The title of “Celia and Fidel,” Eduardo Machado’s play at Arena Stage, should be “Fidel and the Revolution.” What I hoped would be a lush love story about a strong and powerful leader clinging to a strong and powerful woman is more about a caricature clinging to his Communist regime.
We meet Fidel Castro in 1980 as the Carter administration is seeking to normalize relations after decades of heated acrimony. Celia Sánchez, Castro’s right hand, is dead, but still haunts him; this is a woman he can never forget, “the only woman I trust.”
This begs the obvious question: Why don’t we know more about her?
We hear her described in easy categories — “comrade, mistress, wife” — but what we don’t hear, but want to find out, is who she is, where she came from and how she fell in love with him.
“I was your equal. Why would I want to be your wife?” she asks, in one of her better moments of inspired dialogue.
These are clearly two people who had an epic love story, set on an epically rich historical and political stage, but we only get fragments of their true characters. He’s toxically masculine in this play, and she can cut him down to size. But how did they get here?
We don’t get any answers, but we get a lot of cartoonish images of Castro, portrayed by a very adept Andhy Méndez, with Marian Licha as Celia’s ghost and Heather Velazquez as Fidel’s plucky new lady, Consuelo.
“What I love about you is you don’t have pretensions,” Fidel tells Consuelo, after she gulps down a beer and releases an earthy belch.
The women should be eclipsing El Comandante, but we get the same old, same old guy. The Macho Fidel: handsome and bearded in his uniform, puffing away at his cigars. The Gruff and Paranoid Fidel: barking orders at staff, having his coffee tested and wielding pistols. And, ultimately, the Stubborn Fidel: ignoring the desperation of his people as they storm the Peruvian Embassy seeking asylum.
I was hoping for the Vulnerable Fidel: the lover, the boyfriend, caught in the heady throes of a passionate affair. But, nada.
Machado’s play is helped by its timeliness. Castro has figured prominently in this month’s Democratic Party infighting, with Bernie Sanders taking heat for defending some of Castro’s programs. Many millennials who follow Sanders take inspiration from Castro’s revolutionary ideas and fight against capitalism.
But the establishment sounded the death knell when Sanders and Castro ended up in the same sentence — such is the legacy of Castro, who died in 2016. He’s a complicated figure, and beloved by many, including many women. It’s too bad we don’t have a better picture of the woman he loved, above all others.
The remainder of the run of “Celia and Fidel,” directed by Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith, was canceled, along with the rest of the season, due to coronavirus concerns.