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In the Time of the Butterflies

A play based on Julia Alvarez's novel captures the Dominican Republic heroes' fight against dictatorship

In the Time of the Butterflies

En el tiempo de las mariposas runs through June 25 at the Repertorio Español in New York. — Michael Palma

En español | When the Mirabal sisters took up arms in the late 1950s against General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo's dictatorial regime in the Dominican Republic, reports of these ordinary women taking extraordinary risks proved so empowering to the people that the sisters were ordered killed. Ever since, the legacy of Patria, Dedé, Minerva and María Teresa has been handed down, and not just by elders who endured that oppressive era. Books and films have commemorated the sisters' bravery.

Now, so has a stage play, En el tiempo de las mariposas, written by Caridad Svich and based on Julia Alvarez's 1994 novel, In the Time of the Butterflies. The drama, directed by José Zayas and performed in Spanish — with live simultaneous English translation available — opened at Repertorio Español in New York on February 21 and runs through May. And the author's English-language version of the script is being considered for future productions across the United States.

Despite the story's many incarnations, including the 2010 movie Trópico de Sangre, this latest retelling is a near-resurrection of the sister-heroes, one that focuses tightly on the more intimate bonds between them rather than provide a wider historical accounting of what happened in the Dominican Republic. "We're sisters," Minerva insists at one point in the play. "Family's all we have. Our family's our country."

The actors' use of dominicanismos and regional El Cibao inflections also make this production feel all the more real. Dalia Davi plays Minerva and gives a performance as powerful as the slap her character gives Trujillo at a party. Minerva is the first Mariposa — the code name used by the sisters — to join the underground movement. The single male actor in the cast, Fermín Suárez, takes on the impossible task of playing a number of male roles, and does an incredible job of differentiating them all, from the bicorne hat-wearing Trujillo to the comedic Rufino, the campesino driver who was with the sisters at the time of their deaths.

The production might literally feel small, with its ensemble of seven actors and the stage pared down to wrought-iron garden furniture and video-projection panels. But the narrative looms large as life, especially now as populist revolts spread throughout the Middle East.

Playwright Svich discovered the Mirabal sisters when she read Alvarez's book in the 1990s. She never considered adapting the material for the stage until more than a decade later, while reimagining Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits for a run at Repertorio. She started looking for a follow-up project, the second in a proposed trilogy of plays about the Americas. "Locating a story from the Dominican Republic — a true story and, of course, Julia's very particular fictional take on it — seemed ideal," Svich says.

Svich, who started work on Mariposas in June 2010, says Alvarez generously lent a hand with the process. "She wanted to see early drafts of the script — stuff that I actually don't show anyone," Svich says. "She felt particularly protective, and I totally understand that — wanting to make sure we were on the right path."

While she tried to stay true to the novel, Svich admits that she couldn't include everything. Her biggest obligation, she says, was to the Mirabal family: "I want to make sure that I'm honoring the family, that I'm respecting them, that I'm telling the story as best I can."

Alvarez seems pleased with how the play honors the Mirabals. "I am thrilled that the story lives on!" she says. "What I found most moving of all was to see such vibrant, talented Latina actresses connecting with their history, reenacting the stories that they themselves didn't live but come with the territory of being the daughters of immigrants. Such passion, such skill, how wonderful that the stories are now coming back to us via our young people."

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