Monday, November 25, 2013

Theater Review: "En el tiempo de las mariposas"

By Claudio Iván Remeseira Follow @HispanicNewYork | Posted Mon., Nov. 25, 2013, at 2:35 p.m.ET.


November 25, the anniversary of the Mirabal Sisters murder, is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. In honor of the Dominican sisters and of all women victims of gender violence worldwide, we reproduce HNY's 2011 review of the stage adaptation of En el tiempo de las mariposas.



The life and tragic death of Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa Mirabal, the political dissidents savagely murdered in 1960 by thugs on the payroll of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo’s military intelligence, have come to symbolize the horrors suffered in the Dominican Republic during Trujillo’s thirty-year long dictatorship. They became part of the country’s modern national identity, and their birthplace in the mountainous region of El Cibao has been transformed into a museum where the only surviving sister, Bélgica Adela "Dedé" Mirabal-Reyes, retells the history of her family to thousands of visitors each year.

The Mirabal sisters’ history received even broader, world-wide recognition with the publication in 1994 of Julia Alvarez’s novel In the Time of the Butterflies, a fictionalized account of their lives. Thanks in part to the global attention generated by this novel, the United Nations declared the anniversary of the murders (November 25) International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

The book inspired a 2001 film for television starring Salma Hayek, Edward James Olmos and Marc Anthony, but this is the first time it has been adapted for the stage. The job went to playwright Caridad Svich, whose credentials included the adaptation of another blockbuster novel, Isabel Allende’s La casa de los espíritus, which premiered at Repertorio Español in 2009. Svich undertook the challenge of translating Alvarez’s three-hundred page, polyphonic work into a 100-minute play with respectful independence from the original; the result is an artistic success, a major dramatic accomplishment that turns the theatrical version into the natural and inevitable complement to the novel. Currently in the production staged at Repertorio—the world premiere of the play—, Svich also repeats the successful partnership for La casa de los espíritus by teaming up with director José Zayas. 

From the Bergmanesque opening scene of the four youthful sisters chasing butterflies in their garden to the grim finale, decades later, in that same garden, the play unfolds in a crescendo of anticipated tension punctuated by bursts of joy, tenderness, and humor (with no intermission, the two acts flow seamlessly). 

The main characters’ development from childish innocence—an innocence enhanced by their sheltered upbringing in a well-to-do household—to troubled coming-of-age, womanhood and the ultimate realization of their political responsibility in the midst of an oppressive dictatorship, is both a credible depiction of their inner growth as individuals and a chronicle of the decomposition of a regime that had transformed their country into a huge flask under which people were pinned down like helpless bugs on the whims of the tyrant. The characters of the elderly Dedé (Teresa Pérez Frangie) and the young Dominican-American writer who interviews her (Flor de Liz Pérez) are a dramatic device that allows the author to comment on the action and connect its changes in time, from the 1940s to the present day, reminding us in the process that the past is never entirely dead.

But what prevents En el tiempo de las mariposas from being yet another Brecht-like exercise in declamatory politics—an exercise too often abused in New York Latino theater—is the fact that it is also, and essentially, a play about human relations: The loving but conflicting relationship among sisters; the relationship between women and men (between daughters and father, wives and husbands, even between landladies and employees); and the infamously perverted relationship between Trujillo and his own people.

Rosie Berrido, Zulema Clares, Dalia Davi, and María Helán breathe life into the characters of the four sisters and deliver first-rate performances. Somehow overshadowed by the brilliant display of his female co-stars, Fermín Suárez finely portrays the four male characters: a DJ (also a link between different points in the timeline); Trujillo (the historically accurate, flamboyant uniform of the Generalísimo is perhaps not the best choice here, since it stresses more the caricature than the sinister aspect of Trujillo’s personality); Virgilio Morales (Minerva’s boyfriend and eye-opener to the viciousness of the regime); and a deeply moving Rufino de la Cruz, the driver murdered along with the sisters. The fact that victims and victimizer are performed by one and the same actor provides an uncanny insight into the nature of Latin America’s political history.

Robert Federico was in charge of lighting and costume design. His stylish mid-century dresses are part of the story’s tragic allure: As the aged Dedé reminds us, during the 1950s the Dominican Republic was a big playground for the jet-set, ruled by the Porfirio Rubirosas and Hollywood stars of the time. Finally, an elegant video and digital animation projection designed by Alex Koch and Jane Shaw’s soundscape and original music highlight key moments in the play without ever getting in the way of the acting.

There is indeed something operatic about En el tiempo de las mariposas: the political relevance of the story, the larger-than-life scale of its characters, the intensity of their feelings, the inevitable finale, as well as the richness and variety of a musical genre attuned to illustrating the plot, all lend themselves to a possible translation into some form of musical theater.

Premiere night, on February 21, came with a bonus: the presence in the house of Julia Álvarez, who, after the show, shared the stage with playwright Caridad Svich and engaged in a heartfelt conversation with the audience. In English and in Spanish, the author of In the Time of the Butterflies talked about the research and literary techniques involved in her novel, the timeliness of its stage adaptation (a reference to the popular uprisings against decades-long repressive regimes in the Middle East), and the overall influence that the Mirabal sisters had on her work. 

“Their story is the shadow story behind my first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents,” said Álvarez. “I remember my parents talking about them in the living room of our apartment in New York, when I was a kid. It brings back memories of how all of us came here in the first place, of the dire historical conditions that propelled us to become immigrants.”
At Repertorio Español, 138 East 27th Street, Manhattan. Running through April 15th, 2011. In Spanish, with live simultaneous English translation available. Schedule varies. For more information, visit www.repertorio.org or call (212) 225-9999.

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