- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 11, 2000

The idea that an artist's body can be imprisoned but his mind can remain free has been recurring in some haunting contemporary plays.

Now we have Nilo Cruz's "Two Sisters and a Piano," receiving an impassioned production at the Studio Theatre.

The suffering artists in this case are the Obispo sisters: Maria-Celia (Greta Sanchez-Ramirez), a famous romance novelist, and Sofia (Nancy Rodriguez), a gifted pianist. After spending two years in prison for Maria-Celia's writings, in which she cried out for freedom and change, the sisters are under permanent house arrest in their Havana home.

While rumors swirl about the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union, all is stagnant in the Obispo home in 1991. Maria-Celia's mail is kept from her, and she doesn't know whether her husband is making progress in getting her asylum in the United States or Sweden. Day after day, she waits and crochets bedspreads for money and spins nicely erotic stories in her head to keep from going insane.

Maria-Celia is a Cuban version of Scheherazade, telling stories to keep death at bay. Sofia, who is younger, has creativity but not Maria-Celia's resources. She plays forbidden (i.e., sentimental, European-influenced) music at the piano while itching to get out of the house and have some fun.

She also resents Maria-Celia's ability to escape into a lush world of sensations and ideas. The music isn't doing it for Sofia anymore — she is slowly sinking into madness. Miss Rodriguez does a subtle and commanding job calibrating Sofia's descent from a fanciful young girl to someone perilously fragile, ultimately breakable.

The sisters' imprisonment is underscored by Daniel Lee Conway's set, a vaguely Moorish assemblage of iron filigree, stone walls and tiled floor. Whenever the pair talk of the outside world, the walls reveal an almost-mirage effect of sea, clouds and air. But the bucolic image beyond their grasp is splotched by odd, dark stains. What are they — mold and mildew from the crumbling house, or do they signify the incompleteness of memory?

Walking into this charged atmosphere is Lt. Allejandro Portuondo (Paul Morella), who starts off as the usual intimidating and greasily smiling military brute on some sort of power trip. Then, viewers begin to see that he considers the sisters, especially Maria, enchanting. In his eyes, she especially grows ever more exotic in her hothouse environment.

Miss Sanchez-Ramirez does seem magical as Maria-Celia. No wispy orchid is she; instead, she's strongly and powerfully rooted in the earth. She moves like a modern dancer, like one of the characters in Maria-Celia's stories, as if constantly watched so her movements are carefully thought out. She shows the strength of Maria-Celia's mind — no one can seize her imagination or stop it from creating.

The lieutenant has something Maria-Celia wants — her husband's ardent letters. In turn, he wants her imagination, the free spaces in her mind. He offers her a deal: She tells him a story in exchange for hearing a letter. Although all of her instinctive alarms go off, Maria-Celia agrees.

While Sofia watches from the piano, Maria-Celia and the lieutenant engage in a dangerous cat-and-mouse game. His desire and her loneliness and thwarted passion fill the room as she relates another chapter of her tale of a man and woman in a glass tower, and he reads another scorching letter from her husband. No good can come from this situation, but the audience can watch deliciously as the temperature rises onstage when fantasy and reality become as tangled as Maria-Celia's and the lieutenant's limbs when the two finally give into their lust.

These are incendiary scenes, as we witness how love depends on heated words and poetry rather than mere body parts. Maria-Celia, however, eventually comes to her senses, and her wounded lover cries out: "Change, you want change? I'll give it to you." Change does indeed come.

Mr. Morella does his best with a part that changes abruptly in midstream, as the character goes from military macho man to sensitive poetry lover. He is quite affecting as the latter, as he loses all reason while wrapped in the spell of one of Maria-Celia's stories.

One of the most touching performances is one of the briefest, however. Lawrence Redmond plays a piano tuner who comes to the house just doing his job as he toes the party line, until Sofia's lithe flirting awakens long-suppressed feelings. He is suddenly vulnerable, sweetly undone as he tunes the piano as if it were the body of a lover.

"Two Sisters and a Piano" is not the most satisfyingly written play, as the characters go through soul changes at the blink of an eye. Yet the impassioned acting smooths over bumps of logic, and the message that oppressors never can imprison creativity and artistry makes the play well worth repeating.

"Two Sisters and a Piano"WHERE: Studio Theatre, 1333 P St. NWWHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Dec. 10TICKETS: $19.50 to $39.50PHONE: 202/332-3300

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