Transporting Chekhov's dashed hopes and ennui to 1980s Miami

By: Feb. 06, 2024

The biggest drama at the GALA Hispanic Theatre this year didn’t happen on stage; it was the $250,000 that was stolen when its bank account was hacked and drained, threatening the long-serving Spanish-language performance space as its 50th anniversary approached.

Pleas were issued; donations were made and the bank expedited the return of funds such that attention could fall back onto their theatrical season, which continues with “Las Hermanas Palacios,” a world premiere  adaptation of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” by Cristina Garcia that takes it from small town Russia in 1900 to Miami in 1985. 

There, amid the flash of nightclubs and violence of the drug gangs, characters dream of going back to Cuba, as those in the original dreamed of returning to Moscow.

Adapting Chekhov is an appealing challenge to playwrights for whatever reason, but it’s no easy task (Garcia’s effort is billed as “inspired” by the Russian author and co-concieved by its director Adrián Alea). 

There are a lot of characters to keep track of, whose relationships are not immediately discerned. But in a lot of ways Garcia’s streamlined versions makes the yearnings of the siblings more clear; nuggets of melancholy, longing and belonging come through strongly into what might other be mistaken for a melodramatic telenovela.

As in Chekhov, it begins on the 21st birthday of the youngest sister Irinita (Carolina Reyes), who wants more than anything to return to Havana and dance with the National Ballet. The oldest sister Olga (Yaiza Figueroa) struggles to keep the family homestead together; Maria (Catherine Nuñez), we learn, is surviving an abusive relationship with her (unseen) husband, a police officer, and kindles an illicit tryst with a philandering drug kingpin and friend of the family (Camilo Linares). 

Where the Chekhov work was populated with military and academics, here it’s dealers and nightclub people. Ever-versitile company member Luz Nicholás is the owner of a nightclub where the sister’s brother Andrés (Victor Salinas) is a musician and in love with its exotic dancer Nancy (Rachael Small).

Their union will help doom the family and the homestead (as will his gambling) and there’s all sort of calamity for each of them after the first act ends in gunfire and the second act begins with a hurricane. 

Visits to a spiritual guide (Nadia Palacios) seem unnecessary — both to the sisters and ultimately to the play.

“Los Hermanas Palacios” isn’t entirely satisfying as a whole; the pacing seems off. There’s an  unconvincing sex scene that also seems superfluous; the sudden spouting of broad philosphy amid the lamenting can be jolting, though it does shore up the drama. What really saves the work is the strong acting from top to bottom.

GALA is known for drawing some big names from the Latino community worldwide, but this might be its most diverse yet, with actors hailing from Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico and the U.S., all of them serving the play well.

Standouts include Gerardo Ortiz González as an old family friend, who bets big on hotels in sketchy Miami Beach before it’s quite ready. Reyes fairly glows in her initial innocence and changes as much as her dance styles.

And Small has the kind of broad, ditzy comic timing of a Judy Holliday, and is especially good as a gringa who either over-pronounces or  mispronounces the Spanish she struggles to include as she insinuates herself into the family.

Frank J. Oliva’s set is ambitious as it tries to represent both the family home and a nightclub  — largely through overhead colored lights and snaking neon (lighting by Hailey Laroe). It doesn't quite work, but the leafy trees seen through a sliding glass window are effective, especially as the hurricane makes them wave.

Justin Schmitz’ sound design involves constant thump in the nightclub along with the swoosh of the wind. 

Executive director Rebecca Medrano blamed ghosts for opening night problems with the supertitles — one screen simply switched to streaming TV options before clicking off altogether.

But even considering the usual efforts in titles’ keeping up with dialog on stage, either going too fast or lagging behind, there were further problems, as titles retained Spanish phrases here and there, essentially defeating the purpose of translation. (And when the gringa spoke, they presented her dialog in English, too, though it would have been helpful for Spanish-only audiences to translate them to their language). 

The strong acting and eventual intent of the work that questions how one belongs keeps the work afloat, though it might need some tinkering before its next production. 

Running time: About two hours plus a 20 minute intermission.

Photo credit: Yaiza Figueroa, Carolina Reyes and Catherine Nuñez in “Las Hermanas Palacios.” Photo by Daniel Martinez

“Las Hermanas Palacios” runs through Feb. 25 at the GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St NW. Tickets available from 202-234-2724 or online.