The restriction that boys had to play Shakespeare’s female characters in the Bard’s own time “let [Shakespeare’s] imagination run loose,” said Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Company in an interview today. Casting men as the two sisters in Golondrinas (Swallows), written and directed by Venezuelan playwright Aminta De Lara, seems to have had a freeing effect on De Lara’s political allegory as well. With truly wonderful realism, Howard Collado and Robby Ramos embody these two long-suffering women without exaggeration or even a shred of self-consciousness.
The production boasts interesting characters, excellent performances, and a script full of incisive poetics in Francine Jacome’s effective if occasionally non-colloquial English translation. What it lacks is emotional flow.
Carmen Elena’s (Collado) father has summoned her to his apartment saying he is not well. In the midst of a huge political demonstration that has essentially shut down Caracas, she has arrived to find him unconscious and perhaps not even alive. In desperation she has called her sister Claudia (Ramos) for help.
Why in desperation? Claudia, a doctor, arrives and says the father is dead. As the sisters wait for help from authorities who can’t get through the occupied streets, we gradually learn the terrible family history of sexual abuse, secrecy, and ongoing pain and bitterness that has alienated the two sisters from one another and their past – and indeed from themselves.
Unfortunately, the actors seem to have been directed to maintain a consistently climactic emotional pitch throughout, which flattens all the good stuff the production has going for it into a rather stale loaf.
I’ve learned over my years of attending the theater that the longer and more full of explanation are the author’s or director’s notes in the program or press materials, the less likely the play will actually fulfill the goals laid out therein. The pattern holds true here. In her notes, De Lara explains at length the parallels between the sisters’ relationship with their father and the people’s relationship with their dictatorial ruler, and much else. Indeed, that central metaphor plays out literally, with sounds of the demonstration bleeding through the windows and projected images of it dancing on the backdrop. Too, another reason for the sisters’ estrangement is that Carmen Elena supports the state, Claudia the protesters.
But that divide comes across as incidental to the emotional drama. The women express their political beliefs with passion, but in speeches and exchanges that feel too deliberately crafted. And at its essence, theater is a game of show, not of tell.
A scene in which the sisters bond over a counting game they played as children breaks the mood. In allowing the actors to loosen up and laugh a little, it gives us a deeper insight into the characters. It shows what might have been, had these very talented performers been allowed or encouraged to move through a range of pulse rates. I came away with a deep appreciation of the actors’ talent, and of the writer’s skill with language and political passion, but without being moved in the way all involved so clearly wished to move me.
Golondrinas (Swallows) is at La Mama through April 26.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0307700399][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0143124889]