Review: ‘La Paloma at the Wall’ by The In Series

The In Series at GALA Theatre has succeeded in brilliantly breathing life into a treasured zarzuela – a blend of song and dance – which was written in 1894 and originally titled La Verbena de la Paloma. The result is La Paloma at the Wall, a lively contemporary work that is partly sung, partly spoken and thoroughly appropriate for 2019. It should be said right away that all the voices in this In Series production are superb, more than capable of singing operatic roles.

Elizabeth Mondragon as Paloma in 'La Paloma at the Wall.' Photo courtesy of The In Series.
Elizabeth Mondragon as Paloma in ‘La Paloma at the Wall.’ Photo courtesy of The In Series.

Adapting this masterpiece by composer Tomás Bretón and librettist Ricardo de la Vega, Anna Deeny Morales has relocated the original from Spain to Friendship Park on the Mexico/U.S. border between Tijuana and San Diego. The park is divided by a metal fence. It is the present day. Drones fly overhead.

La Paloma at the Wall not only alters the setting of the original zarzuela. More importantly, Morales adds a dimension of social criticism, which does not appear in historical zarzuelas. She deepens the work with her interest in the political issues of migration and the effects of a physical wall separating two countries.

The zarzuela takes place on the Mexican side of the border, looking through the slatted wall to the American side. At the Border Patrol office, a woman enters, looking tired, speaking no English. This is Paloma (Elizabeth Mondragon). Through a translator, she explains that she and her daughter came from Guatemala to seek asylum in the United States, but the Border Patrol took her daughter. She is now looking for news of her. Eventually, an insensitive guard storms off, having no use for Paloma’s personal anguish and being unable to understand her language.

Mondragon’s strong, pure mezzo-soprano lights up the stage. When she first speaks, Paloma is sad. She grows sadder as she sings the mournful aria “Si me llegara perder/I was born so far from here” (surtitles in Spanish and English) and it is one of the most poignant moments in the production. Throughout, Mondragon is an honorable, heroic Paloma.

She goes to look for work at a bar run by Don Francisco (Gustavo Ahualli) and his wife, Rita (Katherine Fili). The bar is visited often by a sleazy pharmacist from San Diego, Don Jack (Lew Freeman), who keeps up a lively friendship with a Tijuana judge, Don Sebastián (Carlos Macher).

Two sisters, Susana (Mia Rojas) and Casta (Teresa Ferrara) arrive in Tijuana to stay with their Tía Antonia (Vivian Allvin), since their father can no longer care for them in Oaxaca. Security guards play cards. People get drunk. And through it all, preparations go on for a festival dedicated to the Virgen de la Paloma.

The old men, Sebastián and Jack, are crude and see nothing wrong with ogling young girls all day. A duet in which Macher and Freeman discuss the problems men have as they age (You Know, Old Friend, There Are Over Sixty Preparations”), is the most humorous song of the production.

Lewis Freeman (Don Jack) and Mia Rojas (Susana) in 'La Paloma at the Wall.' Photo courtesy of The In Series.
Lewis Freeman (Don Jack) and Mia Rojas (Susana) in ‘La Paloma at the Wall.’ Photo courtesy of The In Series.

Rojas’ Susana is outspoken and clear-minded. She had been dating a young man named Julián (Ian McEuen), but he will not commit to her, so she won’t go out with him any longer. Rojas makes her Susana credible in several critical ways: persuading Rita to let Paloma work in the bar; convincing Casta that they are better off in Tijuana than in Oaxaca; and catching Jack in a lie. This is a crucial role and Rojas is perfect for all its dimensions, particularly as she sings in her clear soprano “Cielito Lindo.”

McEuen is glorious as Julián, expressing in his rich tenor how heartbroken he is that he has lost Susana. He is particularly effective in the aria “Some Drink and Laugh, Others Drink and Then They Weep,” in which he likens Paloma’s distress to his own.

For most of the zarzuela, director Nick Olcott keeps the action moving at warp speed, except at the start, when women run onto the stage and look through the wall, silently searching for loved ones. The production’s slow beginning, which morphs into a chorus of women chanting together, is very effective. Ulises Eliseo is this production’s Composer, Arranger, and Co-Music Director. His score features melodies played by an eight-member ensemble capably led by Timothy Nelson, Co-Music Director. The vibrant and varied choreography is by Alejandro Gongora, who employs extraordinary dancers from Corazón Folklórico DC.

Donna Breslin’s costume design is extremely colorful, particularly in the Mexican dance numbers, where the women wear long, full skirts and blouses with elegant embroidered details. Set Designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson creates a place stage right for the music ensemble and uses a moveable set piece at the rear of the stage for the bar. The majority of the stage’s space is for the slatted fence painted with flowers and butterflies (Sarah Craft, Luis Peralta: Mural Designers and Artist), for small tables and chairs, and for dancing and acting.

The most remarkable thing about this zarzuela is that it is not simply updated to make it sound fit for the 21st century. Instead, Morales finds sources in literary or social reality to give her characters depth. Her Susana, for instance, comes from the Bible’s Book of Daniel, where the “Story of Susanna and the Elders,” tells of a young woman unknowingly watched by two elderly judges as she bathes. Together these judges plot to harm Susanna if she doesn’t allow them to rape her. In Morales’ story, the scheming judges are transformed into the lusty Jack and the leering Sebastián.

Of course, the most obvious connection between social reality and La Paloma at the Wall is Paloma herself, who represents the countless parents who have been separated from their children while trying to enter the United States. Morales is straightforward about dedicating this work to all those parents and children who have been separated and to the many who may never be reunited.

La Paloma at the Wall is a masterfully done zarzuela, although a sadly relevant one.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.

La Paloma at the Wall, presented by The In Series, plays Saturday, March 30 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 31 at 2 p.m. at GALA Theatre, 3333 14th Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets online.

Chris Herman, Juana; Cecilia Deeny Locraft, Maria Martinez; Santiago Alfonso Meza, Juan; Nigel Rowe, Pedro. Dancers: Alejandro Gongora (captain); Manuel R. Cuellar; Angelina Hernandez Romualdo; Debora M. Membreño. Instrumental Ensemble: Milena Aradski, Jennifer Houck (violin); Patricio Zamorano (jarana); Ulises Eliseo (guitar); Zoe Coppola (harp); Kimberly Parrillo (bass); Colton Morris (percussion); Timothy Nelson (piano). Marianne Meadows, lighting designer.