Emotionally revitalizing, experimental and spectacular. This gut-wrenching ground-breaker exposes hidden Argentinian history, so expect the unexpected in this well-constructed musical by Patricia Suárez-Cohen. Composer/lyricist Mariano Vales has created spell-binding, beguiling lyrics set to minor-keyed music, echoing Slavic-Jewish toe-tapping folk tunes. The mix will keep you edgy with suspense, knocked dizzy and breathless, even inspired.
Las Polacas: The Jewish Girls of Buenos Aires takes place post-World War I. Poor Eastern European women, desperate to leave their native villages, are lured by the Zwi Migdal, a powerful international sex-trafficking mafia, with promises of a better life of marriage and security in Argentina. In actuality, these young women are exploited, and tricked into working in Buenos Aires houses of prostitution in the 1920s.
American musical theatre has offered us whoredom with lots of laughs in the 1978 Broadway musical, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas jazzed up into a flick in 1982 with a quasi-happy, Hollywood ending. But Las Polacas echoes the direct-audience-address, sing-speech style of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Three Penny Opera strips off any veneer of glamour or optimism.
As seamlessly directed by Mariano Caligaris, Las Polacas juxtaposes time periods, the Present Time in 1923, where the play starts in the Argentine brothel, and flashes back to the Past Time in 1917, in Poland, at the time of the Russian Revolution.
GALA has assembled a remarkable cast, a blend of Argentinian actors with well-known local performers such as Joshua Morgan and Amy McWilliams.
The characters depicted by this luminous cast are memorable. Schlomo, the procurer, given an unrestrained, hard-hitting flamboyance by Argentine actor Martin Ruiz), sees his bargained-for brides as trapped victims. Even when he blames the unfair, dictatorial system for his using a silk shop as a cover-up for a brothel, Schlomo comes across as a devastating, slimy charmer, engaging and seductive. You love him; you hate him.
But these Jewish girls are not portrayed as victims. Rachela, sung with disarming, naive directness by gifted local newcomer Samantha Dockser, dreams of a singing career, and refuses to be victimized. Costume designer Collin Ranny dresses her in white filmy outer garments with white shorts underneath to suggest her youthful innocence and purity. But Rachela is no stereotype. She’s complex and unforgettable. At one stunning turning-point in Act II, Rachela sings: “I will live! I will thrive!/…..Though my dreams now are broken,/My pain is unspoken./I’ll bear it in silence,/…and defiance.” It’s a stand out, bravura moment.
Tricked by Schlomo who promises he will make her a singing star, “the queen of Buenos Aires,” Rachela, becomes an inspiring archetype for courageous, silent, even spiritual resistance. Based on the real life, defiant prostitute Raquel Liberman, Rachela represents the survivor who, although betrayed and treated with vicious cruelty, never sees herself as a victim.
But let’s back up to the beginning. Scenes alternating between Spanish, (with English surtitles), and English, (with Spanish surtitles) establish fluidity. For example, the opening scenes between Rachela and Margot, sung in Spanish, places them in the Buenos Aires bordello in 1923. Rachela, who married Schlomo in a quick Jewish wedding and left her native Poland, climbs up a teetering stack of stored suitcases to peer out a hopper window, usually found in a basement. Rolling platforms by scenic designer Luciana Stecconi helps the flow. Loose curtain riggings, hanging like a hangman’s nooses on this minimalist set, add an ominous touch.
Rachela and Margot, another wife, or hustler, played by the full-of-life, expressive Argentine singer Ana Fontán, are waiting for the superstar Carlos Gardel, the King of Tango (Argentine actor Juan Bianchi.) It helps to know that Gardel, an infamous womanizer and household name in Buenow Aires, was once shot by a jealous husband and carried a bullet in his lung for the rest of his life.
Later in Act II, as the hardened Margot, the essence of resilient cynicism, Ana Fontán, delivers a stellar show-stopper: “The Mouse Milonga (a relaxed tango)”, as she advises Rachela how, if stuck with a bored husband, to attract a lover and achieve more freedom, “without wiles, there’s no passion”.
