The play’s title is allegorical. Emigrants, like the migratory birds, the swallows, move away from their native birthplace but carry within a deep instinctive longing for their homeland.
Even though this production ran only4 performances in Teatro de la Luna’s 15th International Hispanic Theater Festival, the show’s indelible images linger.
Spanish playwright Blanca del Barrio, who also directs Cartas de las Golondrinas, was an assistant to Marcel Marceau for 18 years. Influenced by her teacher, who was the master-of-mime-dramas, Del Barrio combines a wildly imaginative staging style, a mix of mime and music with balletic dance sequences and visual media, to bring to life a random collection of letters, dating from 1911 to 1939, filled with deep personal experiences that become a surprisingly fresh, thank-you-letter to the world.
The narration started with a moving tribute to the individual heroism of the poet Pablo Neruda, who arranged for asylum from Franco’s dictatorship in Spain near the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. The steamship, the Winnipeg, a cargo ship, that usually carried no more than 70 people, was rigged out to transport over 2,000. Although many people today know his poetry, his heroic good deed, an act “….no one will be able to erase,” is largely unknown. The scene was a powerful testament to the actions of a courageous humanitarian.
Yet this lyrical narrative never for a moment let us forget that uprooting and leaving birthplaces and families were wrenching experiences. The two key characters are Noelia (played by Noelia Fernandez) and Esther Aja (Esther Aja), who use their own names as character names, told us the stories through letters and photographs about the hardships and triumphs of traveling from the old country to new countries like Argentina, Uruguay, Chili, or the United States. We in the audience got the sense that we are all part of an abstraction. We became the immigrants in the stories the two women had to tell.
Barrio’s signature directing style cut to the quick. With her dark hair framing her face, Esther was perched stage center on a platform, that looked like a high altar. Before her, a white sheet stretched out and covered center stage. As Noelia narrates the story of husbands and wives reuniting after the Spanish Civil War had separated them, images of surf and breaking-waves flash across the white sheet, that serve as a screen. It’s a unique attention-grabber, followed by stunning video clips, such as the soulful face of an emigrant child, open sea with flying seagulls, accompanied by haunting music.
But the stand-out peak of this impressive theatrical presentation is the use of an ingenious stage platform contraption (set design by Juan I. Goitia), that can be taken apart and reassembled. First, the platforms are taken apart and reassembled as a long table, that serves for last supper scenes. In one of the most memorable, Esther and Noelia pantomime eating a meal in their hometown in Spain, in ritualistic slow motion. Then the tables are overturned to form piers, dock and a gangplank for entry to a steamship. A forlorn steamship horn blasts. And Esther and Noelia dressed in winter coats with fur collars pantomime and dance in slow motion the ritual of departure to an achingly sad, soulful cello accompaniment.
Next the pillars and posts form bunk beds in the ship’s steerage for Noelia’s telling of how poor and hungry people came with hopes for survival, to feed themselves and their families. “Those of us who leave, leave all our memories behind, and we only carry along a suitcase of hope for a better life,” Noelia says. But life is hard work, filled with homesickness and longing for old friends. In some situations, immigrants are given the most demeaning, difficult jobs, worst food, and treated like slaves.
Later in the unforgettable, highly effective highpoint scene, that epitomizes the brutal chaos of an Immigration Citizenship Application center, several overturned platform tables, with collapsible legs, become frames for countertop windows. We catch a glimpse of Esther and Noelia moving from window to window and being turned away, lost in the maddening bureaucratic paperwork. In some of Spain’s towns, birth and identity records were burned during the Spanish Civil War; and generational continuity was broken. Using the window frames like percussive instruments, Noelia and Esther slap table tops with sharp cracks to express their frustration and rage. The stage contraption becomes an instrument of protest.
One of the most beautifully ironic moments is climactic. The two young women toss letters in the air and cry out the names of the most talented contributors to world culture who left Spain for South America and the U.S. The letters and immigration forms swirl in the air and fall to the floor. Letters or papers for the Generation of ’27, made up of poets and intellectuals, like the poet Pedro Salinas, who came to the U.S. The scientist Severo Ochoa, who was a Nobel Prize winner in medicine (1959), also came to the U.S.A.; as did Juan Ramon Jimenez, the writer of Platero y Yo, (recently produced at the GALA Hispanic Theatre). Luis Bunuel, the avant-garde film maker, was adopted by Mexico. The Spanish-Andalusian composer, Manuel de Falla, a style changer in musical composition, relocated in Argentina.
Cartas de las Golondrinas (Letters from the Swallows)
1 hour, 5 minutes with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Saturdays
Cartas de Los Golondrinas (Letters From the Swallows) is layered with history. You need to know that the Battle of Covadonga is an important first victory in 722 AD, for the Spaniards that began their centuries long Reconquista (Reconquest) of Muslim Spain. And we are reminded that not all steam ship passages were successful. The Valbanera, a Spanish steamship that sailed from the Canary Islands in 1919, sank during a hurricane in 1919 with a loss of all crew and passengers aboard. But the reminder circles us back to the beginning with the refrain that the dream goes on. Esther and Noelia take turns chanting, “Because history repeats itself,” and make the story upbeat.
– Simultaneous English dubbing through headsets, provided by Marcela Ferlito and Gae Schmitt. –
Cartas de Los Golondrinas (Letters From the Swallows) , Written and directed by Blanca del Barrio. Interpreted by Noelia Fernandez and Esther Aja. Produced by Compania Escena Mirinaque for Teatro de la Luna’s Fifteenth International Festival of Hispanic Theater. Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Note – Teatro de la Luna’s 15th International Hispanic Theater Festival, like the others that have come before, is one of the best kept secrets of the entire theatre season in Washington D.C. Still to come: plays from Ecuador, the U.S.A., Venezuela, and Argentina.These artists are superb. They are must-sees. Up next: Agüita de Viejas (Fragrances from the Past), Nov 1, 2 and 3.