Pulitzer-winning playwright gives vivid voices to inner thoughts in series of monologues about war, sexism

MIAMI, Fla. -- "If men could hear the voice in my mind, I'd probably be punished," the teenage girl dressed as a boy from an early age says in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz's "Farhad or The Secret of Being."

Lucky for her, we as the audience members are the only ones around, allowing her to speak her thoughts out loud without fear of consequence. Those thoughts, for the most part, comprise words of beauty, poetry and honesty in "Farhad," one of three "inner monologues" set mostly in Afghanistan that Cruz has written and will be performed three more times by the nonprofit performance group Arca Images at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium.

The production of monologues, which opened Thursday night for four performances, each performed individually and admirably by a cast of four, gives vivid voice to the characters' inner thoughts and emotions with the kind of power that Stephen Sondheim's music and lyrics expose his characters' soul.

There's music in the poetic quality of Cruz's words, but there's also live music performed by a trio of talented musicians -- Rolando Grooscors on guitar, Miguel Hernandez on percussion and Mostafa Makki on the oud (a pear-shaped stringed instrument). The musicians heighten drama by building to an intensity or playing softly, enhancing gripping moments.

Although these works aren't plays, Cruz, author of the 2003 Pulitzer-Prize winning "Anna in the Tropics," making him the first Latino to be so honored, still creates inner conflict in the works, with shifting emotions, some quite intense.

Intensity of thought and feeling is expected when you set a play (or in this case three separate monologues) in war-torn Afghanistan, which still resonates with so many, even though 15 years have passed since the attacks of 9/11.

Obviously a playwright has a shorter time-frame in which to fully build a character in a monologue than a play. With that said, the most developed character is Farhad.

From the time she was little, Farhad dressed as a boy because males are treated far better than females in her country and have more opportunities. As the monologue begins, Farhad, who worked under the pretense that she was a boy in a pomegranate factory, is about to revert to a typical Afghanistan woman's clothing and appearance. Against her will, her parents have arranged for her to marry an "old butcher," a situation we can't help but compare to Tzeitel in "Fiddler on the Roof," who faces an arranged marriage with the unkempt butcher Lazar Wolf.

Unfortunately for Farhad, it doesn't appear she'll be as lucky as Tzeitel by talking her father into letting her marry her true love. And so, Farhad chants to her God in a lament as the moment approaches when she'll leave her boyhood behind.

Cruz has written the monologue in such a way that Farhad feels she's losing a best friend who's moving and the two will never see each other again.

Andrea Ferro, who boasts quite a belt, is excellent as Farhad, her face dripping a mixture of bitterness, steely determination and intense prayer as she chants her lament to her God about her situation. There is, at appropriate times, convincing emotional pain, nostalgia, pleading and an imaginative quality in her voice, the latter coming when she wishes she were like one of the pomegranates she's sold. If so, she'd be able to "free myself from this life," she says.

Some of the music she sings has a loving, gentle, dreamy quality as Farhad expresses her desire for her boyhood not to leave her.

"Stay with me longer the way a memory lingers," she pleads.

Some of Farhad's words come off as whiny and unoriginal, but there's mostly powerful and relatable material in"Farhad."

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In the program, the monologue "The Journey of the Shadow" is described as "a story for children and for those adults who take delight in the remnants of innocence."

Innocence pitted against the harsh reality of war or other times of dread such as bigotry is a theme that's been written about with much success (see, for example, "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.")

"Shadow" is the story of an 8-year-old boy who writes a letter to his father, a soldier fighting in Afghanistan. Problem is, the boy's shadow creeps into the letter and causes problems in a distant post office, affecting the letter's journey.

The monologue emphasizes the ordeal the youngster's shadow endures as an object in the letter. But the often harsh reality of life and the fact that in it, things don't always work out as we wish, is also driven home.

