‘Encanto’ Co-author Charise Castro Smith Gets a Hometown Premiere at GABLESTAGE

Written By Christine Dolen | Artburst Miami

From left, Barbara Bonilla, Gabriell Salgado, Emma Garcia Seeger, James Puig, Adriana Sevan and Thais Menendez star in GableStage’s Florida premiere of “El huracán.” (Photo courtesy of Marcus Stark)

Though it had a successful world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre in the autumn of 2018, Charise Castro Smith’s “El huracán” has always been a play about and meant for Miami.

The moist heat. The yearly threat of hurricanes. The Cuban diaspora, with the ache of losing homeland and family.  In a new country, multigenerational affection and tension under the same roof, in English and Spanish.

Using a mixture of poetically evocative language, humor, vivid theatricality, magic, magical realism and echoes of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” Miami native Castro Smith has constructed a deeply recognizable world in “El huracán” (“The Hurricane”). The play’s Florida premiere previews Friday, April 14, opens Saturday, April 15 and runs through Sunday, May 14 at GableStage in Coral Gables.

Getting “El huracán” produced in her hometown – specifically by GableStage, one of Miami-Dade County’s most celebrated theater companies – was always one of Castro Smith’s goals.

Although she left Miami to earn degrees at Brown University and Yale, and now lives in the Los Angeles area where she focuses on writing for television and film, Castro Smith’s personal and family roots here run deep. She went to high school at New World School of the Arts (Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney was a couple of years ahead of her) and was influenced by many productions staged by GableStage producing artistic director Joseph Adler, who passed away in 2020.

Miami native Charise Castro Smith is the author of “El huracán” and the co-director/co-writer of the Oscar-winning “Encanto.”

“I always intended to find a home for the play in Miami,” says Castro Smith, co-author and co-director of the Oscar-winning animated Disney film “Encanto.” “GableStage was the theater I aspired to when I was growing up.”

She has, in fact, acted in an ambitious GableStage co-production. In 2013-14, Castro Smith, who trained as an actor before shifting to playwriting, played Octavia and Iras in the McCraney-adapted production of “Antony and Cleopatra.” Directed by McCraney and set on the eve of the 1791 Haitian slave revolution in Saint-Domingue, the production was a joint effort of GableStage (which presented it at the larger Colony Theatre in Miami Beach), the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-Upon-Avon and New York’s Public Theater.

That Castro Smith’s own play has finally landed at GableStage was the result of long-term regional theater connections.

Bari Newport, in her second season as the theater’s producing artistic director, was at California’s Pasadena Playhouse when Miami-born Dámaso Rodríguez, who is directing “El huracán” for GableStage, was serving as associate artistic director there.

The two stayed in touch as they became regional theater leaders, with Rodríguez co-founding Furious Theatre in Los Angeles and serving as artistic director of Artists Rep in Portland, Oregon, for nine seasons.  He’s now an in-demand freelance director and vice president of the Arts Consulting Group.

“Dámaso is the real deal . . .He has a love of new plays and a love of reading plays, and he’s also a playwright . . . He would send me plays and playwrights he was discovering,” Newport says.  “Charise made it clear to me that it was extremely important to her that this play be produced by GableStage. She was active in finding additional financial resources.”

One of those was a contribution from producer-activist-businessman Henry Muñoz III (“Funny or Die,” “Funny Girl” on Broadway).  The larger budget has allowed Newport to hire a magic consultant to teach the cast tricks specified in the script, funded two sets of costumes (one appropriate to 1992, another for 2017), and helped realize the play’s many complex technical elements.  All in all, Newport feels producing “El huracán” in GableStage’s relatively small space has been more like putting up a musical.

Of Castro Smith’s strengths as a playwright, she says, “I love writers who understand the genre they’re writing for, who love theatricality and who lean into what theater does best – which is express elements of the human experience through metaphor.”

Rodríguez had directed a production of Castro Smith’s “Feathers and Teeth,” a wild, bloody and darkly comic contemporary horror play inspired in part by “Hamlet,” at Artists Rep in 2017.  But it was “El huracán,” which he had read a year earlier, that continued to haunt him.

“I mentioned it to different artistic directors, but I suggested to Bari that it would really connect with Miami audiences, who would see themselves in it. I sent it to her, and she quickly said, ‘We’re doing it next season,’ ” Rodríguez recalls.

He also loves Castro Smith’s writing in the six-actor, nine-character piece that incorporates magical realism, poetic moments and  memories – some missing or mistaken, others joyful – of a matriarch living with Alzheimer’s disease.

“Charise is an actor, too. She writes great characters, gives them depth and specificity,” the director says. “Her work is very ambitious and boldly theatrical, with a sense of fun. She wants theater to be exciting and surprising, with a lot of emotional depth.”

Barbara Bonilla and James Puig play a long-married Cuban couple contending with the last part of life in “El huracán” at GableStage, written by Miami native Charise Castro Smith opening in previews on Friday, April 14 and running through Sunday, May 14. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

Castro Smith was inspired to write “El huracán,” she says, by a number of things: Her Cuban mother’s interrupted childhood, the shocking devastation of Hurricane Andrew, her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and a 2009 trip to Havana with her parents to bury her grandfather’s ashes in the family plot.  The comedy, tragedy and romance of “The Tempest,” which Castro Smith describes as “Shakespeare’s farewell to being an artist,” plus some character names and the banished nobleman Prospero’s “rough magic” figure in too.

“My mom had a childhood in one place, and then it was fractured in the middle.  I didn’t visit Cuba until I was 24, when I discovered I had been missing a place I’d never been,” says the playwright, who was surprised to discover that her grandfather’s home in Cuba was a smaller version of the one he subsequently built in Miami. “My grandmother was diagnosed around the time I left for college. It took a toll on the family. It was overwhelming, sad, confusing, funny and incredibly tragic.”

