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Review: LA LLORONA at We Happy Few

Review: LA LLORONA at We Happy Few

A world premiere adaptation of an enduring Latin ghost story.

Halloween's always a good time for a ghost story, but the legend of La Llorona, the ghostly weeping woman in white, is a tale told year-round in Latin American countries, where it has been spooking people for hundreds of years.

The legend has changed over time and in different regions, but generally La Llorona's name has been mentioned to keep kids behaving, get home before dark, stay away from the rivers at night, and any other thing parents want to coerce their kids to do, lest the ghost get them.

This multiplicity of the stories is demonstrated in the opening moments of Gabby Wolfe's new play "La Llorona," kicking off the 10th season for the We Happy Few company at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. Its cast of six stand and utter the various warnings about the ghost's wrath.

Soon, we're seeing a domestic scene where a troublesome kid (Sara Hernández) who wants to ditch her chores and go out at night is suddenly confronted by the ghostly presence. It's up to her aunt (Cristina Sanchez) to tell her the story of the ghost - or at least one version.

We are swept back to a colonial time in an unnamed country, and a family of seamstresses, visited by a haughty rich family from the area for dress alterations. The seamstresses live in such a dusty area, it rubs off on the dresses and they are scolded.

All the preparations are being made for the arrival of a handsome young heir from Spain (Victor Salinas) set to take over the family mining operations. That he takes a shine to the young seamstress (the playwright herself, Wolfe) begins the problems. They court; she becomes pregnant, and he says, don't worry, there will be a wedding.

It's not the wedding she imagines, though, and that leads to a depth of tragedy that creates the haunting that will be wrought for generations.

Presented to an audience on three sides of the action, "La Llorona" has three listed directors - Kerry McGee, Rachel Dixon and Esteban Marmolejo-Suarez -- a multiplicity not often seen in stage production.

But The Acting Company sure lives up to the name We Happy Few - there are only five on stage representing not only their main characters in two different eras, but a dozen or so townspeople, soldiers, passerby - some changing character just by donning a different shawl and altering a voice. With only one male among the cast that means some gender hopping as well.

Sitting off to the side, Manuela Osorio provides the music on violin, guitar and various odd instruments, chief of which is an unusual bowed instrument called the waterphone, that provides suitably eerie Theramin-like sounds.

Wolfe shines in the chief role as Esperanza, the seamstress who falls in love with the powerful young mine-owner. Because textiles are central to her handiwork, the costume designs of Sabrina Simmons are especially notable, especially as reams of fabric seem to set the scene, especially when they create the roiling rivers in the set of Megan Holden.

Salinas, who put in time in soap operas in Mexico City, brings the swagger of those traditionally handsome stars. But his performance matures subtly as he gets a bit older and his hair is combed back and less wild.

Luz Nicolas, the Spanish actress who has done so much good work at the GALA Hispanic Theater, brings proper haughtiness as the Doña Elena, the demanding elite. (It may be the first time I've seen her speak English in a role).

Fabiolla da Silva uses her height as a way to lord over peasants as well and brings the most fearsome figure of La Llorona when she dons the white wail of the weeping woman.

And Hernández may have the most demanding range of the night - as the rebellions teen, a tough young man, and the young daughter of the forbidden couple. She throws herself into each portrayal, though, and makes them distinct.

The ghostly aspects of the story are kept at bay for most of the play, but when it comes, it does so with the pinpoint lighting of Jason Aufdem-Brinke shining down to the insinuating sounds from the musician Osorio.

As enduring as the legend of the weeping woman has been in Latin culture, it's never been given as much attention as other scary creatures of the season - or a definitive theatrical story. With its simplicity and passion, Wolfe's "La Llorona" may change that.

Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Photo credit: Fabiolla da Silva and Gabby Wolfe in 'La Lorona.' Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

We Happy Few's "La Llorona" continues through Nov. 19 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St SE, Washington. Masks are required. Tickets available online.


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From This Author - Roger Catlin

Roger Catlin, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a Washington D.C.-based arts writer whose work appears regularly in SmithsonianMagazine.com. and AARP the Magazine. He ha... (read more about this author)


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