no idea that their father, at the end of his life, wants to exact revenge on El Comandante.
Like Goyo and his children, King of Cuba also lives in a state of exile, albeit a theatrical one. García may have written a satire but the director Gary Graves has delivered a good-natured farce. The performances generally land on the lighter side of caricature. Satire tends to sting the intellect whereas farce assembles a company of fumbling bumblers who bump into each other willy-nilly. The former hits the brain, the latter the gut. Aponte, in particular, fully embraces his role as a holy fool. He’s been outfitted with grotesque dentures that alter the way his mouth can move. They establish his bona fides as a buffoon and ensure that his line readings are absurd or cartoonish. Garrity, as Alina, works from a more normalized place as a real person but gets to cut loose later when she slips on a variety of other, supporting character masks.
Ortiz plays Goyo as a dreamer, with one foot in the past. He talks with the ghost of his wife (Leticia Duarte, who has mastered a number of different accents), while also imagining a final, violent confrontation with El Comandante. He’s a fine actor but, as conceived or as written, the performance belongs in a drama and not adjacent to the comic antics building up steam around him. His antagonist is the formidable Gomez. Though he may have been directed to avoid meeting her on her own ambitious terms. She’s also been blessed with the funniest lines and is able to hit every one of them. García published the novel in 2013, adapting it to not only explore Cuba’s history but also to meet “these times of extreme, oppositional politics” in America.
With El Comandante, we have a portrait of a leader enchanted with his own fabricated image and high on his absolute power trip. The parallels between the former Cuban and current American president are easily identifiable but the dark side of their ideologies aren’t really addressed. García may take it for granted that her audience will understand the psychological damage exacted upon a people in exile. She includes one scene in El Comandante’s presidential palace in which a heckler shouts obscenities at the leader. The voice is quickly whisked away by guards and we’re left to imagine his fate as imprisonment or in front of a firing squad.
But the implications of that moment pass by in a hurry. King of Cuba portrays Castro as a greedy, duplicitous, dirty old man who has trouble producing a steady urine stream. The audience takes away a good laugh at Gomez’s terrific voice work and physicality and Goyito’s awful teeth and his ridiculous outfits. But they distract us from rather than draw attention to the list of evils fascist leaders accomplish while they’re in charge. Laughter can sometimes feel empowering but it can just as easily end in heaps of copious, hopeless tears.
King of Cuba, through Aug. 26, at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley, $30-$38; 510-558-1381 or centralworks.org