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latinx theatrical adaptation, latinx plays, bilingual classical theatre, Latinx adaptation

 

BLOG #6

June 25, 2024

Before Succession, There Was Cane, the Cuban King Lear TV Series

 

In 2007, a short-lived television series premiered on FOX that starred Puerto Rican actor Héctor Elizondo as Pancho Duque, a Cuban sugar and rum magnate in Miami. Elizondo, known to most audiences as the hotel manager Barney from Pretty Woman (1990) and as Dr. Phillip Watters on Chicago Hope (1994-2000), is married to Amalia, played by Rita Moreno, who gets by far too little screen time. I referenced this series in my recent essay, “Accruing Gravitas, or Why There Isn’t a Latino King Lear (Yet),” about the absolute lack of Latinx King Lear adaptations and Elizondo as the only Latino actor to play a Lear-style role, in Cane and in the 2001 light-hearted film, Tortilla Soup.

 

The series centers on Alex Vega (Jimmy Smits), who is married to one of the three children of Pancho and Amalia. Alex was adopted into the family when he arrived via Operation Pedro Pan.[1] Alex later married Pancho and Amalia’s daughter, Isabel (Paola Turbay). Pancho is dying and is given six to twelve months to live. Concerned with succession, he makes Alex the CEO of the company, angering the eldest son, Frank (Nestor Carbonell). Meanwhile, Alex is having a secret affair with Ellis (Polly Walker), the daughter of Pancho’s rival, Joe Samuels (Ken Howard).[2] The youngest of the siblings is the owner of a nightclub and his primary concern is not with the family business but with his own. And someone gets murdered.

Jimmy Smits, Paola Turbay, Cane 2007
Hector Elizondo, Rita Moreno, Cane, Latino King Lear
Nestor Carbonell, Latino King Lear

All of that happens in the pilot episode. The series ran for thirteen episodes and has a whodunnit cliffhanger a-la- “Who shot J.R.?” of Dallas fame. In fact, the series struggled with what it wanted to be, which is likely one of the reasons for its cancellation, along with the Writers Guild of America Strike of 2007-08. It fluctuated between a gangster/crime drama, a troubled family story, a fiction laden with political-historical references intended to educate mainstream audiences about Cuban-American history, and a boardroom-bedroom nighttime soap opera. Smits’ Alex was a cross between the sympathetic orphan son who is the most credible (Tom Hagen in The Godfather) and a gangster (Sonny in The Godfather): he had someone killed, another person tortured, put a snake in someone’s pool, talked someone down who was holding him at gunpoint, tackled a (different) guy holding him at gunpoint (in a different episode), and drove through flames when the sugarcane was set on fire. I think Cane started to find its footing in episode twelve when they allowed Jimmy Smits to simply act rather than commit one criminal offense per episode.

Familiar faces appear in cameos throughout. Puerto Rican musician Daddy Yankee was one of the performers in the nightclub in the second episode. Singer Alicia Keys appears in episode seven. Jonathan Bennett, who played Aaron Samuels, the love interest from 2004’s Mean Girls, plays a bad guy in episode ten. And I love seeing Polly Walker, who audiences know today as Lady Featherington from Bridgerton, who I first remember as Jane Fairfax in the 1996 film, Emma. In Bridgerton, she spends most of her time plotting how to maintain her finances and position in society and does not take part in any of the series' famous sex scenes. In Cane, it is the opposite; Walker’s character is financially secure and is both the present love interest of Frank and the past love interest of Alex (revealed in episode eight) and gets to have stairwell sex in episode five.[3] As the love interest of Frank and the daughter of the Duques sworn enemy, she gets the Romeo and Juliet story that ties the series to another soap opera with a lot of crime, Dallas; in Dallas it was Bobby Ewing who married Pamela Barnes, the daughter of Jock Ewing’s enemy, Digger Barnes. King Lear was one of the influences for the creators of Cane (along with The Godfather), and Romeo and Juliet was an explicit influence for the creators of Dallas.[4]

Cane 2007, Latino King Lear

At the end of episode twelve, Alex pulls a gun on Joe in his office. At that moment, Joe gets shot from bullets that come through the window from outside his home. The episode ends with “To be continued.” In episode 13, “Open and Shut,” the audience (and Alex) are left to try to figure out who shot Joe. Alex is arrested, but the audience knows he didn’t do it. It could have been Manny, the man who robbed Alex who Alex captured and later let go out of sympathy, since the gun they found was from Alex’s safe and Manny had opened it. It is then revealed that Isabel, Alex’s wife, and Frank, both had access to the gun, making them suspects as well; since Frank was jealous of Alex, and Isabel and Alex’s marriage was strained, it could be either of them. Joe’s former private investigator, Bronson, is found shot dead (and naked), so he too is added into the mix. What was intended to be the final episode of the season became the final episode of the series. The (final) show ends with Alex walking in the rain to instrumental music. My $0.02 is that it was Ellis. She was angry with her father and notably absent from the final episode. But we will never know for sure.

 

King Lear is historically a difficult play to transpose to another context, but in recent years, television series have taken it on more so than films, as evidenced in Arrested Development (2003-06, 2013, 2018-19), Empire (2015-20), Succession (2018-23), and of course, Cane. In 2022, the series Promised Land premiered (and ran for less time than Cane), starring veteran actor John Ortiz as the Lear-esque patriarch, Joe Sandoval.[5] This Latino King Lear riff was set in Sonoma County and addressed undocumented workers in the grape vineyards. The series ran for only ten episodes before cancellation. Also in 2022, The Kings of Napa, a Lear-riff centered on a Black family also set in California’s wine country, premiered and was cancelled after only eight episodes.

 

Although some of the Lear-inspired television shows have had short runs, the breadth of transpositions that have resulted from its influence has expanded rapidly in the twenty-first century.  Maybe one day there will be a Latino King Lear for longer than one season. I look forward to it.

[1]  Operación Pedro Pan brought more than 14,000 Cuban children to the United States between 1960-62.

[2] From 1985-86, Ken Howard played Garrett Boydston in both Dynasty and its spinoff, The Colbys.

[3] Bridgerton is known for its costuming, integration of contemporary songs into the instrumental music in period-appropriate arrangements, interracial pairings and diverse casting practices, and of course, its romance novel sex scenes brought to life. 

[4] E! Hollywood True Story: Dallas. Aired 13 August 2000. Currently on YouTube. Many thanks to Eric Minton for bringing to my attention that Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet music forms part of the Dallas theme song.

[5] Oritz has had many stage and screen roles. His Shakespearean roles include Bassanio in Peter Sellars' The Merchant of Venice (1994) and Othello to Philip Seymour Hoffman's Iago (2009, The Public Theater), and he has performed in numerous Nilo Cruz plays.

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