Argentina’s Jewish community attracted international press in January with the death of a state prosecutor who had been investigating the deadly 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that left 85 dead. That assassination plot allegedly involving a faked suicide, rogue intelligence agents, and secret grain-for-oil deal with Iran. The Jewish community—the largest in Latin America—can trace its roots back to at least the 1800s, when Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe flocked to the country for its open borders policy. But with desperation came exploitation: Zwi Migdal, an organized sex trafficking ring, brought over thousands of young Jewish women from Poland and Russia. The group tricked the women with promises of marriage to wealthy Argentinian Jews, then forced them into prostitution.
GALA’s new commission Las Polacas (“the Polish women”), by Argentinian playwright Patricia Suárez-Cohen, dramatizes these abuses through the eyes of Rachela, a Polish peasant girl sold by her own mother to an Argentinian pimp, Schlomo.
For such heavy subject matter, Las Polacas is an oddly upbeat drama—a musical no less—with often goofy song-and-dance numbers that don’t all seem totally necessary (one is about Rachela’s mom’s dentures), or appropriate for a tale of human trafficking and sexual violence. Even the music, a klezmer-inflected tango score by Mariano Vales, is more cheery than not, with lots of oompahs from the clarinet, bandoneon, and a spirited-though-wobbly string ensemble.
It half works, though the half that works is the second act, when the humor goes out the window and the story takes a darker turn. What don’t work as well are the cast and some musical numbers, both of which are uneven. Two Argentinian stage actors, Martín Ruíz (Schlomo) and Ana Fontán (Margot, Schlomo’s “sister”) dominate with outsized roles, while the Americans, Samantha Dockser (Rachela) and Joshua Morgan (aspiring revolutionary Micah), are comparably meek. Schlomo is simply a variation of the same villain in every GALA play: the big-talking, wife-beating mustachioed macho. But Ruíz tackles it with gleeful chutzpah/sinvergüenza—a memorable scene has the pimp giving a donation to a Jewish charity for abused women, declaring that nothing fans the flames of anti-Semitism more than purveyors of white slavery. Margot is another stock character—the saucy, hardened prostitute—who takes manspreading (womanspreading?) as a life philosophy (“Don’t cross your legs. Uncross everything”) and whom Fontán imbues with a charming playfulness.
The whole thing is tenuously held together by Dockser, a newcomer to the stage whose voice took a long time to warm up, and made for awkward duets with Ruíz’s breathy baritone (as in, he sounds like he’s always out of breath). Many of the songs come in at random moments, add little to the story, and are haltingly delivered in a mix of English and Spanish, the surtitle translations of which don’t quite match for either. Saturday’s performance was marred by audible static, as all of the actors are mic’d, which, given the size of GALA’s cramped theater, seems unnecessary.
Las Polacas tells a familiar tale—that of the immigrant with big dreams shattered in the new world—but what makes GALA’s production unique is not just its setting but its musicality and cheeky sensibility. When the singing and the drama come together, belatedly, Las Polacas is a compelling new work that doesn’t shy away from its subject but isn’t gratuitous about it either, and even manages to have some fun along the way. It just takes a while to get there.
In English and Spanish with surtitle translations. 3333 14th St. NW. $20–$42. (202) 234-7174. GALAtheatre.org