Be a butterfly: The delicate grow strong in Stageworks’ In the Time of the Butterflies

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A review by Cathy Salustri of Creative Loafing Tampa.

There are a couple of things you should know about In The Time of the Butterflies right off the bat: One, as Americans, we are piss-poor at history, because Trujillo’s bloody rule over the Dominican Republic is not taught in high school history classes. Two, not every Caribbean island is a sun-seeker’s paradise. Three, although this production isn’t perfect, Stageworks impresses for even attempting it.

And they’ve done more than attempt it; this is the year of the woman to the nth degree over here on East Kennedy in Tampa. Man, if they wanted to drive home the idea that #MeToo and #TimesUp merely scratch the surface, they’ve done it, because you walk out of this show feeling like unless you die doing battle against Donald Trump, you’re not fulfilling your destiny. You can wear whatever black dress you want to the Grammys, but that’s fingerling potatoes to these women.

OK, so real quick: This show tells the story of the Mirabal sisters, who were quite happy and privileged Dominicans until Rafael Trujillo came to power and wanted to rape little girls. He was also a ruthless, bloody dictator in other ways, but his sexual harassment of Minerva Mirabal (an exquisite performance from Marlene Peralta, and also a gut-wrenching moment between Trujillo — Cornelio “Coky” Aguilera — and Peralta) and subsequent punishment of the Mirabal sisters’ father (that led to his death) is what galvanized these women into action. That action brought about their bloody murder — and his — but how they went from being typical young women to revolutionaries is what we’re seeing onstage. At its core, this is a story of girl power, an anthem to the strength of sisterhood. And from there we move on.

Peralta and Jessy Julianna, who played the youngest sister, Maria-Teresa, or Mate, gave stunning performances. At the play’s opening, Mate is the only one not yet a teenager, and because of this the 23 years that pass require the most of whatever actress plays this part — she goes from her First Communion, which means she was in second grade, to a young married woman over the course of two hours. Julianna plays the part of the little girl so well most audience members will be shocked to learn she has three children. With a simple change of hairstyle and different dresses her only physical means of change, Julianna’s ability to transform herself from a child to a married woman only hints at the breadth of her talent. The set, designed by Frank Chavez, is imposing yet intimate, which means Julianna must do this in ridiculously close proximity to the audience (co-directors Karla Hartley and Jorge Acosta have staged this so that Peralta and Julianna are downstage the most, which means at moments the audience is less than three feet from them in the front row); her face changes in ways that defy description.

As for the older two sisters, young Dedé (Isabel Natera) and Patria (Lauren Lisette Valiente), they, too, give insightful, moving performances that will haunt theatergoers long after they speak their last lines. Patria has a monologue about the death of her baby; Valiente had some in the audience in tears. Young Dedé starts the play conflicted about whether or not to become a revolutionary; the day she says goodbye to her sisters for the last time, she is no less so, and that conflict makes adult Dedé’s life all the more haunted.

Adult Dedé, played by Blue Feliu, looks every bit the part of the Dominican survivor (in this show; in real life, she looks quite different). The bulk of her performance involves her sitting on the balcony, looking through a photo album of her sisters and talking to the American Woman (Clare Lopez) who has come to tell the story.

These exchanges are where the directors could have had the actors take more time; Feliu spends too much time looking down at the album, making audiences wonder if perhaps she had some of her lines in there nestled alongside the photographs. In the moments where she makes eye contact with Lopez, the exchanges are poignant and electric (of note is the moment where adult Dedé chastises the American woman for not wanting chocolate because she is dieting), but those times when she doesn’t, the scenes fall flat, making it seem as though they are both powering through their lines to arrive at the next plot point. The actresses need to slow down and let the tragedy of the memories work the scene for them.

If ever a man could be all things to all women — captor, abuser, lover, entertainment — Cornelio “Coky” Aguilera is. He plays every male role, from DJ to Minerva’s revolutionary boyfriend, but his performance as Trujillo hits squarely on its target. When we see Trujillo with a young Minerva, his not-so-subtle spreading of his legs as she kneels in front of him sent shivers up my spine. We’ve all been there, Minerva. Aguilera somehow transitions from murderous sleazeball — and allows us a glimpse of the remaining humanity inside the sleaze — to murdered driver, a byproduct of Trujillo’s rage.

I struggled with how many stars to give this show. The hiccups with adult Dedé and American Woman are not significant enough to suggest you spend your money elsewhere; the sisters and Aguilera’s performances are among the finest this year, but I’ve recently awarded five stars to Jobsite’s HIR and four to Marjorie Prime at American Stage. As a former stage manager, I’m certainly sympathetic to production companies but also a far harsher critic in many ways; could I justify another stellar review?

Certainly, there will be shows at Jobsite and American Stage and Stageworks — and freeFall, we’re not forgetting you guys — that will deserve less praise. And those shows will get less praise and fewer stars. But, in truth, In the Time of the Butterflies evoked such a visceral reaction at so many levels, they deserve every star they’re getting. Yes, we’ve had some fine theater lately in Tampa Bay. Yes, this is another four star show.

Yes, It’s a good day to be a theatergoer in Tampa Bay.

In the Time of the Butterflies

Four of five stars.

Stageworks Theatre1120 E. Kennedy Blvd., Ste. 151, Tampa.

Through Apr. 29: Wed.-Sun., 8 p.m.; Thurs., Sat. & Sun., 3 p.m. 

Some performances in Spanish and others in English; click here to learn more. 

$15-$45

813-374-2416. Learn more.

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