Review: "La caída de Rafael Trujillo" Captures the End of an Era

La caída de Rafael Trujillo (The Downfall of Rafael Trujillo)

Written by Carmen Rivera

Directed by Cándido Tirado

Presented by Teatro Círculo at the Chain Theatre

312 W. 36th Street, 3rd Floor, Manhattan, NYC

April 14-30, 2023

José Cheo Oliveras. Photo by Israel Franco Müller
In case anyone is unfamiliar with what sort of leader the title character of playwright Carmen Rivera's historical drama La caída de Rafael Trujillo (The Downfall of Rafael Trujillo) was, the production begins with some implied torture, followed shortly by Trujillo (José Cheo Oliveras) ordering the extrajudicial killing of a man who had written critically of Trujillo and his regime. Beginning in 1930, Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic for just over three decades, both directly and through puppet presidents, and Rivera's play, presented by Teatro Círculo in Spanish with English overtitles, zeroes in on the final five, deftly compressing them into an engrossing view from within the dictator's inner circle as the iron grip that he has so long enjoyed slips more and more.

That inner circle includes Trujillo's wife, Doña Maria Trujillo (Amneris Morales), a strong-willed woman who oversees the family's wealth-generating sugar refineries and is willing to overlook her husband's dalliances when they are with sex workers but is unwilling to accept an affair of the heart. Such an affair is threatened in the form of a singer (Altagracia Nova) whom Trujillo makes into a kept woman, in all senses of the word, setting her up in a house that she is forbidden to leave without permission–for her own protection, of course. She tells Trujillo that she had a vision that a blind man would cause his death, igniting in him an obsession with the prophecy that both has shades of Macbeth to it and makes blindness–what people decide or are allowed to see or not see–into a motif throughout the play, one echoed in moments foregrounding what people are allowed and not allowed to say and what they are told to or choose to hear.
Amneris Morales and José Cheo Oliveras. Photo by Edna Lee Figueroa
Also in the mix are Johnny Abbes (Iván Goris, effectively intimidating), Trujillo's right-hand man and the one to actually carry out the dictator's dirty work; Joaquin Balaguer (Erick González), the vice president and then (titular) president of the Dominican Republic, and a calculating man who keeps his cards close to his chest; and Porfirio Rubirosa (Johary Ramos), a former son-in-law to Trujillo whom the dictator tries to use as a back channel to the United States government. The representative of that government is a diplomat played with an authority capable of curving into mockery by Bill Blechingberg. It is he who provides one of the first hints of worse things to come for Trujillo, informing him that a couple of the recent disappearances that he has caused, including the one we witness in the opening scene, have crossed a line unacceptable to the powers in Washington, D.C. (within the motif of blindness, backroom political dealing is something else to which the populace is made–or chooses to be–blind and deaf).

Trujillo, unsurprisingly, is not one to take directions well. The play presents him as a man who buys his own PR, a true believer in his own mythos. It also suggests, in his reaction to the suggestion that someone else fathered his son Ramfis and his habit of bedding the wives and family members of men whom he knows, an insecurity about masculinity and a concomitant need to assert dominance. (Coincidentally, there is a parallel here to Teatro Círculo's fall production of Lope de Vega's Fuente Ovejuna (?1612-1614; published 1619), also based on true events and also featuring a man who demands sexual favors from the women and wives in the towns that he oppresses until he faces an uprising.) As Trujillo, Oliveras skillfully walks the difficult line of humanizing this brutal dictator without making him sympathetic. La caída de Rafael Trujillo tells his story with more humor than you might expect, and Fernando Contreras, as a radio broadcaster who goes by Don Paco Escribano, is a comedic delight every time he is on stage (until Don Paco too says one too many things he shouldn't).

As the production moves towards its beautifully composed climax on a set evoking prison bars and stone with a symbolically faded but still present flag painted on the rear wall, La caída de Rafael Trujillo offers not only insight into its title character and Dominican history but also a reminder of the USA's long history of supporting dictators as convenient, as well as some reminders for American audiences too about cults of personality and family dynasties that we would do well to consider. But any admonitions that La caída de Rafael Trujillo does deliver, it does so wrapped in an enthralling theatrical experience.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


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