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Tensions and travel restrictions make it hard for Cuban performers to enter the U.S., but Cuba's premier theater company has made the trip and is now performing at the Goodman Theatre's Latino Theatre Festival in Chicago.

NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY: Teatro Buendia had just one rehearsal day to get ready for its big, American debut. So it was an all-day affair. But the actors and musicians moved easily into place as the lights dimmed, the music started, English subtitles flashed overhead, and "La Visita de la Vieja Dama" - "The Visit of the Old Lady," was underway.

(Soundbite of opera, "La Visita de la Vieja Dama")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) (Singing in foreign language)

CORLEY: The informal theme of the Goodman Theatre's Latino Festival this year is revolution, and in this scene, the main character, Clara, resplendent in a long black gown and a brilliant red headdress, sings along with a recording of the late Cuban star Celia Cruz: both exiles, both nostalgic for Cuba, for its palm trees, for its songs blowing in the breeze.

Playwright Raquel Carrio wrote this adaptation of the Swiss play "The Visit."

Ms. RAQUEL CARRIO (Playwright): (Speaking foreign language).

CORLEY: Carrio says his tragic comedy is about a young woman who is ostracized and pushed out from her hometown, the fictitious Gula. Carrio infused her adaptation with Cuban and Caribbean sensibilities, rhythms and points of view. So, Clara returns from abroad many years later as a wealthy woman to her hometown, which has fallen on hard times and welcomes her, hopeful that she will help.

(Soundbite of opera, "La Visita de la Vieja Dama")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified People: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) (Speaking foreign language).

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) (Speaking foreign language).

Unidentified People (Actors): (As characters) (Speaking foreign language).

CORLEY: This is the first time Teatro Buendia has performed in the United States, but the troupe has traveled around the world. The Goodman's executive director Roche Schulfer says the Cuban company's aesthetic and point of view fits the Goodman philosophy.

Mr. ROCHE SCHULFER (Executive Director, The Goodman Theatre): With the Goodman philosophy of how to approach classic work, approaching classics as if they were new plays and new plays as if they were classics.

CORLEY: The festival's curator, Henry Godinez, was born in Cuba and came to the U.S. as a child with his parents shortly after Cuba's 1959 revolution. His first efforts to get Teatro Buendia to Chicago fell flat in 2003, but it was easier this time around. Godinez first saw the troupe perform "La Visita" in Cuba last December.

Mr. HENRY GODINEZ (Curator, Teatro Buendia): I was sitting there in the audience, first of all laughing because it's initially very funny but looking over my shoulder going, how are they doing this?

CORLEY: Amazed, says Godinez, because Teatro Buendia does not shy away from criticizing the Cuba of today, which jails many of its dissidents.

Mr. GODINEZ: And I think that that would be a surprise to many of us, especially many of my fellow Cuban-Americans in the exile community, you know, that we think all artists in Cuba are kind of, you know, blindly supportive of the revolution.

CORLEY: Artistic director Flora Lauten, a professor at the University of Art in Havana, founded Teatro Buendia in 1986 with graduates of the school. Lauten says the company has never been censored, is no government mouthpiece, and she and the troupe do not attempt to sugarcoat the reality of their country as they see it.

Ms. FLORA LAUTEN (Founder, Teatro Buendia): First of all, my generation made the revolution. But that doesn't mean that when years pass, you have to have a passive attitude towards what you made when we were young. You have to reflect on your reality, and then you have to talk about what you think that is not going in the best way.

CORLEY: Besides, says Lauten, Cuban authorities know the company produces quality work with few resources and has garnered international acclaim. The company's presence here might have stirred protests in other parts of the U.S., but Chicago's Cuban population is small, and the Goodman's Latino festival is not likely to become a cultural battleground.

(Soundbite of music)

CORLEY: Instead, the theater company will weave traditional Cuban music and dance with the words of its playwright, all in Spanish, but Lauten says Teatro Buendia is very physical and uses lots of images to bridge any language barriers. She just hopes audiences will come with no preconceptions.

Ms. LAUTEN: We show not only our rhythms and our music, we show our (unintelligible), our scars, and that is so universal that if the audience opens up, I think that we will embrace each other.

CORLEY: Teatro Buendia will perform in Chicago through next weekend. Its opening night was sold out.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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