Review: Julieta tiene la culpa by Bárbara Colio, Central Drama, Austin
by Michael Meigs
Within Austin's Ground Floor Theatre, an undefined space is set against a black background. The platformed stage is bare except for two long wooden benches. Verónica Pomata enters, lingers stage right, fidgets, checks her phone, looks back behind her; the seconds stretch out and expectation builds into suspense. Director Alejandro Pedemonte knows how to rivet the attention of a full house. When speech comes after that long, detailed silence, it's in Spanish.
The full house of spectators at Ground Floor Theatre, Austin is transfixed. They remain transfixed for the next ninety minutes. Real theatre, serious drama, in Spanish, performed by eloquent, emphatic women from Argentina, Mexico, and Peru.
These characters don't know one another at first. They find themselves together, stuck in this undefined space, revealed to be the lobby of a theatre. There's a production of Romeo and Juliet going on offstage left. Pomata, as Nora, is waiting for a business associate of her husband; she's been assigned to accompany him to the touring show, a Polish director's interpretation. The associate is a no-show. I've appreciated Pomata as a comic actor, somewhat zany, but here she is tense attention, hassled but focused, so self-aware that she seems a ticking timebomb. In the program, playwright Bárbara Colio cites her key speech for this contemporary Nora: "I pretend every night to be the perfect woman, thin, beautiful, fragile, apparently indecisive; which makes everyone love me, desire me, admire me, applaud me. My life depends on that. I know very well what concealment is, what acting is, and what it is to have your life depend on it."
Lorena Elías, tall and clad in crimson, lounges on the far bench. She has a glass in her hand and a whisky bottle in her bag. Her Blanca picked those up in the theatre bar and probably didn't bother to pay. Distant, amused, perhaps in a bit of a fog, Blanca eventually unfurls her tongue with comments sardonic and dismissive. Colio's quote for Blanca: "You know, when two people have had sex, a thread is woven between them that's visible only in a certain light, if you're experienced enough to detect it. It's very thin, like the thread of saliva that lingers after a kiss. One of those good kisses. I learned to distinguish it in the air, against the light. I've woven some myself; more than a few."
Youngest—but not quite young—is Lilian Schiappa-Pietra as Nina, box-office clerk, in a hurry to absorb the Polish director's reputed genius but retained by cash confusion. The box-office take has come in short of the ticket count, her job's at risk, and she can't get into the audience before the doors firmly shut against the three of them. This aspiring actress faces serious trouble. A clever effect within the overhead chandelier shows a fluttering shape, unable to escape. Colio's speech for Nina: “Moths— they're nocturnal butterflies that care nothing for flowers, they're attracted to the light, to brightness, to heat. Look at her, she can’t stop. Even if what attracts her will kill her, she can’t tear herself away. I’ve seen her remain motionless for a long time, resisting, and then struggle to find a way out. We should help her escape; no one wants to be consumed by fire."
The remarkable script and Alejandro Pedemonte's direction of three striking, distinctly different actresses create a mesmerizing experience. Performance—dissembling—becomes the through-line to this action. All three characters have striven to make themselves appreciated and loved, duped largely by male expectations of them. When Nina tells of her failures at auditions, the others challenge her to audition, right there and then, for the role of Juliet. She does, and she receives withering criticism from the others. They tell her to try again. This accomplished Peruvian actress modulates her character through increasingly subtle speeches by Juliet and brings Nina to confess a dilemma more acute, intimate, and stressful than a mere shortfall in the ticket take.
Colio proposed to put three of the strongest female protagonists of Western drama together onstage: Nora of Ibsen's A Doll's House, Blanche Dubois of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, and Chekhov's Nina Mikhailovna, titular protagonist of The Seagull, Chekhov's first major play. The three characters on Colio's stage bear the same names -- Nora, Blanca (Blanche), and Nina. The playwright's approach is something like reverse osmosis, the technique used to filter seawater to produce water capable of sustaining life. Those three dramas by leading male playwrights of the past two centuries crafted vivid, memorable portraits of women subjected to oppressive and disappointment. In Julieta tiene la culpa (It's Juliet's Fault) a contemporary female playwright employs decisive dialogue to distill from an apparently chance encounter the same oppressions—physical, psychological, and social—that still afflict contemporary women. Feminism, consciousness raising, sensitivity training, and painfully slow progress toward equal treatment have provided some steps in the right direction, but women remain terribly disadvantaged.
You don't need to know the classic texts to be drawn deep into this encounter, although that knowledge will enrich your experence by guiding your expectations. Colio's lateral approach is typified by her decision to leave unexplored the title's reference to Romeo and Juliet. Ironies: actress Nina, exploited by a man to whom she's devoted, blames Juliet for tragedies and deaths arising from male conduct. And that raggedly contemporized version offstage to which the women aren't admitted is staged by a male Polish director.
As in previous productions of Spanish-language drama, director Pedemonte provides English titles for those not entirely comfortable with spoken Spanish. In this production those were posted on a screen at far stage right—helpful but not particularly easy to check as the quick action and dialogue evolved before us onstage. Few of us in the full house on opening night needed them.
This production merited full houses for its entire run, which concluded last weekend; the word of mouth must have been terrific, so there's a good chance Central Drama brought a lot of people to the Ground Floor Theatre.
979 Springdale Rd
Austin, TX, 78702
June 8 - 17, 2023 at the Ground Floor Theatre.
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