Daphne Rubin-Vega Is Not Your Hypersexualized Stereotype | Playbill

Off-Broadway News Daphne Rubin-Vega Is Not Your Hypersexualized Stereotype

The former Rent star breathes fresh life into Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana Off-Broadway.

Daphne Rubin-Vega and Tim Daly in The Night of the Iguana Joan Marcus

Daphne Rubin-Vega has never been one to sand down her edges.

The two-time Tony nominee has built an impactful career playing women that are fiercely alive, filled with contradictions and charisma. Bursting onto the Broadway scene in 1996 as the original Mimi Marquez in RENT, Rubin-Vega's distinct talents have embedded her in to the theatrical zeitgeist without her ever capitulating to the "guardrails" often imposed on Latine actors.

Rubin-Vega is now back in New York, playing Maxine in the Off-Broadway revival of Tennessee WilliamsThe Night of the Iguana (now running until February 25 at the The Pershing Square Signature Center, produced by La Femme Theatre Productions). The piece, which is considered one of Williams' final major theatrical efforts, is also one of his most misinterpreted, thanks to a liberal film adaptation in 1964 starring Richard Burton and Ava Gardner. 

"I love working on Tennessee Williams, and inhabiting his characters, but I wasn't really very familiar with The Night of the Iguana," Rubin-Vega confesses. "The movie, when compared to the play, was sort of single faceted. No sparkle." When director Emily Mann, Rubin-Vega's longtime friend and collaborator, asked her to read the original play, the actor was surprised to find previously hidden depth. "The character of Maxine is enigmatic. She's a character that can be played a little one note, but I saw such a good opportunity to flesh her out."

In the hands of a less capable actress, Maxine could quickly fall into stereotype. A widow operating a hotel just across the border between the United States and Mexico, previous adaptations have regularly boxed Maxine into an over-sexualized caricature, depicting her care for her late husband's friend Reverend Shannon (played by Tim Daly) as lasciviously carnal. Like many of Williams' heroines, Maxine on the page is a much different beast from how she has gone down in the pop culture record.

Williams' heroines often rebuked the societal pressures thrust upon women, and the expectations that were leveled toward what a "leading lady" should be in theatrical drama. When his plays were adapted into films in the mid-century, many of those characters were aggressively simplified—several of his heroines were remodeled into thinly sketched stereotypes.

Daphne Rubin-Vega, Jean Lichty, Tim Daly, Austin Pendleton, Alena Acker, and Michael Leigh Cook in The Night of the Iguana Joan Marcus

Rubin-Vega has experience excavating Williams' work to free these women from their pop culture shackles. In 2012, she starred in a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway, directed by Mann, playing the traumatized Stella Kowalski. Stella is often played as a spineless, passive victim. But in Rubin-Vega's hands, the character roared to life as a woman trapped between the physical and ephemeral, reaching toward possibility in the face of decay.

"It's all in the ancillary directions," Rubin-Vega explains, referring to how previous productions have sidelined Williams' heroines. "I think the defanging comes from people making a star out of the male. Male-centrifying everything, so once it's on its feet, you can't even see the women. The film of Streetcar is a quintessential example. The whole purpose to that film was Marlon Brando, which was trying to put a square peg into a round hole. It's a spectacular piece of work from him, but the actual play is so much broader, so much more multifaceted."

Here, Rubin-Vega takes her precious jewel metaphor further: "It's like cutting a stone one dimensionally, as opposed to really showcasing the brilliance of it. When I think of Tennessee, I think about how you can cut a gem to show its true sparkle. He allowed for so much life and truth to be spoken through his characters, and quite often it's the women in the plays that are speaking truth, and particularly truth to power. I think there's a relationship between speaking truth to power and being defanged. They have enormous, enormous power, and that scares a lot of people."

As Maxine, Rubin-Vega is pushing directly against the painful expectations that are often thrust upon Latine actresses to constantly portray oversexed women. While Rubin-Vega has played her fair share of passionate women (Mimi Marquez was a sex worker after all), she has always been firmly intentional in grounding her characters away from their stereotypical allusions.

"Those are guardrails that are imposed upon me, not of my own design," Rubin-Vega states confidently. "It never ceases to amaze me how those guardrails continue to be imposed on people like me. But as a human being in the world, it's also my mission to not operate within those guardrails. I know what I am, and what I'm capable. And growing up in theatre, it's taken me decades to be able to say that unapologetically."

Daphne Rubin-Vega and Tim Daly in The Night of the Iguana Joan Marcus

While Mimi may have been a dancer at the Cat Scratch Club at night, it is her fierce loyalty that defines her. And Maxine, whose affection toward her deceased husband's troubled friend is often interpreted as purely carnal, instead exhibits remarkable tenderness and sensibility in Rubin-Vega's capable hands. "Maxine's desires, and her pragmatism, are underplayed pretty often. The idea that sexual desire is her motivating factor, that she wants this man (who is in quite a broken state) is really very one dimensional. And that's just because of culture interpreting Tennessee Williams, and not because of what Tennessee wrote."

As Williams' last major full length theatrical offering, Maxine is something of a culmination of his line of heroines. Her ability to exist without a man contrasts directly with the expectations often levelled at mid-century leading ladies. Turning back the clock to 60 years has been an affecting experience for Rubin-Vega.

"This piece was written in the '60s, but about a time in the '40s," Rubin-Vega explains. "To time travel as a woman who looks like me, to the '40s, makes me think of how much the institution of marriage is related to the institution of property. You had to marry a man so that you could be stable in the world. It wasn't really about love. It is so Herculean to have this woman, who is self-sufficient on her own accord. I think Maxine is an attempt at imagining a woman free. And yet, in the construct of the '40s, she needs a man (she needs a colonizer, really) to run the place. And that's not a weakness, it's a strength and her pragmatism."

It is telling that pop culture would rather imagine Maxine as some scheming seductress than a woman struggling to survive in a hostile society. Or as Rubin-Vega astutely puts it: "We're not responsible for what culture does, but we are responsible for our own protection. It really thrills me to play a character that is as aware as Maxine. She is a human creature that operates not just in linguistics and the sensual, she gets vibration from life itself. She waits until the last minute till it rains. She is a piece of nature, and that is hardly one dimensional."

Photos: Tim Daly, Daphne Rubin-Vega, More in The Night of the Iguana Off-Broadway

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