Flashback scenes in Poland are sung in English. Rachela’s counterpart, Micah, a key character, played by an endearing Joshua Morgan, is the idealistic activist, a political anarchist who is committed to making a better life for all: “In life, you either commit to a cause, or you are forever a slave.” Although Micah is seen as a loser because his good-heartedness prevents him from assassinating the czar, he ultimately does what you never expect.
A highpoint scene comes when Amy McWilliams as Golde, Rachela’s down-to-earth, pragmatic mother, belts out her sing-speaking chatter, as she haggles with Schlomo to sell her daughter. Grotesquely funny, Golde lives up to the image of the controlling, but greedy parent, arranging a marriage by talking herself into taking Schlomo’s Jewish charity contribution. “All this money–every penny–is for me,/And the dreams I’ll never see!/….For the life and love I wanted desperately,/….I deserve this money! The money is for me!”
Yet, to see the death of pure love and loyalty can make you squirm. What’s amazing is how these performers play their complex characters on multi-emotional levels, and make an unpleasant subject palatable, even beautiful, through the throb of Vales’ minor-keyed Slavic music and exquisite, eloquent lyrics.
In “A Tango For Gardel,” for example, Rachela sings:
“Take me with you/Once and for all/Where no waves break the sea/Where the doves fly free/Take me my love/Hold me in your arms/…..You stole the full moon/You took my dreams/You snatched the words/Of love from my lips/And in this endless bitter night/As the shadows grow/So does the abyss of your absence/And my pain.” And the suffering, the pain of being alive, reaches a sublime, universal level.
Everything integrates into an organic whole. Even the lighting designed by Mary Keegan, that bathe the stage crimson in moments of violence. Overall, the musical, which has no dance number, has the syncopated rhythm of a tango. The twists and deep lunges of the plot imitate that Latin dance.
LAS POLACAS: The Jewish Girls of Buenos Aires
June 4 – 28
GALA Hispanic Theatre
3333 14th Street, NW
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $38 – $42
Details and Tickets
The hypnotic musical accompaniment emanates from musicians in the wings, under the direction of George Fulginiti-Shakar, and the excellence of conductor/keyboard artist Howard Brietbart, Joan Singer, violin, John Nazdin, bass, Jessica Zweig, clarinet, and Emmanuel Trifilio, bandoneon, notable for its association with the Argentine tango.
I just wish the musical had been longer. Carlos Gardel mentions the Cueca, a courtship, folk dance associated with Northern Argentina, and thought to have originated in 19th century bordellos. Why couldn’t we see one danced?
This 39th season’s last play caps the theme dedicated to women. In my interview last August with GALA artistic directors Hugo and Rebecca Medrano, they described Las Polacas as “a total risk. The playwright, Patricia Suárez Cohen is known in Argentina, but not here.”
Sex slavery is no joke. It still exists in the sex-trafficking of women and children across the Mexican border. Mega-kudos to GALA’s courageous artistic directors for braving the risk.
Bilingual with alternating English and Spanish surtitles by Heather McKay
Las Polacas: The Jewish Girls of Buenos Aires, a world premiere . Book by Patricia Suárez-Cohen . Music and lyrics by Mariano Vales . Adaptation of English lyrics and text: Bari Biern . Directed by Mariano Caligaris . Featuring Martín Ruíz, Ana Fontán, Samantha Dockser, Joshua Morgan, Amy McWilliams, Juan Bianchi, and Carlos Macher . Music Director George Fulginiti Shakar . Produced by the GALA Hispanic Theatre . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.
Note from Rosalind: Traditions [similar to those shown in this play] still prevail in parts of Russia today. The rigid code of top-down authoritarian government to maintain order strangles individuality and rebellion. Anything to maintain a calm surface is a political philosophy that is contrary to the American tradition of a government intended to protect individual freedoms, including expressed dissent. You see the contrast of these philosophies dramatized in this musical.