Credit: Rose Campiglia

Dominican despot Rafael Trujillo was the apotheosis of the banana republic dictator. He was so cartoonishly sleazy and brutal it’s difficult to picture him as a real person, which is why fiction suits him so well. Mario Vargas Llosa somewhat clinically psychoanalyzed him in The Feast of the Goat, while Junot Díaz gave him the Lord of the Rings treatment in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, attributing to him Sauron-like superpowers, which Trujillo certainly would have appreciated. This was someone who renamed Santo Domingo, the capital city, Ciudad Trujillo, put his name on all license plates in the country, and required churches to post signs reading “God in heaven, Trujillo on earth.” His only reform was to later reverse the order of those two phrases.

It takes a different angle to bring the tinpot strongman down from Mount Doom, or Pico Trujillo, which Julia Álvarez aimed to do with In the Time of the Butterflies. Her novel focused not on Trujillo, but on his most famous victims and feared adversaries, the Mirabal sisters. Their horrific and very public murders showed him to be no demigod, just a capriciously savage, greedy man, and the outrage it produced spelled the end of Trujillo at the hands of his more cunning military subordinates (most likely with help from the CIA).

The Mirabal sisters were everything Trujillo and his thugs in the secret police—those he tasked with scoping out women for his predatory appetites, including the Mirabals—were not. Brave, intelligent, principled, they not only rejected his advances but sought to bring down his regime with force and paid the ultimate price.

The story of the “Butterflies,” their code name for themselves, presents such a rich ore to mine for drama that it should be an ideal subject for stage or screen. Showtime attempted the latter, a Salma Hayek vehicle that failed to jump start Marc Anthony’s abortive film career. Playwright Caridad Svich has adapted the novel as a play, something she did previously with Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. It’s the kind of work that plays to GALA’s strengths—literary historical dramas in intimate settings. José Zayas directs, having also led productions of The House of the Spirits and another classic novel, Chronicle of a Death Foretold for GALA. Like Marc Anthony’s acting, it’s a great idea in concept.

That it doesn’t really work is a shame, and a hazard of reducing a multifaceted 30-year history into a too-short play when it’s better suited to a four-hour, two-part Steven Soderbergh biopic. Despite a straightforward, linear plot and exposition-heavy dialogue, the audience can be bewildered by the sudden jumps because parts of the Mirabal’s life stories were clearly cut for time. The sisters rebel against the regime and go to jail. Suddenly they’re out. Now they’re under house arrest. At some point it’s mentioned offhand that the until-then unmarried sisters now all have husbands and they’re all in jail. Did we miss something?

The production benefits from a strong cast playing the four sisters: Alina Robert’s seething Minerva, Lorena Sabogal’s idealistic Patria, Inés Domínguez del Corral’s bratty-turned-brave Mate, and especially Broselianda Hernández as the sad Dedé, who sat out the rebellion and lived to regret it. In terms of authenticity, it doesn’t help that none of the actors are Dominican, though it does make it more decipherable to an audience less accustomed to the random truncations of Dominican Spanish. The only off note comes from Delbis Cardona, who plays Trujillo as a serpentine figure complete with a ssssnake-like accent that sounds more like Gollum than the porcine tyrant.

Svich’s play is great at communicating what important and admirable figures the Mirabal sisters were. It isn’t so great at explaining, much less showing, what exactly they did, which is a detriment given the range of resistance activities they engaged in, from propaganda to arms smuggling to helping to organize the June 14 Revolutionary Movement, and the risks those activities entailed. Much of the dialogue revolves around the sisters’ romantic interests, a not irrelevant part of the story, given their husbands’ roles in the same movement. But for a real life conspiracy tale, it’s one that puts the conspiring on the back burner.

It’s also a tale that’s still very much alive in the country where the sisters have become icons. Now the Dominican Republic’s most famous martyrs, their images decorate an obelisk Trujillo built for himself. They may have been mortal enemies, but their histories are now intertwined. Such is the tininess of the Dominican Republic that two presidential candidates, one in the last election and another in the next, include a daughter of the Mirabals and a grandson of Trujillo. But that’s a coda too ironic for a story as idealistic as this one. 

At GALA Hispanic Theatre to May 133333 14th St. NW. $25–$55. (202) 234-7174.