An image of Fidel Castro looms at the far end of the stage, away from the action. His picture is barely lit; it never calls attention to itself. But its very existence ensures that Fidel is ever present, a menacing specter that hovers over all that occurs onstage. Yet in The Concert, a fanciful parable about oppression in Cuba, what impresses most is not the evening's aura of fear but rather its ingratiating sense of bonhomie. It's hard to watch this 90-minute play by Ulises Rodríguez Febles, which is receiving its U.S. premiere at Upstream Theater, without smiling. In Rodríguez Febles' Cuba, music — especially Beatles music — trumps tyranny.
Some background: In December 2000 a bronze statue of John Lennon sitting on a park bench was installed in Havana. To some the Lennon bronze signified the loosening of state repression; it was emblematic of a dramatic turnaround from the early Castro era when rock music was taboo in Communist Cuba. But our protagonist Johnny (Jerry Vogel), a one-time rock musician who now ekes out a meager living as a security guard at a soap factory, doesn't see it that way. The Concert gets off to a super start when Johnny confronts the new Lennon bronze in a conversation that is as intriguing as Max von Sydow's exchange with Death at the beginning of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal. Von Sydow's character is a knight returning home from the Crusades; Johnny once played in a rock group called the Crusaders.
But the moment Johnny removes the bronze from the park and hides it in his garage (a shrine to Lennon that is modeled after the Cavern Club in Liverpool), he loses the nobility of a knight-errant and becomes more reminiscent of Rupert Pupkin, the obsessively deranged kidnapper in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy. What are we to make of this nutcase? When his own mother (Thomasina Clarke) commands, "You cannot play music in this house," who's the more immediate dictator, Mama or Fidel?
Much of the intermissionless evening is given over to Johnny's efforts to reunite the Crusaders (J. Samuel Davis, Peter Mayer, and Norman McGowan) for one last concert before he's forced to return the bronze. As we meet these former compadres, the story of why the band broke up begins to unspool. We hear references to "the spasms of the swinging '60s," "the passions of youth" and "ideological deviance." But, perhaps because the play is more admirable for its aims than its execution, the pursuit of this hoped-for final act of defiance against a Communist regime is about as dramatic as the kids trying to put on a dance in Footloose or Mickey and Judy wanting to mount a show in a barn.
If the script doesn't stand up to scrutiny, that doesn't diminish the evening's capacity for fun. It's pleasant to hear Beatles music under any legitimate circumstance. Another pleasure is watching Farshid Soltanshahi enact a statue. Forget all those actors you've seen portraying bronze Lennons in other plays; Soltanshahi is the most believable bronze yet. Then, too, Briston Ashe is great fun as a menacing dog. There's also the sheer natural grace of Norman McGowan, whose eyes glow like harvest moons. When McGowan and J. Samuel Davis come together to do backup on a Lennon song, watching them watch each other is a giddy pleasure.
All these charming moments, alas, do summon forth one nagging question: When a play's most felicitous characters and moments involve statues, dogs and happy grins, what does that tell us about the text? Not all questions require answers; better perhaps to just smile along and tap your feet.