by SOPHIE KERMAN
Want to pair a night at the theater with a tasty meal beforehand? Josh Page over at I Like Food, Food Tastes Good and I are doing the legwork for you. Check out Josh’s site for his take on Chimborazo, where the unexpected combinations of sweet and savory Ecuadorian flavors will put you in the mood for some bilingual theater.
Our spirits lifted by the delicious South American fare, we headed to the Mixed Blood Theatre for a somewhat heavier dish from a different part of the Spanish-speaking world. In the Time of the Butterflies (an adaptation by Caridad Svich of Julia Alvarez’s novel of the same name) tells the true story of the Mirabal sisters, who banded together against Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo in the 1940’s and 50’s. As each of the sisters struggles to find her own balance between revolutionary ideals and pragmatic concerns, the play invites audiences to consider their own obligations to their families, their governments, and themselves.
There is a lot to admire about this play, not least of which is the moving performances by the four sisters. Claudia de Vasco, as Minerva (the most revolutionary of the group), is passionate in her ideals without succumbing to the usual rhetorical bluster, while Thallis Santesteban’s performance as Maria Teresa, the youngest of the four, grows and take shape as her character learns more about the ways of the world. Maggie Bofill and Adlyn Carreras provide counterpoint as Dede and Patria, who are more reluctant to risk their families’ lives in violent protest; one of the play’s greatest strengths is its ability to balance all four points of view as valid and justified approaches to living under a repressive dictatorship.
Butterflies is performed in Spanish and English (with subtitles projected at both sides of the stage), and the entire cast transitions seamlessly across languages and (astoundingly) seems equally at home in both. Viewers may find it distracting to have to look sideways for the subtitles – it is certainly more strenuous than the traditional method of having the text projected above the stage – but even if you miss a line or two, the emotional content is readily accessible.
The main component that detracts from this compelling historical drama is the frame narrative, in which a Dominican-American writer (Hope Cervantes), presumably a double for Julia Alvarez herself, interviews an older Dede (Maria Gonzalez) about her family’s revolutionary actions. Their conversations reappear at various points throughout the production and sometimes overlap in interesting ways with the historical action, mainly revolving around the importance of re-telling history and the frustrations of Dominicans living in exile in the United States. Unfortunately, both points come across as emotionally heavy-handed – some of the rare moments when it is all too clear that Butterflies was adapted from a novel.
Because of this awkward framework, we often feel strangely removed from the Mirabal sisters’ situation. The reasons for their hatred of Trujillo are alluded to, but the play invites us to hate him at least as much for his creepy misogyny and egotism as for his massacre of Haitians (not mentioned at all) or rampant human rights abuses (portrayed only when they immediately impact the Mirabal family). Even the risks the sisters took as revolutionaries are sidelined – they discuss carrying weapons and explosives, but to what end? What actions did they take to justify their fame as Las Mariposas?
In the Time of the Butterflies feels like a valuable theatrical endeavor for many reasons: its portrayal of a period in history that much of its audience might be unaware of, its embrace of bilingualism to stay truer to its original source material, its focus on women’s experiences during a time of social upheaval, and its openness to a variety of coping strategies when dealing with the suppression of liberty and free speech. While the play’s artistic flaws distract from its many merits, these holes do not prevent us from remembering and appreciating how significant it is to fight against oppression, no matter what the personal costs.
In the Time of the Butterflies, by Caridad Svich. Based on the novel by Julia Alvarez. Directed by José Zayas. April 5-27 (Preview April 4) at the Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. Fourth St., Minneapolis. Tickets: $0-First come, first-served; $20-guaranteed admission. Box office: 612-338-6131 or www.mixedblood.com.
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