‘Waters of Babylon’

has great chemistry,

but formula’s off

By John Fleming, Times performing arts critic
In print: Thursday, September 25, 2008

The story: Boy meets girl, except they’ve got more baggage than usual in By the Waters of Babylon, the two-person play by Robert Schenkkan that opens American Stage’s 30th anniversary season. It’s about the unlikely relationship between Catherine (Julie Rowe), the widow of an abusive college professor, and her gardener, Arturo (Chaz Mena), who turns out to be a novelist, exiled from Fidel Castro’s Cuba because he wouldn’t knuckle under to censorship.

Why we care: Schenkkan won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1992 for The Kentucky Cycle, an epic that calls for 20 actors and is rarely produced because of the expense of hiring them all. Babylon, set in Austin, Texas, and directed by Drew Fracher, is a chance to experience this important playwright’s work on an intimate scale. Why we like it: Strong chemistry between Rowe and Mena energizes the opposites-attract scenario. She’s got loads of screwball charm — “You know why Baptists don’t have sex?” she asks. “It’s too much like dancing!” — and he’s got soulful speeches on the glories of Cuban music and mixes a killer mojito.

Why we don’t: It’s a bit too convenient that Arturo is such a cultivated fellow, a day laborer who just happens to be fluent in French and quotes Ernest Hemingway. And Catherine’s transformation from wise-cracking ditz into psychotic whack job right out of Fatal Attraction strains credulity.

The sexy part: Woman winds up in bed with her gardener (or pool cleaner or cable guy): Babylon could be seen as a high-class homage to a million porn fantasies. The bedroom scene between Catherine and Arturo is pretty steamy. There was an audible gasp from the Sunday matinee audience when Mena dropped the purple sheet draped around him to flash some bare butt. Reminds us of: Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, another play about the developing relationship of two ordinary people, a short-order cook and a waitress.

Should you go? Sure, especially if you’re interested in some gardening tips.

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What is the best way of making money? HELIUM ONLINE MAGAZINE

12 November

What is the best way of making money? HELIUM ONLINE MAGAZINE

by David Gittlin

Chaz Mena is a man of passion. Whether it is creating roles for the stage and screen or spending time with family and friends, there is nothing this forty-one year old, Cuban-American actor does half way.

Chaz was born and raised in Miami, Florida where his earliest memories included scenes of his parents and grandparents telling each other stories of daily life in their long lost homeland of Cuba. Today, the population of South Florida is predominantly Spanish speaking. A large segment of the Hispanic population is Cuban-American. This is the exact opposite of the situation in the early Sixties. At the time, the first waves of Cuban exiles were literally lost in America. Chaz remembers “coming alive” when listening to the colorful stories his family members acted out on the front porch of their two story home in “Little Havana.” In hindsight, Mena realizes that telling these stories in a theatrical style enabled his family members to reconnect with their history and culture. These childhood experiences and an innate drive to tell a story that creates a shared experience have made Chaz Mena the man he is today.

After completing an MFA in Drama at Carnegie Mellon University, Mena arrived back in Miami with eighty thousand dollars in debts from his undergraduate and graduate studies. Even worse, he didn’t have a single lead or personal contact that might lead to gainful employment. It took a full week of sleeping in bed and the encouragement of wife Ileana before Mena was able to face the situation. He had been brought up to be a man of action rather than words. This led him to bravely pursue his childhood dream of becoming an actor without worrying about the consequences. Now, the first of many gut-wrenching reality checks Chaz Mena would have to learn to deal with waited unannounced on his doorstep.

By working odd jobs, Mena scraped together a nest egg of three thousand dollars. He set sail for New York City to establish himself as a legitimate, working actor. Chaz leased an apartment and began searching for an agent and acting roles. A few months later, Mena was penniless. All he had to show for his earnest efforts was a case of walking pneumonia. Then, serendipity or something akin to Divine Intervention changed Mena’s fortunes. While auditioning for a stage role, Chaz met the manager of the Spanish Repertoire Theater. The manager, whose name was Gilberto, recognized Mena’s family name. It turned out Gilberto had gone to college with Chaz’s father. He liked the father and enjoyed having his son, who bore a striking resemblance to Gilberto’s old college mate, around. “It made him feel young again,” Mena explains. So Chaz became a regular member of the theater company, which gave him the opportunity to play as many as six roles at a time in classical and contemporary Spanish speaking plays written by Spanish playwrights. The Spanish Repertoire Theater was the vehicle that launched Mena’s career. He began landing roles on TV and in Independent films. Mena was now living his dream as a respected and well-reviewed New York actor. Yet something was still missing.

