By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
One of the downsides of a life squandered in the theater is that eventually everything gets refracted through that prism.
I was a dreadful student and acquired a scandalously small amount of knowledge in high school. (For big ol’ homos like me, schools aren’t places we learn, they’re places we survive.) Consequently, my life since has been spent gathering what facts I can to fill all those holes. Since the only thing I ever do is watch plays, the only history I know comes from the stage.
In the Time of the Butterflies continues through March 17. New Hazlett Theatre, North Side. primestage.com
I learned about the American Revolution from 1776 and Hamilton. If something happened in World War II that’s not in Cabaret, The Sound of Music, The Diary of Anne Frank or South Pacific then I don’t know what it is. And my only religious instruction comes from Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. (No wonder I’m an atheist.)
In the musical, In the Heights, the owner of a bodega in New York, Usnavi, plans a move back to the Dominican Republic. He’s desperate to return, but it’s never clear why his family left. I’ve just seen the Prime Stage Theatre production of In the Time of the Butterflies and the “why” is suddenly clear.
Because from 1930 to the mid-60’s the country was run by a ruthless dictator, Rafael Trujillo, who, along with his cabal, were responsible for the torture and murder of tens of thousands … including the Mirabal sisters, heroines of this story if not, indeed, the world.
There were four: Patria, Dedé, Minerva and Maria Teresa. They’d lived a somewhat quiet middle-class life until Minerva got “woke” to the horrid truth behind Trujillo’s rule. Soon she was joined by her sisters in the fight and their code name was Las Mariposas (“The Butterflies.”)
For years they and their husbands fought against Trujillo and on November 25, 1960 he had Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa clubbed, strangled and thrown off a cliff to make the deaths look like a car accident.
But neither the Dominicans nor the world, were fooled and the outcry helped lead to Trujillo’s assassination six months later. Since then, Las Mariposas have achieved a global stature and, in 1999, the United Nations named November 25 the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in their honor.
In 1994 Julia Alvarez turned the story into highly-regarded historical fiction novel In the Time of the Butterflies. And in 2011 Caridad Svich adapted the novel into a stage play now receiving it’s Pittsburgh premiere.
Prime Stage director Ricardo Vila-Roger’s strongest work is the performances he draws from his butterfly quartet: Krystal Rivera, Frances Tirado, Vanessa Vivas and Evelyn Hernández seamlessly move from young girls buzzing with life’s possibilities to clear-eyed grown women saddened by reality but refusing to give in. Lydia Gibson and Enrique Bazán provide additional strength in supporting roles. The set by Britton Mauk and Kim Brown’s costumes do extraordinary work evoking the time and place of the story.
I haven’t read Butterflies but I’m assuming that Alvarez aimed her novel toward a “young adult” audience … that’s certainly the intended group for Svich’s adaptation.
And before anyone starts firing off emails, I am in no way casting aspersions on young adult theater – even at it’s worse it’s still better than “Call of Duty.” It’s the mission of Prime Stage to present stage versions of such work and, indeed, during his curtain speech founder Wayne Brinda noted that more than 700 school students will be attending future performances.
That’s truly a good thing. But it’s also true that this style of theater isn’t necessarily long on complexity, nuance or ambiguity. The script, not surprisingly, is little more than a Mirabal hagiography which is not a bad thing by any means. But a deeper focus on geopolitical context and regional history wouldn’t have gone amiss with the more, shall we say?, weathered (if not wizened) audience members.
I kept thinking this would’ve been the perfect show for my son was he was younger. And since he’s Mexican there’s the plus of it highlighting an important part of Latinx history. True, I used to watch his cherished abuelita try and instill in him a love of his culture – he was always very polite and attentive, but I know the brat was just dreaming about “Call of Duty.”
But it’d be better if he learned about the world like I did – through theater.