Hartford Stage, Hartford
It’s worth a trip from anywhere to attend the Hartford Stage, where Cuban-American playwright Eduardo Machado’s “The Cook,” has just opened. This powerful drama carries us through the tumultuous years of Cuba in transition. It is played out through the life of one strong, proud, stubborn woman—a gifted cook named Gladys. We see her through all the years of changing times, her fierce loyalties tested to the breaking point. This is a play with as much humor as drama, bringing history to life with vivid characterizations and a strong sense of place.
Machado carries Gladys and her confreres through three time frames—1958, 1972, 1997—in three acts and one kitchen set. We first meet Gladys in 1958, just a year before the Castro take-over, when she is working for an upper-class Havana family. Though it appears to be a prosperous, orderly time, class distinctions are clear. It is New Year’s Eve, and Gladys rules the kitchen of the mansion with an iron hand, directing the servants and sending out platter after platter of hors d’oeuvres to the assembled guests. (This scene plays out like a ballet, never missing a beat, under Michael John Garces’ able direction.) Gladys is a perfectionist, with pride in her work placed above her husband’s wants. Her husband Carlos is, in fact, the family’s chauffeur and factotum, but well below Gladys in station. But there is no question who is really in charge, in this class-riddled society, and Gladys’ mistress, about to run off, exacts a promise from Gladys to maintain the house till she returns.
In 1972 the kitchen has changed, with broken slats on windows and other symbols of deterioration in Havana and Gladys’ own life and marriage. But she maintains the mansion as best she can, keeping her promise, as a loyal old family retainer is wont to do. The final act is a confrontation between Gladys and an American of Cuban descent, ultimately offering its own kind of triumph.
“The Cook” is a tight, well-wrought drama from start to finish. There is not a false note anywhere, with first-class directing and performances. Zabryna Guevara in the title role is flawless, as is Felix Solis as her husband. And excellent support comes from Che Ayende as a cousin, and Joselin Reyes as a next-generation Cuban. The one disappointing performance is that of Monica Perez-Brandes. Though she plays the parts of the Cuban mistress and her daughter with panache, her lines are rushed too quickly and often lost over the footlights.
But, all told, this is a thoroughly satisfying play which adds lustre to Machado’s reputation and given a first-class production which does it justice.
-- Irene Backalenick
Mar. 6, 2005