New Year's Eve, 1958. Cuba is on the brink of a communist revolution led by Fidel Castro. This knowledge hangs over the Santana household in La Havana like a thundercloud waiting to burst. Gladys (Lynsey Ford '10), the family's cook, is busy preparing Baked Alaska for a room full of Batista-loving aristocrats. There is a serene quality to her work as she tastes, chops and simmers, but it will soon be out of the frying pan and into the fire for Gladys' family in Sock and Buskin's latest production, "The Cook," which opened Thursday night in Leeds Theater.
Gladys takes the Baked Alaska out of the oven and looks around the room. "I am a great cook. That's who I am," she says proudly.
Enter Carlos (Rafael Cebrian '11) — her husband and the family's chauffeur. There is a swagger in his walk and a grin on his face. When the revolution happens — and it will happen — he will be waiting to take his place in the new regime.
In a tender moment amid guests ringing for more hors d'oeuvres, Adria Santana (Gillian Chu '13) cursing Fidel and other servants scampering through the kitchen, Carlos takes Gladys in his arms and says, "I know that you're nervous, but remember, I love you." They will need that love more than they can imagine in the coming years.
The naturalistic play, written by Cuban playwright Eduardo Machado, spans 40 years of the Cuban Revolution as it unfolds within the four walls of Gladys' kitchen.
"For me, the story is really about how the revolution in Cuba affected people on a personal level," said director Kym Moore, visiting assistant professor of theatre arts and performance studies.
"It's ultimately a love story," said assistant director Zach Bleckner '12. "A reality is clouded by political and socioeconomic circumstances. The only thing that survives all this s— is love and family. It's powerful."
"It's really Eduardo's love song to his homeland," Moore added.
At the close of the first act, Adria clasps Gladys' hands and makes her swear one thing — to protect the house from Castro's people. Gladys agrees without a second thought. She loves Adria and considers her a friend — family, even.
"That loyalty has destroyed her whole family," Moore said. "The play is about blind loyalty."
The theme of devotion resonates on several levels: Gladys' never-ending fidelity to Adria causes her to pull away from her family while Carlos' faith in Castro represents the way many Cubans felt about the future dictator, until they later encountered the bitter sting of disappointment.
"The play asks, at what cost this revolution?" Moore said.
In the second act, Gladys is faced with a choice. Her cousin Julio (Gabe Gonzalez '12) is being watched by the secret police. He has been having an illicit affair with an 18-year-old white boy, punishable by detainment at a work camp — death is the usual result.
Carlos has worked his way into the new regime and is now the minister of transportation. He can — and will— save Julio out of love for Gladys, but his relationship with her has deteriorated over the past 12 years and he wants something in return. His girlfriend is pregnant and he wants to move her into the house.
But it is Adria's house and Gladys vehemently refuses. Not only is she angry with Carlos, but her promise to Adria prevents her from letting anyone in the house — even if it would mean saving her cousin's life.
Julio is devastated. "I thought the revolution was going to include me," he says.
The play reveals many nuances of the revolution that are often overlooked in representations of Cuba. As Moore said, people "see the picturesque buildings and 1950s cars. Then they think of the food. They forget about the people, the complexities of the society."
In order to prepare for the production, Moore visited Cuba in December and got a firsthand look at what life in the country is really like. "We did an incredible amount of research," she said.
According to Gonzalez, Moore brought in photos, videos and other materials for the cast to study. "Kym made great efforts to familiarize us with the culture and history of Cuba. It made a world's difference in understanding who we are in this play and the humanity of our characters," he said.
Moore, who is of Panamanian descent, said she wanted to direct "The Cook" for several reasons, "particularly because it was centered on Afro-Caribbean women. It reminded me of all the women in my family." The play also offered her the opportunity to put on a realistic play with a small cast, she said. There are only six actors involved in the production.
"It's very intimate because it is such a small cast," Gonzalez said.
For a group of its size, the cast is very international, featuring individuals of Spanish, Portuguese, Jamaican and Sri Lankan heritage, Gonzalez said.
"I wanted a diverse cast," Moore explained. "A lot of people said, I can't try out for that because I'm not Cuban, but you're not Elizabethan either." The Caribbean itself is very diverse, and Moore said she wanted to bring this to life on the stage.
Bleckner said the play also featured several aspects that are characteristic of Cuba — such as the "Cuban phenomenon" of double-speak. "Every line has a double meaning," Bleckner explained. The production was also very performative — incorporating the dance, music and culture of Cuba into the play. "It's the opening up of the hips and the body," Bleckner said.
The cast took on the challenge of such a performative piece and delivered. Ford's Gladys is a brilliant combination of warmth, strength and naivete. Cebrian's Carlos never loses his swagger, even when the family falls on hard times.
Complete with running water, the set provides the perfect backdrop to Gladys' work. You can smell the onions Carlos chops and the cigarillos Gladys and Julio smoke on New Year's. The attention to detail is impressive, transporting audiences to the Santanas' bright kitchen as soon as they step into the theater.
The result is a wonderful combination of strong performances, charming set design and authentic Cuban flavor that brings to life a situation often forgotten by history books.
"The Cook" runs April 8-11 and 15-18 in Leeds Theater with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $7 for Brown students.
An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Assistant Director Zach Bleckner '12. The article also misquoted Bleckner as saying the revolution was clouded by political and socioeconomic circumstances. In fact, he was referring to a reality that the play explores, not the revolution itself.