For the first half of his two-part play cycle “Floating Islands,” playwright Eduardo Machado fulfills, as he is quoted saying in the program book, his “desperation to express my family’s history,” with sizzling, marvelously pointed theatrical strokes. Then, however, the sizzle fizzles.
Maria Josefa, It is no secret around the Mark Taper, where the play arrived on a groundswell of bicoastal hype, that feverish rewrites, additions and subtractions had taken place practically up to opening-night curtain, and that the nearly six-hour span of Machado’s play was already nearly an hour shorter than the original intent.
The impression remains, however, that the shearing process was incomplete at curtain time, leaving the play in similar state.
The cycle’s two parts are further divided; Part 1, “The Family Business,” consists of “The Modern Ladies of Guanabacoa” and “In the Eye of the Hurricane”; Part 2, “After the Revolution,” breaks down to “Fabiola” and “Broken Eggs”– the latter being the principal ingredient of a dessert called floating islands.
What’s good about this cycle is exceptionally good, but it all happens early.
The Marquez (aka Machado) family take the stage first in spring 1928. Cuba’s president, Gerardo Machado (no relation), lays a heavy hand on the island’s economy; yet the men of the family acquire a fleet of buses and set up commuter traffic between their small town and Havana.
Business flourishes, even as the corrupt leadership of Fulgencio Battista, Machado’s successor, further drains the economy. Young liberals look to the rising star of Fidel Castro as a savior.
Castro takes over in early 1960 and immediately outlaws private property. His goons seize the bus line, and wipe out civilian protest. The turmoil is splendidly encompassed on Eugene Lee’s thrust stage, backed by corrugated iron gateways that clank menacingly around the violent action.
Sweeping the action along here is some taut ensemble work, fashioned by director Oskar Eustis from a superior cast, including the wonderful Miriam Colon.
But with hardly any historic sweep to motivate the action from then on, Part 2 evolves into a more tenuous dramatic fabric.
Following the futile struggle to save the bus lines, there seems nothing left for the family but squabbles and mistrusts.
The action moves on from 1960 to the early 1980s, but doesn’t really get anywhere. Even the splendid Colon is reduced to the role of a stock wisecracking granny.
The cast is never less than capable, but the amount of double-casting — in which a character at different ages will portrayed by different actors while the original actors move on to other roles — is often confusing.
The plays are presented in single parts during the week, and as doubles on Saturday and Sunday. Seeing them as singles avoids some of this confusion; in any case, six hours of Machado’s brand of languish and anguish makes for a grueling long day’s journey.