TAMPA — Tampa made its cigars with indispensable help from Cuban immigrants. Today, 22 percent of the population is of Hispanic origin, as defined by the U.S. Census.
The Tampa Bay area has increasingly and proudly defined itself as a thriving performing arts community. In at least one respect, those truths have not aligned: Professional theaters rarely perform in Spanish, and have never produced a play in English and Spanish.
Until now. With In the Time of the Butterflies (En el Tiempo de las Mariposas), Stageworks Theatre takes audiences back in time to the brutal regime of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, as seen through the eyes of four sisters who famously opposed his rule.
Playwright Caridad Svich, a well-lettered writer and four-time PEN nominee who specializes in bilingual plays, adapted a book by Julia Alvarez into a moving stage tribute to the Mirabal sisters, who risked their lives opposing an autocratic system that ran on torture, theft and murder. Three of the four were assassinated on Nov. 25, 1960.
The theater has made an important statement by producing five of its shows in Spanish. In effect, this bilingual cast is performing two different shows. Seeing the English version Sunday made me wish I spoke Spanish. I suspect it’s the strongest show, one that would be worth seeing for the contrast alone even if you don’t understand a word.
Several in the cast grew up with Spanish as their first language. Marlene Peralta, who plays Minerva Mirabal, grew up hearing about the Trujillo regime from her Dominican parents. Producing artistic director Karla Hartley directed the show as a whole, relying on New York director and Apollo Beach native Jorge Acosta to direct the Spanish rehearsals. (Hartley also filled in Sunday in the role of the older Dede Mirabal, due to the departure of cast member Blue Feliu.)
The set by Frank Chavez seamlessly articulates two perspectives on either side of an interior patio. On stage left stands a porch or balcony of a contemporary home, where the older Dede leafs through a photo album, telling her family’s story to an unnamed American writer with Dominican roots (played with an even hand by Clare Lopez).
The building on stage right serves at various times as a residence, a Catholic school or a prison. The scenery establishes a small world, divided by time and geography but not as sharply as we tend to assume.
In this fictionalized account of a true story, the Dominican Republic functions like a small town. National politics reverberate at the local level. It’s the kind of world in which Gen. Trujillo — known to locals as El Jefe ("the boss") — can stroll onto the patio to continue his menacing sexual quest for Minerva, and dangle her imprisoned father’s freedom on a literal roll of the dice. Cornelio Aguilera plays El Jefe with a sneering malevolence; he also plays a deejay whose songs reflect the dictator’s wishes and Leo, Minerva’s revolutionary boyfriend.
Trujillo rules for 31 years by election, a puppet successor and brute force. The story shows, in painful increments, a tightening of the noose, a loss of freedom until conditions inspire an underground revolt. The play captures moments of beauty, including a touching four-way embrace after a fight at a time of peak tension.
The sisters keep diaries, important when the government is shutting down universities and erasing the past. As one the older sisters cautions another after a spat, "Words don’t just stay in the air, they have an effect."
But at times, the dialogue feels overtly functional ("Things are starting to get really bad") or wooden ("We did what we could. History will absolve us"), a lack of subtlety in the script that sometimes carries over in the acting. Two strong performances in particular cash the check written in the premise, Peralta as Minerva and Isabel Natera as the young Dede. The tension between these sisters speaks to the tough choices between activism and survival, the individual and society.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.