Playwright Caridad Svich has found fertile ground in the stories of women who challenge Latin American oppression. As she did with Isabel Allende’s “The House of the Spirits,” Svich has adapted for the stage “In the Time of the Butterflies,” a historical novel by Julia Alvarez that bears witness to the Mirabal sisters.
Svich’s play comes from the memory of Dede Mirabal, the only survivor among four sisters who resisted Dominican leader Rafael Trujillo in the 1940s and 1950s. The other three and their driver were clubbed to death in 1960 on a remote road. The text uses dialogue, diary entries and the framing device of a present-day interview with Dede.
In the wrong hands, this poetic material could be static and precious. But director José Zayas finds the perfect, dreamy sensibility in Svich’s writing, and “In the Time of the Butterflies” is richly alive and atmospheric in a bilingual production at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis.
Zayas’ design team uses digital and video projections, active lighting schemes, lots of sound and traditional costuming to create a kaleidoscopic universe of the mind. On occasion, such an aggressive technical accompaniment can overwhelm a play. Here, Zayas finds enough delicacy to keep the production fluid and focused on the story.
In the fragrant memory of Dede Mirabel (played as an older woman by Maria Gonzalez), Svich’s play recounts history, personal tensions and an aching survivor’s guilt. She is telling her story to an American journalist (Hope Cervantes) who is eager for both an article but also to reclaim her own Dominican heritage.
The Mirabals, known by the code name “The Butterflies” in the resistance movement, were an upper-class family prominent in the country. So familiar were they that Minerva (Claudia de Vasco) caught the romantic attention of Trujillo (Raul Ramos).
By rejecting his advances, Minerva was held back from her quest to practice law. Youngest sister Maria Theresa (Thallis Santesteban) joins in the struggle, and finally the younger Dede (Maggie Bofill) and Patria (Adlyn Carreras) share their sympathies. Shifting between English and Spanish (with subtitles going both ways), the play splits time between history and Dede’s reflections.
Zayas and his cast draw the sisters with clear distinction. Santesteban’s Maria Theresa is a vivacious youngster attracted to fashion and celebrity who dreams of beautiful dresses and shoes. De Vasco carries a serious mien as Minerva studiously pursues an education with intentions of using the law to better her country. And Carreras portrays Patria prayerfully clinging to her faith for a better future.
Dede, both young and old, has an ambiguity and slight regret for not plunging fully into the revolution. Gonzalez carries a heavy weight on her shoulders as the survivor but also a determination to bear witness to her sisters.
“In the Time of the Butterflies” is lyrical and easy to like.