In an apartment in Caracas, two abused daughters discover their father slumped half-dead in an armchair, a liquor bottle frozen in his hand, while anti-government protests, counter-demonstrations and government retaliations rage outside. Sound, images and text references make us clearly understand that in this play, domestic abuse in a patriarchal family is a metaphor for suppression and domination by a patriarchal government. One of the sisters, Carmen Elena, is a supporter of the dictator and has spent a good part of her life placating men who abuse her. “What we need here,” she declares, “is someone with balls. Someone with an iron fist who can put an end to all this nonsense.” Her older sister Claudia, a stiff-necked doctor and cafe society dissident, retorts, “Just the way Father did.” The sisters struggle throughout the play with what to do with the unconscious man: whether to get him rescued and possibly saved (which would be difficult, getting an ambulance through the turmoil), to let him die, or to suffocate him as a coup de grace.
A series of rear projected images of the crowd becomes a virtual fourth character in the play. Seen through transparent screens placed between the actors, it is a constant connection between the intimate story of the members of this family and the grand story of the violent repression taking place outside their windows.
What strikes us about this play (first performed in 2003) is how closely the script parallels the reality of life in Venezuela today. And little things seem to have changed.
On March 15, the majority party in Venezuela gave President Nicolas Maduro the power to temporarily govern Venezuela by decree, thanks to a law described by opposition activists as a measure to cover up the government’s weaknesses and to subjugate the Venezuelan people. It is the second time Maduro has been given such powers and the late populist Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, ruled by fiat four times in his 14-year tenure. In her modern tragedy “Golondrinas (Swallows),” Venezuelan expatriate playwright/director/actor Aminta De Lara likens the nation’s acquiescence to the submissiveness of a family to a dominating and abusive father. De Lara will direct the piece, in a translation by Francine Jacome, at La MaMa April 16 to 26.
According to De Lara, the two daughters (played by men – discussion on this aspect below) represent the polarization of society under totalitarianism, in which some people submit to it but some rebel. When one side of society is abused, both are, but the factions struggle against each other and the path to healing the fragmentation is to be able to unite in acknowledging the common abuser. De Lara refers to the play as a Modern Tragedy because there is a fate for everyone who faces a dictator, even a dying one. She says, “Regardless of their actions, there will be a destiny to follow. Are we ready, ethically, to kill what’s half-dead? Do we understand the ethical choice behind it? Whatever path the sisters take, to get their father to an ambulance or to let him die, their ethical choice will follow them for the rest of their lives.”
With its philosophical conundrum, the play recalls such predecessors as Albert Camus’ classic drama, “The Just Assassins” (Les Justes), in which a team of neurotic, internally conflicted Russian assassins is bent on killing the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovitch. To take a life without justification is murder and these would-be killers spend the majority of the play rationalizing their actions in order to ensure they are not left morally bankrupt after the deed is done. Similar philosophical arguments are inspired by this Venezuelan play, in which the two sides of the abused find it impossible to fight the abuser. Aminta De Lara says, “When you look at our times the way you should, it always refers you to an ethical question, a philosophical question: what are you willing to kill for?” That question was also addressed in her play “The Importance of Being Blanca,” which was produced at Teatro Latea in 2012.
But whereas Camus’ philosophical choices centered on existential matters of individual conscience, the family paradigm is central to De Lara’s play. She writes, “We spring from our own individuality to become part of a family, in whichever from families are possible, and further on to become part of a society. If we don’t revise the way we relate to each other as a family, we will never be able to do so in the broader collective space. Abuse is within individual human behavior; by not addressing it at its core we allow it to permeate everything human. Revising it starts by balancing out our feminine. By feminine, I mean our intuition, our instinct to survive, our need to create, the vast knowledge that lies within our unconscious world, equal in all.”
As noted, De Lara’s play was originally written in 2003. The political situation in Venezuela had been tight since 1998 and there was shooting from the rooftops. Many people thought that things would improve with Chavez, but people’s views were split on this, and so the sisters are of two different positions. “When you are abused, you become either submissive or rebellious,” says De Lara. The sisters represent these two poles.
The play was read in Spanish at Teatro Latea in 2007, at a time coinciding with the takeover of a big TV station in Caracas, when the regime basically closed down independent media. Then Aminta De Lara went to La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart with the play and received her encouragement on it. La MaMa produced the piece for a brief run in 2007, but to little notice. The play was subsequently produced–mirabile dictu–in Caracas in 2010, under the dictator’s nose. El Espectador Venezolano (Edgar Antonio Moreno Uribe) wrote, “Golondrina does not deal with an easy nor frequent subject in the Venezuelan theater. Aminta de Lara wrote it with a correctness that astonishes and also was able to stage it in such a minimalistic and faultless way that make her work exemplary.”