Andy Barbosa contorts his body in various positions to illustrate the shadow's roller coaster-like journey through the process of delivery. The actor also moves precisely and dramatically to reinforce the tension in the air as we anticipatedly wait to learn whether the letter will reach the boy's father. War, by its very nature, creates drama in such situations, because we don't even know if the man will survive long enough to receive and read his son's words.

At one point, the music ramps up in intensity, giving musical expression to the rush of emotions the boy feels.

"Waiting is a trial of patience," Barbosa, as the narrator, says.

Who among us can't relate to that statement?

Barbosa's rangy voice creates contrast and playfulness as he portrays the boy's shadow and narrates its journey. Unfortunately, "The Journey of the Shadow" is a hard one to follow at times; Barbosa has a thick accent and at times talks too fast.

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One might view "Melisma," another one of the three monologues, as a continuation of "The Journey of the Shadow." In this monologue, which is receiving its world premiere, we're amid the ruins of an Afghan village when a wounded and deserted American soldier appears (could it be the boy's dad?) The entire production is structured so that "The Journey of the Shadow" precedes "Melisma," so one could view it as a continuation of "Journey." To reinforce that argument, the soldier, Lolo, hints of a son.

But "Melisma," which according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is a "group of notes or tones sung on one syllable in plainsong or blues singing," has nothing to do with a letter between son and father. Rather, it concerns Lolo, who, as he waits to be rescued, remembers his life as an actor by talking to his dead former actors not on the stage of life, but on the stage within his imagination.

"Melisma" is written in a style similar to "Theatre of the Absurd," where characters search deeply for meaning in a world that appears to lack any. Lolo gives form to his ghostly fellow actors, talking about their past moments on the stage. Among other things, he notes that he "sweeps" (as with a broom) before he performs.

"It keeps me from shitting in my pants," he notes. "Laurence Olivier was a sweeper. So was Bette Davis."

Lolo proceeds to use one of his bloody garments to sweep the dirt amid the village's ruins.

One could view "Melisma" as an absurd piece, but also as an attempt to describe the effects war has on a wounded, weary soldier (post traumatic stress disordrer)?

Lolo speaks as though he's an actor playing a soldier and he's simply waiting for the other actors and crew to arrive so they can continue with their "play" or "movie."

"Or maybe we won't be performing tonight," Lolo says. "Not going on every night keeps us on our toes."

As Lolo, Alex Alvarez makes us believe he's in excrutiating pain and ready to drop. At other times, there's palpable desperation in Alvarez's voice, as, shaking, he waits in desperation and readiness for the others to show.

Lolo sure looks like he's been through hell, clad in dirty, bloody garb, his unshaven face adding to the unkempt appearance. It's one of the most telling costumes of the night, designed by an uncredited person or persons.

Cruz co-designed the lighting for "The Journey of the Shadow" with Celso Peruyera (in which, fittingly, a shadow is projected onto a black screen in the intimate, thurst-configured On Stage Black Box). The playwright also doubled as co-lighting designer with Peruyera for "Melisma," while Peruyera and Andy Senor Jr. co-designed the lighting for "Farhad."

The lighting designs create appropriately non-realistic atmospheres for moments that carry an otherworldly feel to them. The lighting is harsh at times, perhaps to drive home the cruel but all-too-real realities of war.

We know we're not living in peace and harmony when women such as Farhad must cover themselves practically from head to toe with little room to breathe. Her costume in the production is the last image we see from "Farhad or The Secret of Being" and its an effective piece of clothing that should instill saddness. We've all heard the opinion "children should be see and not heard."

Well, women like Farhad in her country are hardly even seen.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: "The Journey of the Shadow," "Melisma" (and) "Farhad or The Secret of Being," inner monologues by Nilo Cruz

WHEN: 8 p.m. today and Saturday as well as 2 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: Miami-Dade County Auditorium, 2901 W. Flagler St., Miami

HOW MUCH: $25 for general admission, $20 for seniors and groups of more than 10 and $10 for students. Tickets are on sale at www.arcaimages.org.