Theater Info for the Washington DC region

GALA Hispanic Theatre Ay, Carmela!

By • Sep 19th, 2011 • Category: Reviews
Ay, Carmela! by José Sanchis Sinisterra
GALA Hispanic Theatre
GALA Theatre-Tivoli, Washington DC
Through October 9th
2:20 with one intermission
Reviewed September 16th, 2011

Sometimes the heroic poignancy is electrifying. Sometimes the abject groveling is embarrassing. But mostly ¡Ay, Carmela! is challenging. There are certain stories that, for me, raise the troubling question, “What would I do?” Carmela is definitely one of those stories. It takes place in Spain, late 1930s, just as Fascist forces are laying waste to the last pockets of Republican resistance. The Civil War is coming to an end. Prisoners are being executed en masse. Hapless civilians with leftist (Republican) sympathies are suddenly finding themselves in the grip of ruthless enemies.

Two of these hapless civilians are Carmela and Paulino, a down but not quite out song-and-dance-and-comedy duo. As war and economic depression make life harder and harder, Carmela and Paulino lose their grip on musical comedy and vaudeville gigs. They survive by entertaining the troops. First the Republican forces. Then, as the front lines keep closing in on Madrid and Barcelona, Carmela and Paulino are obliged to perform for Fascist forces, both Spanish and Italian.

Actually the audience is even more cosmopolitan than that. Spanish Fascist were supported by German and Italian co-religionaries who, according to historians, were using the Spanish Civil War as a “rehearsal for World War II.” Planes, tanks, ships, artillery and rifles received their shake-down field trials on the battlefields of Spain. As for the Republicans, they benefitted from the support of raggedy “International Brigades” made up of leftist sympathizers from all over Europe, North and South America and even Asia and Australia.

Part of the audience for Carmela and Paulino’s command performance is made up of International Brigade prisoners who are about to be executed. In a sadistic gesture, the Italian lieutenant who is organizing the entertainment has decided that the presence of chained condemned men will add a certain piquancy (or something) to the proceedings.

I won’t say much about how this unique amalgam of farce and tragedy plays out. The style is what might be called “magic realism.” One of the principle characters is a ghost with news from the hereafter. Playwright José Sanchis Sinisterra’s graceful disregard for familiar realities may be one reason why Carmela is only now receiving its US première — at GALA Theatre — 54 years after its world première in Zaragoza. Non-ordinary reality has never been popular on American stages. And leftist politics, even playful and pathetic leftist politics, has never gone over very well here with mass audiences here.

Carmela has been widely translated. It has been performed all over Europe and Latin America. In 1990 it was made into a film. GALA is presenting it in the original Spanish with English translations projected above the stage.

The play’s dramatic conflict is partly political — how are these refugees from Republican Spain going to survive when they fall into the grips of Francisco Franco’s rabidly anti-Republican armed forces? And then there’s the conflict between Carmela and Paulino themselves. He is a bit of a chameleon. He puts on an Italian army cap. He clowns. Her tries to win the sympathy of a grumpy (fascist) crowd and a sorrowing (Republican prisoner) contingent. As for Carmela, she’s a professional. She starts with a perky persona. She brings off snappy song-and-dance routines. But she is becoming more and more disgruntled as she thinks about the prisoners. And Paulino becomes more and more disgruntled by Carmela’s disgruntlement. She notes that she is getting her period, maybe that all that is bothering her. But it’s not.

When the prisoners start singing a Republican anthem, “El Paso del Ebro,” with its plaintive chorus that goes “¡Ay, Carmela; ¡Ay, Carmela!” she is galvanized. She abandons her role in a stupid skit about a lecherous physicians who paws a female patient. And she joins in the singing — a gesture not welcomed by the Fascist functionaries.

The GALA production is a joint American-Spanish effort. The director, José Luis Arellano García, is from Spain. So is Mona Martínez (Carmela). The actor who plays Paulino, Diego Mariani, is from Argentina. These three, along with choreographer Chevi Muraday and musical director David R. Peralto and a sturdy team of designers, present a stunning production. Martínez is heroic — but in a funny way. Mariani is craven — but in a funny way. They are both appealing. It is easy to identify with either or both of them. Though some of their routines are embarrassingly ghastly, Martínez and Mariani bring them off with the skill of professionals who are not afraid of ghastliness or embarrassment. They do not create ridiculous incompetents. Now and then they get to strut their stuff, creating moments that might fit in well with gritty productions of Chicago or Cabaret.

And now back to that aching question: “What would I do in these dreadful circumstances?” The issue is not as troubling when one thinks about Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer standing up against the Nazis, or author André Gide telling the terrible truth about Stalin’s show trials or diva extraordinaire Josephine Baker doing secret agent work for the French resistance. Those people were celebrities. Carmela and Paulino are only would-be celebrities. They are lovers and opposites. They are essentially talented but ordinary. Their dilemma is stark — and very troubling if one lets down one’s guard and takes ¡Ay, Carmela! personally.

Director’s Notes

Ay, Carmela! by Jose Sanchis Sinisterra represents the collective tragedy of the Spanish people through the adventures of two insignificant vaudevillians in the middle of the Spanish Civil War. The playwright presents a sentimental, emotive and endearing chronicle of memory, as well as a warm homage to artistic dignity and to human sensibility. The play, through the banality of Paulino and Carmela, reveals the complexity of the human condition that when pushed to its limit, is capable of the highest heroism and the lowest indignity.

I saw this play many years ago as a young child, and it is one of the masterpieces that influenced me to enter this profession. Being able to direct Ay, Carmela! in a theater like GALA, which means so much to me, is a great honor and fills me with pride because both this theater and the play are a true chant for freedom.

Jose Luis Arellano Garcia
September 15, 2011


  • Paulino: Diego Mariani
  • Carmela: Mona Martinez

Production Staff

  • Director: Jose Luis Arellano Garcia
  • Scenic Design: Giorgos Tsappas
  • Light & Sound Design: Antonio Serrano
  • Costume Design: Rosa Garcia Andujar
  • Music Selection & Composition: David R. Perlato
  • Choreography: Chevi Muraday
  • Properties Design: Tessa Grippaudo
  • Stage Manager: Elena Maria Lower
  • Technical Director: Andres Luque
  • Production Manager: Andres Holder
  • Producer: Hugo Medrano
  • House Manager: David Kreisberg
  • Backstage & Wardrobe Manager: Jenny Cisneros
  • Master Electrician: Jenny Hall
  • Electricians: Nicholas Staple, Davis Olson, Aaron Waxman, Catherine Girardi, Colin Dieck, Kevin Hasser
  • Assistant Technical Director: Ashley Washinski
  • Master Carpenter: Linda Di Bernardo
  • Scenic Charge: Amy Kellett
  • Light Board Operator: Elena Maria Lower
  • Spotlight: Christian Sanchez
  • Surtitles Operator: Daniel Perez
  • Photographers: Lonnie Tague, Paulo Andres Montenegro
  • Graphic Design: Watermark Design
  • Playbill: Christopher Shell
  • Production: Olga Reguilon, Nuria Chacon
  • Technical Director: Antonio Serrano
  • Costume Shop Managers: Pipa & Milagros

Disclaimer: GALA Hispanic Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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lives in Arlington with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. Before retiring last year at age 70, he was theater critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for 27 years. Prior to that, he reviewed plays for the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Texas Observer and the Swarthmore College Phoenix. Non-reviewing journalistic jobs include writing for the Houston Chronicle, the San Juan (Puerto Rico) Star and El Mundo de San Juan. Think about it: most of the papers he worked for no longer exist. Maybe this internet gig has better longevity prospects.

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