The word spinster in English sounds thin, tinny, squeezed like pulp as to suggest a dried-up figure of ridicule. Old Maid is more direct but also more emphatically cruel — a singsong taunt by children in a schoolyard. The Spanish la soltera sounds like a more serious condemnation, a weighty scorn that turns the external body of a woman into stone, pitiable and fixed in perpetuity as by a final stamp on one’s identity card. But in GALA Hispanic Theatre’s stunning production of Doña Rosita la soltera (Doña Rosita the Spinster), the woman Rosita, played brilliantly by Spanish actress Mabel del Pozo, encapsulates so much more, creating a fluid portrait of a woman who struggles with but finally eludes how society would fix her.
The poet-playwright Federico García Lorca was known for penning memorable women characters who were trapped in a society that subjugated and abused them. Companies have continued to excavate the revolutionary power imbedded in Lorca’s works, following his execution at the hands of Franco’s bloody fascists in 1936, to speak to new generations. His works demand bold imagination and an escape from the strictures of dramatic realism. I first saw his Yerma in London with the inimitable Nuria Espert in the title role. The whole stage was a giant trampoline, and the characters were defined by how they moved across the surface, defied or used the springy surface to demonstrate resiliency.
Director José Luis Arellano took on his own interpretation of Yerma at GALA in 2016, taking Washington audiences by storm and winning six Helen Hayes Awards, including for Outstanding Direction and Best Production of a Play. Thanks to some high-stakes diplomatic interventions from GALA’s partners at the Embassy of Spain, Arellano and members of the creative team plus star actress del Pozo secured visas and managed in the nick of time to return to DC to mount Doña Rosita.
And we are fortunate! This is “world class” theater indeed, and after so many months of lockdown what a joy and privilege to experience something that could only happen in the magical space that is live theater. Arellano’s style almost defies theatrical genres, and this allows the work, in Spanish with surtitles, to be enjoyed on so many levels. It is choreographed with sharp definition and synchronized arrests and yet feels so organic as to be totally synthesized. Actors spin, dive under tables, and twine their arms overhead as if to reach air and sunlight in exquisite ports de bras. The musicality achieved by the whole cast in dealing with the language of playwright Nando López’ adaptation of Lorca’s original work is pure pleasure, and most especially in the phrasing and vocal presence of del Pozo.
The director uses double and triple casting to blur the boundaries of the tripartite structure and division of time of the original play. It was possible to view the play backwards as if Rosita had always been the spinster and such her destiny. But equally possible to enter Rosita’s internal life as a choice: to be more alive internally through her love of flowers, the seasons, and her internalized romantic love.
The ensemble work of the actors is excellent. GALA is a company that has a commitment to a core of performers that is admirable. Though some in the community might see such as “a closed shop,” I would argue that great ages of theater are made by companies of artists who keep getting stretched, who grow in familiarity with each other and their audiences so much so they begin to breathe with each other. Under the hands of a director like Arellano, they are given an even extra “bounce” — like that trampoline for Yerma. This one has lifted them to the stars!
Luz Nicolás creates the role of La tía, Rosita’s aunt and guardian, without any character aging or makeup, which would have sullied the inner truthfulness of the production style. She constantly surprises: in one moment she sits across a table in her house at the end of their life together and in the next she straddles the actor Ariel Texidó lying prone on the floor, only then flips onto her back supported by his weight. Texidó manifests a triple role, confusing at first, but suitably submissive in a male role in what might be called a feminist treatment of the story. He waddles barefoot, even crawls at times, suggesting men are also trapped in this society behaving like children, although when caught for a moment nearly naked in a shower he becomes the illusive object of desire. Delbis Cardona submits to an even more illusive supporting role, where the characters in the original Lorca merge into a kind of glorified stage manager or magician’s helper. His lithe, athletic moves and consummate physical control are nonetheless on display. (I wondered at times if he might represent the made-visible hands of the unseen Lorca; the work after all was penned a year before the playwright’s execution and was subtitled “The Language of Flowers.”)
However, this production belongs to the women. Del Pozo is nothing short of magnificent. But she is also part of a trio. In addition to Nicolás, there is the addition of Laura Alemán in her debut with GALA. Alemán fully embodies the role of the Housekeeper in the house where Rosita has grown up with her aunt and uncle. She is part of the family, as old and familiar as the furniture, but also opinionated and strong. The three of them demonstrate a freedom that comes with years of familiarity. (I must also mention Catherine Nuñez, a stalwart GALA member, who adds richness to the evening playing several younger women in the story.) I loved watching the women’s combativeness but also their playfulness with each other. At one point del Pozo grabs Nicholás’s head from behind as her puppeteer gives voice to La tía. Is it what she well knows the woman would say or the words she would have her say? Another arresting magical moment of physical theatrics.
Everything is given its due. In a play about memory and therefore the fluidity of time, the physics of space is also shown to be fluid. What might in another director’s hands be a scurried set change during intermission becomes part of a ritual by the ensemble of deconstructing a set, and we watch walls dissolve then be stacked to the side of the stage. In the revealing of a kind of backstage, new layers of character and time period are revealed and leitmotifs sounded. I especially would like to mention Scene and Costume Designer Silvia de Marta and share my thoughts about how important and meaningful the visual/scenic moment of the setting changeover was for the story and to acknowledge Jesús Díaz Córtes for his poetic Lighting and Sound Design which contributed to the whole experience. Flowers as in a dream become a garden or perhaps better put an entire nursery. One can almost hear the call of flores de los muertos, flowers of the dead.
The play runs through October 3. For those still hesitant to visit theaters, strict enforcement of proof of vaccination against COVID and mandated mask-wearing by all audience members is in place plus GALA’s state-of-the-art air filtration system hopefully will ease your concerns. Doña Rosita la soltera simply should not be missed.
Running Time: One hour 45 minutes with a 20-minute intermission.
Doña Rosita la soltera (Doña Rosita the Spinster) is performed in Spanish with English surtitles Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. GALA Hispanic Theatre is located at 3333 14th Street NW, Washington, DC, one block from the Columbia Heights Metro station on the Green and Yellow lines. Parking is available at a discount in the Giant parking garage off Park Road NW. Single tickets are $48. Senior (65+), student, and military tickets are $35. Purchase tickets online or call 202-234-7174.