She’s no FAKE – Carmen Pelaez’s true story of art and Cuban-American heart.

In Miami New Drama’s latest production, FAKE, author Carmen Pelaez takes on: art world politics (social, financial, ethnic), Cuban politics, cultural legacy, why art matters, how art is valued, who decides that value, who controls culture (Cuban, etc.), and – no biggie! – the nature of truth. Plus, since this is a play about Cuba, family, guilt, responsibility, leaving your country behind. And jokes in Spanish and English. Plus a shocking twist of an ending that leaves you wondering, and arguing with anyone else who saw it, just what FAKE meant. The nature of truth, in fact.

In a way, FAKE is a Cuban-American version of Proof, with truth in art rather than mathematics. But maybe we shouldn’t compare the two. Because Pelaez’s very specific, very personal, very Cuban story explodes into something marvelously universal, as good art does. FAKE is its own kind of tour de force. With Pelaez, as author, star, and passionate advocate for the values she espouses in the play, at its heart.

An outline. Pelaez plays Camila, a rising star at an elite art auction house who’s been put in charge of its Latin American division largely because she’s the grand-niece of famous Cuban painter Amelia Pelaez. When slimy art dealer Roman (the excellent Philip Hernandez) brings in a long lost painting by Amelia, Camila immediately spots problems that make her think it’s a fake. She struggles with her smooth, politic manager Margaret (Carole Monferdini), and Louis (Tom Wahl), their arrogant, profit-focused boss, who want to sell the painting anyways – and quickly.

The fight resurfaces Camila’s long-running anger at the Cuban government, which took over Amelia Pelaez’s estate from the family and authenticates her work. There’s a fabulous scene where Camila argues with a Cuban cultural official, with Vivian Ruiz giving a pitch-perfect portrayal of a particular kind of knowing, smugly brutal bureaucrat. The conflict slowly comes to a fraught resolution – or does it?

Carl Andress, who also directed Pelaez’s breakout one-woman show Rum & Coke, keeps the densely verbal action moving, drawing expressive performances from the excellent actors while giving ample space to Pelaez’s outsize personality. The sleek scenic design is by Christopher and Justin Swader, who also did the elegant set for MND’s One Night in Miami; Gregory Gale did the pitch-perfect art world costumes.

Carmen Pelaez (left) as Camila, protests as Margaret (Carole Monferdini) examines the painting at the heart of FAKE in Miami New Drama's production of Pelaez's play. Photo by Stian Roenning.
Carmen Pelaez (left) as Camila, protests as Margaret (Carole Monferdini) examines the painting at the heart of FAKE in Miami New Drama’s production of Pelaez’s play. Photo by Stian Roenning.

The play mirrors Pelaez’s identity and reality. She really is Amelia Pelaez’s grand-niece, and while she doesn’t work at an auction house, she’s frequently authenticated her great-aunt’s work and encountered fake paintings in doing so. When Camila/Carmen, in the play, agonizes and rages at how Amelia’s sister stayed in the family home for 47 years to watch over the artwork, only to have the government take everything – she’s recounting Carmen’s actual emotional reaction to actual events. The only Amelia items that Camila owns are a paintbrush and a mug – just like Carmen. And so on. (This excellent WLRN interview with Pelaez has the complete backstory.)

That authenticity gives FAKE, and Pelaez’s passionate performance, much of its power. When Pelaez talks about what her aunt’s work means to her, or why she loves art, or her frustrations with Cuba, her long, intellectually intricate speeches echo with emotional truth. Is it an actor’s truth, or her own? There’s no separation. The fight over the authenticity of the specific painting in the play, on the other hand, may be invented – but it follows real situations Pelaez experienced. All of which puts the play in what may be a unique category; neither first-person true-life narrative (a la one-person shows), nor docudrama, nor fiction. What is FAKE, as a piece of theater? Real or invented? Does it matter?

To be clear, FAKE is by no means an exercise in ego. Pelaez’s performance is intense, sometimes bordering on relentless, and she is clearly herself onstage. (As anyone who knows her, which I do, can tell.) But she is also so plainly and intensely passionate about her ideas – the bedazzling, crucial nature of art, the love for and frustrated entanglement with Cuba, the paradoxes of exile – that you can’t help but be moved.

Carmen Pelaez (left) as Camila, greets art dealer Roman (Philip Hernandez) in FAKE, Miami New Drama's production of Pelaez's play. Photo by Stian Roenning.
Carmen Pelaez (left) as Camila, greets art dealer Roman (Philip Hernandez) in FAKE, Miami New Drama’s production of Pelaez’s play. Photo by Stian Roenning.

FAKE comes 21 years after Rum and Coke, Pelaez’s story of her/Camila’s visit to Cuba to connect with her great-aunt Amelia’s legacy. Rum and Coke was a pivotal cultural moment for Miami, a groundbreaking assertion of a Cuban-American story and identity, a hit that played for months at Area Stage, the pioneering Lincoln Road theater.

Two decades later, Pelaez/Camila is still wrestling with that legacy, once again on Lincoln Road. And the conflict still resonates powerfully with the Cuban-American community, which makes it a pity that there are only two weekends left in FAKE’s four weekend run. At last Friday’s performance people cheered for Pelaez’s speeches about Cuba and Amelia’s art. There were visual artists in the audience I have never seen at the theater.

You saw a similar enthusiasm for MND’s previous production, One Night in Miami, the tale of icons Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke gathering at the storied Hampton House motel. That play resonated tremendously with Miami’s African-American community, because it told a true story at that community’s heart, illuminating a powerful history that had been tucked away in bits and pieces, in personal memories.

Cuban-American history has been far better exposed. But with FAKE Pelaez, and Miami New Drama, find new depths and fractures, and new questions, at that story’s heart – for Cuban-Americans, and for people who love art.

FAKE runs Thursday to Sunday through Feb. 17 at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach. Tickets $35 to $65 at colonymb.org or 800-211-1414.

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