Mena says he felt like “a fisherman constantly casting his line for roles with no real anchor. ” It isn’t hard to understand this statement since most actors live from role to role in their working life. One night, as Chaz was lamenting about the situation to his best friend Juan Carlos, something amazing happened. Instead of commiserating with Mena, Juan Carlos came up with an inspired idea. He knew Chaz had been, from early boyhood, a fan and avid reader of the work of Jose Marti, a 19th century Cuban Poet, Humanist, and Revolutionary. Juan Carlos suggested that Chaz write a one man play about Marti and act the role of the man whose ideas were instrumental in helping Cuba win independence from Spanish colonization. Chaz’s response to his friend’s idea might have been, “Are you kidding?” if not for the fact that Juan Carlos was a member of the Board of Directors of the Florida Humanities Council. All Chaz needed was his resume, some head shots, and of course, the play, Juan Carlos explained. He chose to ignore the fact that Chaz had never written anything for the stage or screen before in his life. Nevertheless, the next morning, Mena woke up with the first sentence of the play in his head: “Jose is still with us.”

Nowadays, between stage and screen roles, Mena travels to colleges and universities to enact the one man show with the sponsorship of the Florida Humanities council. As part of the presentation, audience members can ask questions and hear a carefully researched answer from the actor who has brought a great historical figure and his ideas to life. Getting into character, Mena expresses a “Martiano” idea: “That which is beautiful is moral. That which is moral is beautiful.

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Cuban hero a man of passion, action–Florida Today

04 November

Cuban hero a man of passion, action–Florida Today


For more than 45 years, the U.S. has had no diplomatic ties with Cuba. This is sad. It’s as if ignoring something will make it go away. Here is a country only 90 miles away, and our government pretends it doesn’t exist. This is the type of logic we expect from a child. Have you ever tried to think something away? It doesn’t work. There is so much we don’t know about Cuba. For example, can you name any one of its historic national heroes? Fidel Castro doesn’t count.

I’ll give you one: Jose Marti. You might say he was the Cuban equivalent of a Thomas Jefferson and Henry David Thoreau all in one. Though he was born in 1853, I had the privilege of meeting and listening to the man as played by Mr. Chaz Mena. This engaging performance came courtesy of the Brevard Reading Festival. The year was 1891, and it was the day before an important speech to a group of Cuban exiles living in Ybor City near Tampa.
Mr. Marti practiced his speech before those of us in the audience. He asked us which phrases and inflections might be more convincing and effective.

We learned his fight for independence started early. He was jailed at 16 and spent two years in prison for treason. Following his release, he lived in France, Mexico and the U.S., picking up ideas and gathering important friends along the way. He must have left quite an impression on the people of New York. They erected a statue of him on horseback in Central Park. It still is there. He must have left a pretty good impression on the citizens of Ybor City, because there is a bust of him there, too.

My brief encounter with the reincarnated Marti exposed me to a multifaceted man. He was a man of passion and action, who, together with everything else, wrote poetry and children’s books. He told us about a teacher who taught him that verbs are the heart of sentences, not the adjectives. He realized the same is true of humankind. Our worth is measured by the actions we take, not how colorful we are.

Marti returned to Cuba to fight for his country. He died leading a raid against the Spanish in 1895. But Cuba did gain its independence eventually, though some may say only temporarily.
It was a pleasure meeting Mr. Marti through Mr. Mena. Mr. Marti left behind some words you may know. Let me quote a few of them.

“I am a sincere man from where the palm tree grows, and before dying I want to share the verses of my soul . . . With the poor people of the earth I want to share my fate. The brook of the mountains gives me more pleasure than the sea.”Sound familiar? It should. His words became the lyrics to the once very popular song by the Sandpipers called “Guantanamera.” It also is the unofficial national anthem of Cuba.

Now you have no excuse for not remembering at least something about one of Cuba’s national heroes. Of course, you will be humming that song for the rest of the day. Try thinking it away and see how well it works. Then report your success to those in Washington who want to think away Cuba.

Johnston is a retired juvenile court judge who travels the country to see what he can discover, proving you’re never too old to learn something new.

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