Set in Miami, the first act of “El huracán” takes place before and during Hurricane Andrew in August 1992. Abuela Valeria (Barbara Bonilla), who was a dazzling young magician in Cuba before the revolution, is now in her 70s and in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. Her daughter Ximena (Adriana Sevan) is worn out from constant caregiving and clashes with her grad student daughter Miranda (Thais Menendez).

Valeria’s husband Alonso (James Puig), her long-ago magician’s assistant, has vanished, unable to bear watching his wife’s suffering and deterioration.  The family’s hot neighbor Fernando (Gabriell Salgado) makes an appearance that will have lasting repercussions. Valeria’s younger sister Alicia and a neurologist (both played by Emma Garcia Seeger) also figure into a plot that intensifies as the massive hurricane approaches.

Castro Smith’s story then jumps ahead 25 years, with the two parts linked by some in-plain-sight theatrical magic:  As assistants help transform them, the long-estranged Ximena and Miranda become the older version of themselves.

Valeria and Alonso are present but as memories, no longer of this world. Miranda, absent since Hurricane Andrew, shows up with her now-grown daughter Val (Garcia Seeger), a young woman eager to understand the family she has never met. Theo (Salgado), the son of Ximena’s cousin, has followed the path of so many others who left Cuba to forge a new life in Miami.

The storm this time is within the family. Letting go of old wounds, reconciling and finding forgiveness figure powerfully into the second part of “El huracán.”

The vivid beauty of Castro Smith’s writing shimmers throughout the play, as in this speech by Alonso after Valeria’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis: “I could never forget you. Not as long as I breathe. If I tried to forget, my bones would remember. If my bones forgot, your scent would live in the tiny channels of my skin. And if my skin forgot, scenes from our life would play out over and over again on the insides of my eyelids, unbidden until the projector in my mind sputtered out and was no more.”

Emma Garcia Seeger, Thais Menendez, James Puig, Barbara Bonilla and Adriana Sevan are family in “El huracán” at GableStage. (Photo courtesy of Marcus Stark)

Puig, a University of Miami graduate whose long career includes productions on and off Broadway, at major regional theaters nationwide and at numerous South Florida theaters (most recently at Miami New Drama and Zoetic Stage), is making his GableStage debut as Alonso.

Alonso, Puig feels, is a loving husband and father who makes one critical mistake that ruins the rest of his life. And he sees “El huracán” as a love story that asks how to forgive the unforgivable.

“Some plays are entertaining. Some transform you, educate you, inspire you. I don’t think you can walk into this one and then walk out the same. It provides a booster of compassion,” he says, adding that having Castro Smith in the opening night audience will be “like doing Shakespeare for Shakespeare.”

Salgado, a Miamian, New World School of the Arts grad, and the only other male actor in the cast, has had a succession of significant roles since beginning his professional career a year and a half ago.

They include the title character in Zoetic Stage’s “Frankenstein” and Puig’s son in the Zoetic world premiere of Hannah Benitez’s “Gringolandia,” the Lector in the recent Nilo Cruz-directed “Anna in the Tropics” for Miami New Drama, the grieving grandson in Amy Herzog’s “4000 Miles” at Palm Beach Dramaworks, the aspiring Olympian in “Red Speedo” and a would-be matinee idol in the world premiere of Michael McKeever’s “The Code,” both at The Foundry in Wilton Manors.

“El huracán” marks his GableStage debut, and like Castro Smith, Rodríguez and his fellow actors who have large families in South Florida, he’s hoping to fill a lot of seats during the play’s run.

“My mom went to 13 performances of ‘Frankenstein,’” he says, smiling.

In rehearsal, he has shared stories about his grandmother, who has dementia, with his colleagues. She can still carry on a conversation, is still lucid, but Salgado says “this is prime time for her and her memories.”

The actor is also clear about the roles he and Puig play in “El huracán.”

“This is not about the men.  This is about the women.  It’s important to be the secondary amplification sometimes,” he says.

Sevan, who starred opposite her husband Jonathan Nichols in the 2004 Coconut Grove Playhouse production of Cruz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Anna in the Tropics,” has dozens of credits at major New York and regional theaters as well as in film and television.  She’s also a successful playwright who looks at “El huracán” through the lens of a performer and a writer.  In the Yale world premiere, she won a Connecticut Critics Circle award for playing Valeria (opposite Nichols as Alonso); at GableStage, she’ll be Ximena.

“This play grabbed me from the first time I read it. I thought I have to do this play and wondered, ‘Who is this extraordinary writer?’,” she says.  “This is about exile, leaving home, the diaspora, trauma.  Some have to lock that away. Others have to bring it with them.  I’m so curious about the cost of exile. What you have to remember and what you have to forget to go forward.”

Castro Smith, Sevan says, “writes with epic reverberations, going back to the Greeks and Shakespeare.  It’s theater as ritual and catharsis.”

Having played Valeria and now Ximena (“I have walked in Mami’s shoes,” Sevan says), she believes that capturing stories and memories of a family’s oldest members is vital.

“When an elder dies, a library burns,” she says.  “With gentle urgency, you should get those stories that might have been lost.  And when you leave the theater, don’t check your missed messages.  Make a phone call to your family.”

WHAT: “El Huracán” by Charise Castro Smith

WHERE: GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables

WHEN: Preview 8 p.m. Friday, April 14, opening 8 p.m. Saturday, April 15; regular performances 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (additional matinee Saturday, May 13), through Sunday, May 14 (streaming version available during regular performances beginning Friday, April 21 through Sunday, May 14)

COST:  $45-$75 (streaming ticket $27)

INFORMATION: 305-445-1119 or gablestage.org

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