Written by Marvin Glassman
Despite the fact that the Elian Gonzalez saga has been entrenched in American history more than 22 years ago, the 1999 story of a six year old motherless Cuban boy rescued in South Florida by a fisherman still provokes critical observations about the political battle between paternal rights of a father in communist Cuba and the rights of the young Cuban boy to grow up in a democratic country.
Miami New Drama at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach is revisiting the historical facts of the saga in Elian by Cuban-American playwright Rogelio Martinez, running now through November 20.
When Elian was rescued on November 25, 1999 as one of only three passengers who survived the ill-fated trip on a small boat leaving Cuba to the United States, (Elian’s mother Elizabeth Brotons Rodriguez, was one of 11 passengers who drowned after the boat capsized) there emerged a tug of war between Elian’s relatives in Miami, supported by the exiled Cuban-American community to remain in the United States and the father of Elian, supported by Cuba President Fidel Castro, to return Elian to Cuba to be with his father.
The tug of war ended with the surprise on April 22,2000 with US Federal agents picking up Elian in an after midnight raid to the shock of his Miami relatives and returning him to his father, who went with Elian back to Cuba.
Through the lens of Rodriguez and Miami New Drama Artistic Director Michel Hausmann, who directed Elian, the Elian saga is not about a tug of war battle concerning what is the best solution for young Elian, but rather a struggle of which of the principal players could gain traction politically in South Florida
Instead of a drama, Elian looks at the events of the Elian story as political satire. Nine actors play more than 20 characters in the two act play, with the majority of the powerful cast coming from South Florida. Many of the actors play diametrically opposed characters.
The audience is guided by the characters of their aims and outlook of the Elian story, either by the character explaining verbally to the audience or through non-verbal cues what solving the Elian saga means to each of them.
Three actors stand out in the play for guiding the story and building the story to its dramatic climax.
Mike Iveson shines at the chief protagonist and narrator of the story, Roger Stone. Stone, who is known now for his political ties with former President Donald Trump and the Republican party, was in 1999 a little-known political advisor of the Republican Party, who capitalized on the Elian Gonzalez outcome by helping to orchestrate votes for Republican Party candidates in the 2000 election.
Iveson portrays Stone as a shallow manipulative political want-to-be who shares comic lines such as there being no word in Spanish for “compromise” to manipulate the Cuban-American community to look at the Republican Party as their source of alliance against the wishes of Fidel Castro and Elian’s father.
Iveson breaks the fourth wall and speaks to the audience directly in act two, chastising those who wanted Elian to be reunited with his father and simultaneously poking fun at the Cuban-American exile community.
Iveson also portrays former President Bill Clinton, with hilarious scenes of Clinton talking with then Vice President Al Gore and others, always with the scene ending with Clinton zipping up his pants- a more than token reference to his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
The lead female character standout in the play is actress Carmen Pelaez, who portrays the US Attorney General Janet Reno as a caricature from television “Saturday Night Live” being introduced to the audience dancing to disco while waving her body to Roger Stone.
However, Pelaez also gives a more factual interpretation of Reno as the conscience of Elian, pleading with Clinton to see justice as best served through the acknowledgement of Elian’s father’s paternal rights despite the lack of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States.
Actress Carmen Pelaez plays the dual roles of Attorney General Janet Reno and talk show host Ninoska Perez in Elian at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach.
Pelaez also shines as Cuban- American radio talk show host Ninoska Perez, who stokes the fires in the saga by encouraging the Cuban-American community of exiles to keep up the fight for Elianwith her rapid fire emotional outbursts.
Actor Andhy Mendez also stands out in his two diametrically opposed roles. He is hilarious portraying cigar puffing Fidel Castro as a puppet in politically manipulating Elian’s father, The American politicians and the exiled Cuban-American community.
Portraying Castro in a whining, high-pitch voice, speaking in metaphors made the audience laugh heartily perhaps as a reaction to the otherwise tense drama that will soon climax.
Mendez also is effective in portraying the then little known lawyer Manny Diaz, who represented the Miami relatives of Gonzalez, as perhaps the only character in the play who is concerned about the right of course of action for Elian, trying to negotiate a deal between the rights of Elian’s father and the rights of Elian’s relatives to have him remain in the United States.
The final scenes in the play are more dramatic and less humorous, with much sentiment and pathos expressed by Elian’s Miami relatives and Diaz feeling betrayed by his efforts for negotiations.
Actor Andhy Mendez plays the dual roles of President Fidel Castro as a puppeteer and lawyer Manny Diaz in Elian at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach.
Not stated in the play are two important facts: 1) Elian Gonzalez became close to Castro upon returning home to Cuba and emphasized the importance of his rule in Cuba and 2) Diaz went on to win two terms as Mayor of Miami and is now head of the Florida Democratic Party.
Adding to the play are the costumes of Christopher Vergara, the lighting of Kirk Baran-Bookman and the scenic design of Christopher and Justin Swader to create the authentic feel of Miami in 1999.
It is difficult to combine the intense emotion of the Elian story with the political satire that is probably more appreciated in 2022 than it would have been had the play debuted within a year of the historical event.
Along with the satire, the tensions between the Cuban-American exile community in Miami and American politicians, particularly those who are Democrats, are more keenly understood by seeing Elian.
Elian, a two act play by playwright Rogelio Martinez runs now through November 20 at Miami New Drama, 1040 Lincoln Road in Miami Beach. Show times are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 pm and Sunday matinees at 3 pm. Tickets range from $46.50-$76.50. For more information and tickets, call 305-674-1040 or go to miaminewdrama.org
Marvin Glassman is a regular contributor to South Florida Magazine. Marvin has written extensively on the cultural arts, especially comedy, music and theater for both Florida Jewish Journal and the online publication miamiartszine.com for over 25 years.