Venezuelan playwright Gustavo Ott confronts us with close encounters of the domestic-violent kind. Divorcees, Evangelists and Vegetarians (Divorciadas, evangelicas y vegetarianas), an accessible play both tragic and hysterically funny, is about three needy women at the existential brink of self-destruction or complete madness. It exposes what women often hide from public view – the debilitating reality of domestic violence.
GALA opened its 35th season last September with an import from Spain and the Golden Age of Spanish Theatre—Lope de Vega’s El Caballero de Olmedo, where we met the romantic myth of the virginal, ideal lady swooning with love from a balcony. Now, Ott’s play Divorcees, Evangelists and Vegetarians shatters that stereotype and brings us up front and personal with the modern Latina woman.
Superbly directed by Abel Lopez – actually, a revival of a production he did in 2003 with a new cast – all theatrical elements are brilliantly integrated to focus on the lives of three women who can be whatever they want to be, except that when the liberation of women clashes with male expectations, freedom comes with a price.
In a culture where forcefulness is allowed as a proof of manhood, tensions between the genders are often resolved violently. So how can the issue of female abuse be explored out in the open and stopped? In Ott’s view, through comedy.
Scenic designer Daniel Pinh’s open-to-view stage set is an inviting entry into a secret, surreal world. In the first scene, sliding, break-away pastel-green panels ease us into a world of cubist shapes. Yet what dominates the stage is a graffiti-like drawing, a grotesquely ugly, floor to ceiling cartoon face of a man, his mouth open for yelling. It’s a shocking, nightmarish image of rage that epitomizes a belief in male supremacy or machismo. By the second act in Central Park, panels are shifted, the male image disappears and is replaced by a blood red, headless female statue and a backdrop of gracefully branching trees, enhanced by Jason Cowperthwaite’s filtered morning light.
We’re in the cultural melting pot of New York City. Decked out in white toreador pants, white-rimmed sunglasses and red spike heels, Gloria, the vegetarian, (Menchu Esteban), conceals a bad bruise on her shoulder under a torn blouse after a fight with her married boyfriend, the “Eye in the Sky” radio newsman, who reports from a helicopter. In the subway, Gloria flamboyantly spews out her story of male cruelty to Beatriz, (Monalisa Arias), a girlishly dressed stranger and a divorced mother, who is working up the courage to throw herself in front of a train. The irony is that although Gloria and Beatriz compete to talk and stumble through language barriers of misunderstanding (Gloria keeps calling Beatriz “Betsy” or “Brunhilda,” always the wrong name which is considered an insult in some cultures), they share similar histories of physical abuse. And it isn’t long before we wonder why we are laughing.
After saving Beatriz’ life, Gloria takes her to see the erotic Hollywood film, 9 ½ Weeks. The fact that Gloria has seen this mediocre skin flick seven times is a sad clue to the emptiness of her life. Break-away panels shift into a two-aisled movie theater as they meet Meche, (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey), the usher, and Dominican evangelist, who calls upon God and morality to save the two women. Twice married and widowed five years, Meche is also in need of rescue.
Effortless ensemble acting brings the comedy to a high pitch. Actress Menchu Esteban is phenomenal. She hits the stage with hurricane force energy, and plays Gloria like a hot waterspout sending up geysers of incoherent anger. This stormy diva who pretends she’s blond, blue-eyed and sexy as a movie star, lives in a dreamworld of denial. Oblivious to the discomfort she inflicts on others, she raps out racist remarks. It’s not a pretty picture but Esteban’s rapid-fire delivery keeps us laughing and edgy.
The other two actresses lend contrast. Monalisa Arias is poignant as Beatriz, the suicidal divorcee, whose unwanted pregnancy forced her to marry too young. Frustrated by lost time in a loveless, purposeless marriage, Arias has some touching reflective moments, played face out from the apron to the audience.
Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey plays Meche who turns to Dominican evangelism and far-out religiousity, such as the babbling-in-tongues to the occult, because “Jesus at least doesn’t leave bruises….” “Widowed in the nick of time,” she didn’t have to go through a divorce. But after two husbands, Meche is at war with herself, as evidenced when she falls writhing to the floor and experiences spiritual orgasms with an invisible demon while conducting an exorcism to free Beatriz from suicidal impulses. I laughed out loud at this high point moment and I don’t think domestic violence or suicide is funny. And that’s the secret to Ott’s art. He makes us laugh at the bad, the ugly and the frightening.
The scintillating patter of Ott’s Pinter-like dialogue, replete with wise-cracks, ellipses, and fascinating word play ultimately brings rapport to this mad trio of rugged individualists. Gloria’s ridicule of Meche’s failed exorcism triggers a wild hair pulling, fist-fight. There’s violence lurking behind every close encounter. But redemption arrives, when Gloria in a glorious moment of victory changes into a knock-out, flaming red dress with plunging neckline (costumes by Lynly A. Saunders). Psyched up to break out and start a new life, Gloria leads the way to freedom. Women’s liberation has taken place before our very eyes.
Underneath Ott’s dagger-edged dialogue can be heard the call for tolerance, kindness and caring. I was reminded of a statement I saw last summer in Suchitoto, El Salvador, stenciled on a front entrance wall. It was created by a local women’s group. “In this house we want a life free of violence toward women.” Without resorting to statistics on domestic violence, Ott makes us aware of this universal outcry. Divorcees, Evangelists and Vegetarians is a startling wake-up call worth seeing.
Note: Sitting in the upper rows is good for viewing the synchronized sur-titles, well-translated by Heather McKay.
Divorcees, Evangelists and Vegetarians (Divorciadas, Evangelicas y Vegetarianas)
By Gustavo Ott
Directed by Abel Lopez
Produced by GALA Theatre at Tivoli Square
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running Time: About 1 hour and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.