About this time last year, a student movement was repressed by the regime in Venezuela, which brought back to De Lara the impulse to revisit the play. She experimented with the two sisters being played by men as a sort of alienation effect–a way to demonstrate that gender is irrelevant, that the dichotomy of repression exists in each of us. That concept revealed the play in a whole new light, and it will be employed in the La MaMa production this April. A successful four-day “proof of concept” workshop was mounted this January at Teatro Iati. The dialogue is unchanged from its original, but the play’s themes are clearer now, De Lara thinks. Because the story deals with two big taboos–child sexual abuse and parricide–having it acted by two men allows us to see it out of the sexual context, more in the political context and more clearly.
In the title, “Golondrinas” means Swallows, a species of bird who always return home and cry to go back. This refers to the longing for home that affects all Venezuelans who are separated from their mother country.
The actors are Robert Ramos, Howard Collado and Marion Elaine. Music is by Gina Monc and María Eugenia Atilano. Visual effects are by Helena Acosta and Carlos Ayesta.
Play’s website, http://swallowgolondrina.com
WHERE AND WHEN:
April 16 to 26, 2015
La MaMa E.T.C. (First Floor Theater), 74A East Fourth Street
Presented by La MaMa E.T.C.
Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 PM, Sundays at 2:00 PM
$18 gen. Adm., $13 seniors and students
Ten $10 tickets will be available to every performance on a first-come, first-served basis.
Box office (646) 430-5374, www.lamama.org
The April 16 show is gala benefitting Foro Penal Venezolano (Venezuelan Penal Forum), an NGO that advocates for victims of political violence in Venezuela. Tickets are $75 and can be ordered at http://www.ticketderby.com/event/?id=248739.
About the Playwright
Aminta de Lara is an award winning actor, director and playwright. She is a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and is an original founding member of the theatre group Sinteatro. Her other plays include “At The End of the Century,” “Mirror Image,” “Un Bolero de Hoy,” “La Monalisa” and “The Importance of Being Blanca.” Recently she received the HOLA best director award for “Avion de Papel” by Diana Chery. Her acting awards include the Maurice Kanvabar Institute of film and television best acting award for her role as Gloria in “El rincón de Venezuela” by Reyther Ortega and HOLA and ACE awards for her role as Irene Ituriaga in “The Importance of Being Blanca.” She co-starred in the film “El Rumor de las Piedras,” directed by Alejandro Bellame, which won the Best Movie Award at The New York International Latino Film Festival in 2012.
Born in Venezuela to a family of theater patrons, she was introduced to the theater by her grandmother, Anna Julia Rojas, who led the renowned Ateneo de Caracas (Caracas Athenaeum) when it established itself in the Los Caobos neighborhood of Caracas. In 1990, De Lara founded her own theater company, Sinteatro. In 1996, she transformed the family’s coffee plantation barn (40 minutes away from the capital city of Caracas) into a small theater where previews were presented before going into full productions in the city. In 1994, sensing that political unrest would soon rock her country, De Lara’s plays started to revolve around power, the way it is addressed and the consequences of submitting to it. “The Importance of Being Blanca (La Importancia de llamarse Blanca),” the first play in what she considers a trilogy, was produced in 1995 at Rajatabla-Caracas Venezuela and had its American debut in 2005 at Latin American Theater Ensemble (LATE) in New York City, receiving the HOLA best production award that year. The second play of the trilogy is “Golondrinas (Swallows)” and the third, “The Republic,” is to be produced next year after a workshop beginning this fall.
Howard Collado (Claudia) received the HOLA Best Actor Award for “I Want You By My Side” and “The Glass Cord.” A founding member of Sinteatro Intimus, he has appeared in “The Importance of Being Blanca” and “At the End of The Century,” both by Aminta De Lara.
Robert Ramos (Carmen Elena) has appeared in “Contigo” at the Signature Theatre, “Balm in Gilead” at the 45th Street Theatre and “You Can’t Take It With You” at The Gloria Maddox Theatre. For Sinteatro, he has appeared in the “Importance of Being Blanca” and “At The End Of The Century.”
As a prologue to the play, Marion Elaine will deliver a poem by Aminta De Lara, translated by James Cascaito. She also appears throughout the play as “The Feminine Force,” a silent presence. She is a NY actress who starred in the independent feature “Do You Think I’m Pretty?” and has appeared in Aminta De Lara’s plays “The Importance of Being Blanca” and “At The End Of The Century.”