Mothers of self-invention

Power Street Theatre Company presents Erlina Ortiz's 'Las Mujeres'

3 minute read
Gabriela Sanchez (seated) enjoys a visit from her historical foremothers. (Photo by Corem Coreano.)
Gabriela Sanchez (seated) enjoys a visit from her historical foremothers. (Photo by Corem Coreano.)

With its world premiere of resident playwright Erlina Ortiz’s Las Mujeres, Power Street Theatre Company (PSTC) lives up to its mission. The company hopes to “educate and inspire audiences by providing comedic and dramatic insight on the challenges women and Latinx people face when assimilating into traditional white-male-dominated spaces.”

PSTC sets up a cozy temporary stage with 50 seats in the main hall of the West Kensington Ministry, a welcoming neighborhood community center. Yoshi Nomura’s set shows the living/dining room of Marlene (Gabriela Sanchez), a harried civil engineer who fears her new promotion will just bring more headaches from her male-dominated office.

What’s in a name?

Marlene accepts the Anglo pronunciation of her name — MarLEEN — instead of the Spanish Mar-LAY-na, and dresses to deflect male attention. A surprise visitor, played by Krystal Lizz Rosa, stirs up turmoil from Marlene's past, leaving her even more discouraged.

She dozes off at her dining-room table. That’s when the magic happens.

Perhaps inspired by Caryl Churchill’s seminal Top Girls, Ortiz and director Tamanya Garza make four Latina heroines’ supernatural entrance beautifully eerie and original. Some were new to me, but I was glad to meet them.

Film star Rita Hayworth (Lorenza Bernasconi) and artist Frida Kahlo (Diana Rodriguez) are well known — though I wonder if many know Hayworth’s given name was “Margarita.” Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Anjoli Santiago), a nun, and Dominican revolutionary Minerva Mirabal (Marisol Custodio) were revelations.

Though they exist outside space and time, their harsh life circumstances follow them. We learn not only why each is famous, but what they sacrificed and endured. “The only cruelty,” says Juana, whose love for education vexed the priests, “is to be silenced.” Ortiz gives them their voices.

The women throw Marlene a congratulatory party with wine, tequila (Kahlo never goes anywhere without it), and homemade empanadas. Ortiz balances lively chitchat with each woman’s story. All four rebelled against male-dominated systems, whether in Hollywood, modern art, the Catholic Church, or dictatorship.

Marlene’s risks aren’t as dire, but her new friends know she’s smothering herself — and so does she. “When I go to work I lock up my vagina,” she confesses. “And I think I’ve lost the key.”

The cast balances lively comedy and profound revelations. Garza, lighting designer Ro Gauger, and sound designer Daniel Ison create dramatic effects with few resources, often giving big moments a melodramatic sound and light bump that feels corny yet sincere. Asaki Kuruma’s colorful costumes capture the famous characters well and provide a fun transformation for Marlene.

How will you be remembered?

The story returns to Marlene’s problems when the characters discuss legacies. While Marlene worries she has too many choices, what’s right is clear to her and to us, and the play’s ending satisfies and inspires.

Garza, the cast, and the crew then provide a quick extra treat: a slideshow honoring the women in their lives. It’s unnecessary and awkwardly tucked in after the cast bows, but it’s exciting to see the many women supporting the cast and staff. These women, and those of Las Mujeres, will be remembered.

What, When, Where

Las Mujeres. By Erlina Ortiz, Tamanya Garza directed. Power Street Theatre Company. Through March 17, 2018, at the West Kensington Ministry, 2140 N. Hancock Street, Philadelphia.

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