By: Michael Dale / April 7, 2018
Magazine ads and television commercials may reach millions more, but perhaps the highest compliment I can pay Havana Club Rum's immersive theatre experience, AMPARO, is that it effectively guides visitors through a brief history of the company's trailblazing founding family, including generous tastes of both Cuban culture and their sugar cane libation, without ever feeling like a sales pitch.
Authored by Vanessa Garcia and directed by Victoria Collado, the entertaining piece arrived from Miami for a two-night/eight performance private stint at Bill's Townhouse, with plans for a production open to the public in the works.
Naturally, the show begins with and ends with generous samples of rum, beginning with a social session at the restaurant's intimate bar. The specialty cocktails include the Havana Café, a sweet coffee-flavored concoction served in a glass tumbler presented inside a cigar box. (One cigar included)
Soon after hors d'oeuvres are served, the chef comes out to make sure everyone's having a good time. Well, it's not really the chef. It's actor Bobby Ramos, giving a warm and gregarious performance. But in the middle of making a welcoming speech, our host sadly admits that the festive party atmosphere is just a show for the tourists, and he invites us to follow him to experience the real Cuba.
He leads guests to a room styled by designer Celso Peruyera to resemble the boat that, in 1862, brought Jose Arechabala from Spain to Cuba with an immigrant's dream of working hard to make a better life. As played by Randy Garcia, Arechabala passionately describes in his monologue a land with rich soil and endless opportunity, explaining the process by which rum is created from sugar cane.
We're then led to a room where drummers strike the rhythms accompanying a dancer's ritualistic performance to bring spirits back to life. These spirits are actually people from the recent past who continue the story, with small groups of audience members assigned to follow each one through the building as the tale is told through different angles.
This reviewer followed a young man named Ramon (very engaging Rene Granado), great-grandson Jose Arechabala, who takes pride in how his family's distillery has grown into one of the island's most profitable companies. We see some of his awkward flirtations with Amparo (compelling Bertha Leal), the young lady who would become his wife.
In Spanish, amparo refers to refuge or protective shelter; very appropriate considering where the story is going.
Ramon leads his group to a small room. Suddenly, there is pounding at the doors and he instructs us to push against them and not allow anyone in. We're guided to a parlor, where the young man tries to calm us with samples of the family's finest product, but it's the time of Fidel Castro's revolution, and our amparo is invaded by rebels who will eventually take over the production of Havana Club Rum.
What side of the story you witness depends on what character you follow. Those following Ramon and Amparo were shown a tense scene where a member of the militia (cold and smirking Andrea Bovino) casually searched their home for valuables.
With the operation of their business nationalized by the new government, history, and AMPARO, tells us that Ramon and Amparo fled to America with the family recipe and, stripped of their wealth, arranged with the Bacardi Company to produce rum under the Havana Club name. A major argument behind AMPARO is that while the distillery founded by the Arechabalas continues to produce a rum named Havana Club, the family legacy, and Cuban authenticity, is continued with the product produced in America.
Though scripted in shorthand by necessity, AMPARO contains some fine dramatic moments and is often quite moving. Sure, it all ends with a party atmosphere, with an abundance of nightcaps served after the performance, but it also may make you think more about the history behind the products that we use every day.
About Vanessa Garcia
Vanessa Garcia is a writer and mulit-media artist