Preview: In his last play before heading off to grad school, Rodolfo Robles Cruz brings ‘Anna in the Tropics’ to the Madera Theatre Project

When it comes to Latinx theater that is challenging, Rodolfo Robles Cruz proved his directorial chops in last year’s intense production of Luis Alfaro’s “Oedipus El Rey” at Selma Arts Center. Now he’s up for another challenge: Nilo Cruz’s 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Anna in the Tropics.” It opens 7 p.m. Thursday, July 6, at the Matilda Torres High School Performing Arts Center.

Pictured above, clockwise from top left: Samantha Ramos, Paulina Marin, Mason T. Beltran (as Juan Julian), Beyonce Rodriguez (as Marela), and Cecilia Cantu (as Conchita) in Madera Theatre Project’s “Anna in the Tropics.” Photo: Rodolfo Robles Cruz

The production, which is loosely based on Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” is set in 1929 in a cigar factory in Florida where things are still done the “old” way, with the cigars hand-rolled and one of the perks of employment the chance to be read aloud to during the shift by a lector to help pass the time. But things are changing.

I talked to Rodolfo Robles Cruz about the production, which continues through Saturday, July 15.

Q: “Anna in the Tropics” is not an easy play for a community theater to tackle. New York Times critic Ben Brantley noted that the play’s “confrontations and collisions are rendered in some of the most densely lyrical language from an American playwright since Maxwell Anderson.” Do you feel challenged by this play? What is it about the material that made you think it was a good fit for Madera Theatre Project?

A: It is my philosophy that a director is someone who builds capacity within a community and delivers a collective message. The greatest way to unlock the endless potential in our community, being the Central Valley’s Latinx community, is to tackle these incredible scripts, to show our pool of actors that they are worthy and talented enough to explore, interpret, and deliver this poetic and elevated language. I am most excited about this production because it is a huge challenge.


This material for myself is a huge departure from my most recent project, “Oedipus el Rey” by Luis Alfaro. I went from grungy and volatile to sophisticated and nuanced. But both stories need to be told. I knew I wanted to work with the Madera Theatre Project, and I knew something as timeless and elegant as “Anna in the Tropics” would make a perfect fit, whereas “Oedipus el Rey” was a perfect fit for a venue that is daring and eclectic like the Selma Arts Center. With “Anna” it is an important story to tell to our communities, to see Latinx people reflected on stage in a way that reminds us of our past, our lineage. A reminder that humanity evolves, our surroundings change, but our experience remains human.

Fun fact: I had also pitched to direct “In the Heights.” Maybe next year!

Q: Tell us about your Juan Julian and Conchita, the play’s two major characters. Who plays them? What were you looking for in terms of chemistry?

A: Juan Julian is played by Mason T. Beltran and Conchita is played by Cecilia Cantu. The entirety of our cast is full of younger actors, it is challenging to cast a Latinx show with age appropriate actors, especially as a young director, but I see it as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. With these young actors we are able to find a new energy about the show, an energy full of passionate storytelling. A youthful energy that brings new life to these words. Where the disappointments of life feel a bit harder. And the passions of life feel a bit more exciting.

Beltran (who uses the pronouns they/them) plays a charismatic and nuanced Juan Julian. They offer a feeling of fight to Juan Julian. The fight to remain employed during a time where lectores are no longer valued the way they used to be. A fight to maintain tradition alive, not only for their job status but also to honor their parents who made Juan Julian into a listener, an oyente. It is a major departure from their performance as Oedipus, a new side of a brilliant actor.

Cantu brings us vulnerability and exploration. She plays a Conchita who is affected by her surroundings. We see delight and energy when surrounded by the women in the family, living in a dynamic that is free of judgment and oppression, and we see solemnity and exhaustion when around her husband. She is deeply inspired by the book our Juan Julian reads. She is moved by the passion a man should carry. Cantu is rich in vulnerability, and mixed with Beltran’s fight and charisma, we get an electric combination where the eyes linger too long. Where the touch gets a little too close.

In terms of chemistry that is exactly what I was looking for. Two actors who offer a balance to each other. A cat and a mouse, and the willingness to change who the cat is and who the mouse is as we rehearsed.

Rodolfo Robles Cruz

Mason Beltran and Cecilia Cantu in Madera Theatre Project’s “Anna in the Tropics.”

Q: Does “Anna” actually follow the plot of “Anna Karenina,” or is the story merely read by the lector on the floor of the cigar factory? Do you think it’s important for audiences to know anything about the Tolstoy classic beforehand?

A: “Anna in the Tropics” does not follow the exact plot of “Anna Karenina,” but it does offer us threads from the world. More than anything, the passages Juan Julian reads on stage are reflective of the situations the actors are facing in the factory and in their familial dynamics. The story serves as a catalyst for bold and passionate choices.

I do not believe it is important to know Tolstoy’s classic. I think it offers an experience such as the cigar workers in the factory: Let the words educate you as an audience member in the moment. It will be as if you are an oyente, or a listener, like the Alcalar family.

That being said, knowing the story of “Anna Karenina” will be a fun journey when interpreting your own thoughts of who Anna is in the script. Is it Conchita? Or could it be Palomo? You can decide yourself! Maybe invite another Tolstoy lover for a second viewing of “Anna in the Tropics” to discuss the language Nilo Cruz uses.

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Q: The cigars in the factory are still hand-rolled, yet the age of automation at the time of the play is advancing. Today, we’re facing a new kind of automation: robots for manual/service labor and artificial intelligence for intellectual labor. Do you think “Anna in the Tropics” can be connected to current human concerns?

A: The theme of Tradition vs. Modernity is heavily present in “Anna in the Tropics.” And in our current crisis with new automation we are facing a decline in the artist’s value, a cheapening of our craft. Physical medium artists, digital art, written work, staged work — it is all being affected by the movement towards AI Labor. I think themes present in “Anna” are a direct connection to current human concerns, and as we move forward will only become more relevant.

I think it is also important to highlight that we have groups that are actively doing work to decolonize many aspects of our culture as Latinx individuals. And moving toward practices that revive the spirit and the culture of our indigenous roots to preserve the tradition as we move towards an automated future. Remember to save the artist, not the institution.

Q: What do you hope that audiences take away from the play?

A: I said earlier that as a director my job is to build capacity and deliver a collective message. That message for me is to continue to support Latinx theatre in our Central Valley. Our communities are full of migrant workers, first, second, third generation communities that haven’t had access to theatre like this.

I always think about one of the first plays my mother saw me in. She is a Mexican immigrant who only speaks and understands Spanish, and she came to see me perform as Francis Flute in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Fresno State in 2015. I asked her after the show if she needed me to clarify anything that was said during the production, any key moments that she might want to understand, and she shook her head. She had caught and interpreted every story that was told on that stage. She was a listener, and that was the last time I underestimated the power of los oidores who come to our theater spaces. Our beautiful Latinx community who haven’t had access to theater in their communities. They deserve shows that represent them. They deserve to watch a dynamic, poetic, and powerful story that is reflective of what they look like and who they are on stage.

Q: Anything you’d like to add?

A: I am excited to share this project with the audience. It is my final project in Fresno before I relocate to pursue my master’s degree in directing at UT Austin. The artist community in Fresno has been an endless inspiration, and I will always proudly represent California’s Central Valley and Fresno.

Please be mindful that this show is for mature audiences and carries heavy themes and a few moments that can insinuate triggering events! The entire show is tastefully staged so don’t be discouraged!

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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