By Caridad Svich
Based on the Novel by Julia Álvarez
Directed by Ricardo Gutiérrez
Produced by Teatro Vista, Chicago
A Story Too Powerful to Disappear
Among the many modern freedom-fighters whose names have gained international recognition, the Dominican Republic’s Mirabal sisters usually occupy a place of prominence. But for those who are unfamiliar with any more than their names, or who wish to see their story passed on, Caridad Svich’s adaptation of Julia Álvarez’s 1994 novel In the Time of the Butterflies is an excellent opportunity to witness their courage in the face of tyranny. True to Teatro Vista’s mission to present history with a Latino perspective, artistic director Ricardo Gutiérrez’s production remarkably condenses thirteen years into just ninety minutes, while providing a moving, riveting story.
Indeed, the importance of story-telling, and to this story in particular, is emphasized repeatedly from the very beginning of the play. Patria (Sari Sánchez), the oldest and sternest of the young sisters, warns them that words have an effect, so they’d best think before they speak. The play is divided into two main parts, with the four sisters as teenagers and young women under the regime of Rafael Trujillo, and the time of the novel’s writing, when a young Dominican-American (Rinska Carrasco) interviews Dedé (Charín Álvarez), the only sister who survived Trujillo’s assassins. As young women, the Mirabal sisters first noticed that their government was behaving in a frightening manner in high school, while listening to classmates whisper stories about disappeared people. Minerva (Flavia Pallozzi), fittingly considered the wisest of the sisters, developed a passion for justice early on, and sought to become a lawyer so she could advocate for the oppressed. But her work led her to striking up a romantic relationship with a leftist rebel, and to attracting the lustful eye of Trujillo himself. Following a confrontation at a party with the dictator at which she rejects his advances, but accidentally leaves an incriminating letter from her boyfriend, the sisters’ lives are changed forever.
Despite the play’s limited running time, the four actresses playing the sisters establish complex relationships which change enormously over the years being represented. As teens, Minerva finds the youngest sister, Mate (Ayssette Muñóz), with her correspondence, her first instinct is that Mate is spying on her for the government. Later, it is the brash, emotional Mata who insists on joining Minerva’s insurgent cell, with Patria only joining after personally witnessing a massacre offends her moral sensibilities, and Dedé (also played as a young woman by Carrasco) not joining their work until after their (and Trujillo’s) deaths. Based on their behavior as children, that trajectory was unexpected, but Svich’s writing details their changes in a clear, but subtle manner. The actresses are also adept at playing a wide range of ages, being just as convincing as world-weary soldiers who have survived torture as they are as fatuous teenagers. Uriel Gomez’s costumes deigns are also inspired. Though the sisters start out all in similar floral prints, their own senses of style emerge with age, until Patria ends up dressing like a grandmother in her early twenties, and Mate exchanges her flashy dresses for a beret and combat boots.
A major part of why this story is so highly dramatic is that the villain is no distant threat. Played by Eddie Martínez, (as are all the male characters,) Trujillo is sleazy, but sharp, and has a personal relationship with the Mirabal sisters. It also helps that the sisters are actively resisting him and know exactly who they’re fighting. “Butterflies” was their code name for themselves. My only major complaint about the script is that it makes Trujillo too generic a dictator (the Parsley Massacre isn’t mentioned, though that would have shown his unique type of tyranny), but what we see is unsettling enough. Martínez also appears briefly as Rufino de la Cruz, the sisters’ driver, who was killed with them, and is a fleeting, but effective representation of the common people. As this is a memory play, locations are represented mostly through Liviu Pasare’s dazzling projections, which fit with Svich’s intimate focus on the sisters’ psychology. Teatro Vista will present In the Time of the Butterflies three times for schools, but this intensely personal account, mingled with exhortations on the importance of bearing witness, is edifying and rewarding for people of all ages.
Reviewed April 22, 2016
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see In the Time of Butterflies’ page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at the Richard Christiansen Theater at Victory Gardens, 2433 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $25-30, with discounts for students, seniors, and groups. To order, call 773-871-3000 or visit teatrovista.org. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm through May 22. Running time is ninety minutes with no intermission.