Erin Mei-Ling plays Suki Palacios in The Lady Matador’s Hotel. Photo: Jim Norrena

National Book Award finalist Christina García, author of last season’s King of Cuba!, has made a successful return to Central Works in a well-written, winning and sensual theatrical version of her 2010 novel, The Lady Matador’s Hotel. The Miraflor Hotel, located in the capital city of an anonymous and precarious Central American country, is the “Grand Hotel” setting where the audience meets an intriguing, disparate assemblage of international characters. One can’t help but become involved with the lives of these individuals as they develop and change in exciting ways against the atmospheric backdrop of Central American instability.

Talented, sultry Erin Mei-Ling Stuart plays the outwardly arrogant but inwardly conflicted Japanese-Mexican matador Suki Palacios, who is staying at the Miraflor where she will participate in the first “Battle of the Lady Matadors in the Americas.” A right-wing army colonel in town to speak at a meeting of fascist strongmen from neighboring countries, Colonel Martin Abel (first-rate Steve Ortiz), shares a violent history with hotel waitress, Aura Estrada (excellent Neiry Rojo). She happens to be an ex-guerrilla fighter whose brother was murdered by the colonel years earlier. Haunted by her brother’s ghost (nice work by Gabriel Montoya), Aura’s desire to avenge him is balanced by her need for her cruel past to recede into a milder future.

A shady, well-connected lawyer, Gertrudis Stüber (effective Sylvia Kratins), who employs local breeder-mothers to give birth to babies who she then sells to wealthy American adopters, is tempted to complete an adoption to an exiled Cuban poet (Rudy Guerrero). In a remarkable display of acting, Rudy Guerrero also plays a hilarious over-the-top, gay TV psychic, who provides a welcome injection of show-stopping humor to the production.

Under the confident direction of Gary Graves, this arresting, lush, two-hour, two-act (one intermission) production moves through frequent, although seamless, scene-changes that never adversely affect the dramatic flow. Kudos to stage manager Callie Garrett, Tammy Berlin (costumes), and Gregory Scharpen for sound design. The sensuous tango (choreography by Christy Cote) and realistic fight scenes (fight staging by Dave Maier) add excitement to the performance.

Since Central Works only writes, develops, and produces world premiere plays, one never knows what the evenings will bring. I look forward to the surprises their next season — their 30th — will bring.

The Lady Matador’s Hotel is playing Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., through Nov. 10. Advance tickets are $30-$38 (Brown Paper Tickets: 800-838-3006), with a sliding scale of $38–$15 at the door. For information, extended dates and tickets, call 510.558.1381 or visit Central Works.

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...