by Karen Zacarías
based on the novel by Julia Alvarez
directed by Blake Robison
produced by Round House Theatre
reviewed by Miranda Hall
Lime-green suitcases. American flag underpants. Blow-out birthday parties. Welcome to the world of the Garcia family.
Playwright Karen Zacarias’s latest adaptation, from Julia Alvarez’s acclaimed novel, bursts with music, compassion, and vivacity. Round House Theatre Artistic Director Blake Robison guides the story fearlessly through painful wedding toasts, mischievous bedroom gossip, and delightful malapropisms to tell the story of the Garcia family’s first few decades in America. The piece begins in a 1990 celebratory Michigan suburb and travels backwards through the Garcia’s lives to end in a 1959 war-torn Dominican Republic. The spirited Yolanda, played by Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, leads the way as the story’s central narrator – one of Robinson and Zacarias’s careful departures from Alvarez’s novel – as she travels back into her childhood to reclaim her poetic identity. And ultimately she learns that, like her identity, her literary voice lives in translation.
The stories build on top of each other as wildly as dancers in a conga line, lead by Yolanda’s loving narration. Ms. Fernandez-Coffey sparkles as Yolanda, with a bright, inquisitive energy. With a wholehearted selflessness she reveals that she can only reach her poetic primal scene by dancing confidently and gently through her sisters’ childhoods as well. Though many of the scenes evoke the squeamish giggles of girls growing up, others revisit the Garcia family’s most painful memories of war, depression, divorce, and family feuds. The result is a beautifully complex portrait of a close-knit, hard-working family who acknowledges the importance of both laughter and loss.
The play’s success rests in Robison’s impressive ability to balance the tender and the overblown. True, there is an attempted seduction with an American flag bedspread, and yes, scenes set in the Dominican Republic celebrate skin-tight pants and intensely floral accoutrements, but the play also gifts its players moments of gentle – often devastating – solitude. Director Robison allows memory’s quietest echoes and most vivid images to reverberate with equal force.
His concentration, for example, on the sisters’ ensemble resonates with a deeply moving honesty. The most poignant and sacred scene in the play occurs in the first act as Carla, Sandra, and Sofi, played by Maggie Bofill, Sheila Tapia, and Veronica del Cerro, work together to tell the story of Yolanda’s failed marriage. Using a white bed sheet and wedding gown to unfold, confine, and release their sister, the women patiently guide Yolanda through a relationship with a man who causes her to speak “the ugliest words in the world.” Her sisters’ kindness, juxtaposed with her husband’s obstinacy, makes her heartbreak all the more painful. As they work together to support and celebrate each other, their ensemble becomes a breathtaking tribute to sisterhood, friendship, and girl power.
Robison’s efforts to make the play dance also contribute to the strong ensemble. Family scenes often involve hip-shaking, sing-along dances to celebrate their enthusiasm for each other and their Dominican heritage, and choreographer Karma Camp takes full advantage of Milagros Ponce de León’s celestial set in order to mobilize the play’s explosive geography of story lines. Even Robison’s scene transitions are as exciting as the scenes themselves, thanks to Camp’s choreography. Often, the Garcia girls change into their costumes onstage in between scenes, pulling coordinated costumes from bright green and orange fruit-patterned suitcases – the vintage, boxy kind. Though the girls are not perfectly in synch, the effect of playing dress up and of helping each other get ready makes the sisters’ companionship all the more wonderful.
The play’s choreography is only one of many contributions to its stunning visual effects. The patterns – the set’s blue sky-white cloud skin, the suitcases’ green fruit exteriors, Yolanda’s striped pants – evoke a cheerful Dominican playfulness without over-stimulating, and offset specific solid-color choices brilliantly. As the girls acknowledge early on in the play, Mrs. Garcia has selected for each of them a signature color in order to make each daughter’s personal property more easily distinguishable. The red, blue, yellow, and white outfits that Kate Turner-Walker has designed prove that costumes contribute marvelously to establishing a visual rhyme scheme.
And as the title of the play suggests, language drives the play – a poet is narrating, after all – and the girls’ Spanish accents become a measurement for how old they are. As the play progresses and the girls grow younger (remember, it works in reverse chronological order) their Spanish accents grow stronger and the dialogue becomes increasingly bilingual. In fact, the final scene is entirely in Spanish. So non-Spanish speakers take note: if you can take the leap of faith that the Spanish word “poeta” sounds an awful lot like the English word “poet,” you won’t miss more than a few prepositional phrases. (Hopefully.) There are a few punch lines that only the Spanish-speaking portion of the audience can appreciate, but the English zingers are so satisfying that missing a joke or two works out in the grand scheme of things.
The girls’ thickening accents and their ascent into childhood reminds Zacarias’s audience that coming of age means promising yourself to live your life by your truest impulses. Though the play’s ending feels a little rushed, Yolanda does return to her 1990 self, empowered by her poetic discoveries and newly inspired by her literary vocation. She has let go of her Spanish accent but has reclaimed her story – of her poetic beginnings, of her family’s history, and of her sisters’ identities – and tucked it into her writing, as she explains, in translation between her two beloved languages.
Musical, poignant, and brimming with pep, Garcia Girls sends Round House into its season singing, dancing, and celebrating fabulous women. And that’s the best way to start a story.
When: Sept 17 – Oct 12 . Wed at 7:30 pm, Thur, Fri and Sat at 8 pm, matinees Sat and Sun at 3 pm
Where: Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD 20914
Tickets: $50 – $60. Call (240) 644-1100 or order online.