En el tiempo de las Mariposas/In the Time of the butterflies

A thundering performance by Dalia Davi in the central role of Minerva gives the new production at Repertorio Espanol, En el tiempo de las Mariposas, a lot of its kick.

The true story of the Mirabal Sisters is one of those stories that ought to be told. They were upper class young women who grew up under the Trujillo regime in Santo Domingo. Minerva caught Trujillo’s eye, but her involvement with a freedom fighter put her entire family under a political microscope. Minerva became a lawyer, but Trujillo would not allow her to practice, and so she somehow got involved with a movement to overthrow him. Then two of her sisters joined her, they fought to overthrow the Trujillo dictatorship until he saw their popularity grow and become dangerous to his government, by which point they became known as “Las Mariposas!”

If the story ended there, however, it probably wouldn’t make much of a play. What makes their story so extraordinary is that the sisters fought until the end. Even after being sentenced to the brutality of prison, they were relentless. And the events of November 25th, 1960 were the beginning of the end for Trujillo. And so they inspired an entire country to revolution.

Las Mariposas emerged from that dark period as heroines, although not without some dark spots. One of the sisters, Dede, turned her back on her sisters at a critical point. While she loved them, the fear that Trujillo inspired was too much for her to overcome.

En el tiempo de las Mariposas falls within the fairly traditional structure of historical memory play. The story begins today, as a young Dominican-American girl goes to Santo Domingo to learn and perhaps write about the Mirabal Sisters. The only surviving sister, Dede, serves as the conduit to tell the story. Soon we find ourselves in the past watching their lives unfurl before our eyes. The play takes a good thirty minutes to get going, but once Minerva takes center stage it rockets into action. Minerva is the sort of character that deserves to be played by a great actor. She’s all strength, fury, and vulnerability. In the hands of Dalia Davi, Minerva comes fully alive.  It’s a staggering, disquieting performance—the first time I wanted to give an actor a standing ovation but was too weak-kneed to do it.

She is helped here by a terrific cast. Rosie Berrido plays Patria, the eldest sister, with heartfelt simplicity and Maria Helan plays Maria Teresa, the youngest sister; I was surprised by her transformation. Physically I did not believe she was fifteen, and her scenes as a young girl seemed rather silly, but by the end of the play, I was surprised by how she emotionally went from fifteen to twenty-five and took me on that journey. It was a startling transformation because I didn’t believe it until the end and then I completely reassessed it. I have reviewed Zulema Clares, who plays younger Dede, before, and I am just amazed by her range. There are actors that critics expect good things from, but I have come to believe that Clares is one of the finest actors working in New York City; there is a moment in the play when Minerva asks a favor of Dede and you can see Clares go over all the implications in her eyes. It’s just a tiny little moment, but so alive and active, that I walked away dubbing her the Meryl Streep of Repertorio Espanol.

The play is sure-handedly directed by Jose Zayas, who keeps the set simple but uses projections to great effect. He does a fabulous job at staging the piece and keeps the story flowing, finding humor where necessary without compromising the emotional heft of the story.

The main story is told as a counterpoint to the present-day storyline of older Dede and the young Dominican-American writer, and it is here where the play falters. I, for one, could have done without it. The conceit never feels quite right, and while Zayas accommodates it, it never rings true. Many people do not know the story, and playwright Caridad Svich chooses to give away the ending of this story in an early scene between these two characters. Because of this, the ending of the play is powerful but expected.

That small problem aside, En el tiempo de las Mariposas is absorbing and gorgeous theatre.