Locked in a stranglehold: El Comandante (Marga Gomez) and Goyo (Steve Ortiz) in Cristina García’s King of Cuba. Photo: J. Norrena

National Book Award finalist Christina García, author of six novels, including the satirical, King of Cuba, from which this play is adapted, attended its world premiere opening at Berkeley’s Central Works on July 21. Unfortunately, novels, even well-regarded novels like García’s, do not always translate well to the theatre. And the stage version of King of Cuba, which has glimmers of substance, poignancy and humor, never quite gels into an integrated theatrical piece that makes us feel much for the play’s characters or for Cuba, for that matter.

King of Cuba is about two old macho Cuban men with opposing political views, both of whom long for their youth when their political ideals and physical strength were valued — that’s how they remember it anyway. One is El Comandante (Marga Gomez), the stand-in for Fidel Castro, who is vainly trying to maintain his power and his brand of Communism in Cuba, despite his peoples’ deprivation and desire for a market-driven economy. The other is Goyo (Steve Ortiz), an elderly Cuban exile, whose successful life in Miami has not tempered his obsession for revenge against the dictator, and his attempt to relive his idealized Cuban youth.

The plot involves Goyo’s return trip to Cuba, with his photographer daughter (Elaina Garrity) and adult son, newly released from prison, but with a goofy adolescent mentality and terrible teeth (Marco Aponte). There Goyo first encounters El Comandante in a men’s room, but later buys a gun and attempts to fulfill his revenge wish.

The small cast performs its roles very well. Marga Gomez is appropriately blustery as El Comandante, Steve Ortiz hits high notes as Goyo. Ben Ortega and Leticia Duarte are excellent in the many minor roles they play, and Elaina Garrity is excellent as Goyo’s long-suffering daughter. Marco Aponte as Goyo’s son acts his role good-naturedly, but it is unclear why Goyo’s son is a character in the play at all. The musician, Carlos Caro, who plays the bongo and a few other small instruments, complements the atmosphere nicely. Occasionally, the Cuban accents became hard to understand fully, but the gist was always apparent.

King of Cuba has numerous scene changes that disrupt, at times, the flow of the production and make the plot seem more disjointed than it would otherwise be. This may be a result of shortening portions of the lengthier novel, but in a two-hour production with a ten-minute intermission, the action became too attenuated to hold interest consistently. Director Gary Graves moved the action along professionally, but at times it was difficult to know the location of the scene or to continue to be involved in the story.

Exaggerated comical personalities may work well in a novel, where there is room for ample character development and back stories, but King of Cuba’s two octogenarians are presented merely as self-absorbed and foolish, and not particularly humorous. When they finally encounter each other in Cuba, it is clear that they have more in common than not. Both long for the Cuba of their youth, which they can never recapture.

King of Cuba is playing Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights at the Berkeley City Club, the splendid Julia Morgan-designed building, at 2315 Durant Ave., through Aug. 19. Advance tickets are between $22 and $38 online, with a sliding scale of $38-$15 at the door. For information, extended dates and tickets, call 510.558.1381 or visit Central Works online.

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Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...