Many times, and perhaps too often, theater is used as a vehicle to escape life, to tell a story that is far from the reality of the world we live in and come from. I respect the artists who use theater as a tool to teach, engage, and tell truths of a more gritty and raw reality. The renowned GALA Hispanic Theatre and Director Mariano Caligaris throw caution to the wind as they triumph with their latest show, Las Polacas: The Jewish Girls of Buenos Aires. This innovative work and world premiere musical, written by Patricia Suarez-Cohen, with music and lyrics by Mariano Vales, and English adaptation by Bari Biern, is a captivating look into the seedier past of Argentina.
Las Polacas: The Jewish Girls of Buenos Aires is a story centered on the story of a poor Jewish girl mislead into sex slavery by the Zwi Migdal, a mafia involved in sex slavery and trafficking all over the world, but centered in Argentina. The girl in this story, Rachela, was tricked by the promise of a better life, much like many of the girls did in the 70 years of tyranny created by the Zwi Migdal.
Rachela is a girl loosely based (or at least in namesake) on the prostitute Rachel Lieberman, who finally was able to escape her enslavers and prostitution for a second time and able to expose and finally end the cruelty of the Zwi Migdal mafia.
The story takes us back and forth from Poland -our heroine’s homeland – to the port city of Buenos Aires where she would be enslaved. The production seamlessly moves from Spanish to English, with subtitles (by Heather McKay) of both languages throughout. This brings a reality to each scene that is rarely experienced in the theater.
Set Designer Luciana Stecconi uses a minimalist design to easily transform the stage from a basement brothel to a country house in Poland, and an upscale silk shop, to name just a few of the more prominent settings. Stecconi and crew use touches of period furnishings and props to set the stage. With the help Lighting Designer Mary Keegan, the audience is transported into the early 20th century with ease.
The Heroine of the evening, Rachela, is played with a coy and innocent charm by Samantha Dockser. The songs “Rachela’s Farewell” and “The Star of Argentina,” beautifully displayed her angelic soprano voice.
Joining her in the brothels is Argentine actress Ana Fontan as Margot. Fontan is the definition of a beauty in her role as the more experienced of the two women and confidant of Rachela. Fontan is energetic and sultry in her portrayal, her rendition of the song “Milonga de raton” is a must-see moment in the show.
Amy McWilliams, as Rachela’s mother Golde, and Joshua Morgan, as Micha, Rachela’s friend from Poland and would be lover, fare well in this linguistically-challenging piece.One of the most intriguing moments of the evening was when Golde is bartering with the antagonist and brothel owner, Schlomo, over her daughter’s fate; a fate she struggles with, but ultimately the promise of immediate wealth is too much to abandon.
This brings me to the most award-worthy and riveting performance of the evening by Argentine Actor Martin Ruiz, as Schlomo. From his first entrance to his last Ruiz commands the stage. He exudes a charm that makes him a believable villain and a Don Juan to the susceptible Rachela. Ruiz’s performance alone was worth the price of admission and I sincerely hope it is not his last on Washington stages.
I would be remiss not to mention the compelling music emanating from the orchestra, musical directed by George Fulginiti-Shakar and conducted by Howard Breitbart. The accompaniment from these artists was mesmerizing, and they perfectly set the tone and put the final touches to this thought-provoking musical.
If you are looking for a night of innovative, raw, powerful, and inspiring theater you must see Las Polacas: The Jewish Girls of Buenos Aires this month at GALA Hispanic Theatre.
Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
Las Polacas: The Jewish Girls of Buenos Aires plays through Sunday, June 28, 2015 at GALA Hispanic Theatre – 3333 14th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 234-7174, or purchase them online.