Women on the Verge

Let her dangle: Kristen Frantzich plays Minnesota's first executed convict Ann Bilansky in A Piece of the Rope

Spanglish, that giddy mix of English and Spanish, has migrated into the popular culture and applied for permanent residency. Outside Los Angeles and New York, cities whose large Latino populations cause Spanglish to fill in the air like the sweet odor of freshly baked bizcochitos, extraordinary phrases such as "me gusta más la chica de Net que la de Mad About You," and "nuestra ; compañiá hace bench-marking o es una franchisee." In fact, terms like these have begun popping up in places as distant as Argentina. (Thanks to the Web site LatinoLink for this information.)

This blending of languages becomes increasingly apparent as startling phrases spring up without warning in the middle of a sentence (such as the idiom "mortal combat," which appears with alarming frequency in the color commentary of Peruvian wrestling). Spanglish is also sometimes the primary muse for a new Latino culture--a language that allows its speakers to describe a broader range of cultural experiences than English or Spanish alone would offer. This mixed tongue was virtually the official dialect of the comic book Love and Rockets, whose Mexican-American authors, the Hernandez brothers, thoughtfully provided translations for words such as puta and bañdora when they were mouthed by the punks and gangbangers that inhabited the magazine's semi-science-fiction universe.

And now, locally based playwright Anne García-Romero has written a play, Santa Concepción, currently running at Cheap Theatre, that boasts of being written entirely in Spanglish. Cheap Theatre, directed here by the playwright and Erica Christ, even provides its audience with a helpful printed appendix explaining the evolution of this hybrid tongue, defining such useful terms as "semi-Creole" and "code switching" (Ebonics being an example of the first, the insertion of a single foreign word into a sentence an instance of the second). Their primer does not, however, provide translations for the torrent of Spanish that pours off the stage. Given Spanglish's extensive use of English, no translation is needed.

García-Romero's script is a delight. The playwright, who claims to be of Irish, English, German, and Spanish descent, credits among her influences "the novels of, García Márquez, [and] the plays of García Lorca," but her own writing indulges in comic episodes far sillier than anything from either author.

This play is a fable about two sisters, Concepción (played with breathless eagerness by Teresa Lopez) and Aurora (a growling Julie Estrada). While the first sister kneels before her makeshift altar and prays for sainthood, the second lies splay-legged in her tulip garden like a photograph from sexysexysexylatinas.com. The two come to blows upon the appearance of a possible suitor. Daniel Rangel plays this man with hyperactive, salacious eyebrows and a big-bad-wolf physicality, and as his seething testosterone throws the sisters into a series of tizzies, the play briefly begins to resemble a Russ Meyer movie set in some south-of-the-border barrio. "I've spent my whole life preparing for sainthood," Concepción cries out, tears streaming down her face. "Now I have to throw it away to experience carnal pleasure!" In the meanwhile, Aurora seizes the stage with movements that seem borrowed from stag films about randy savages, declaring, "I will now perform a little dance I developed in my tulip garden."

All this is written with an ear toward accessibility, as though we were watching a foreign film whose characters provide their own translations rather than relying on subtitles. "I am la madre de la tierra," Aurora says, pointing at the ground. "The mother of the earth!" And as the language of the play grows wilder (with melodramatic pronouncements such as "Beware of the nun!"), the action on the stage gets weirder. Concepción levitates via a mechanism that appears to be an old car jack propped underneath a box, and she speaks prophecy. A sweaty, stuttering priest takes the stage, listening in horror as the sisters' ailing mother confesses her lust for their young suitor.

Eventually the hand of God itself reaches down to intervene in the action, ending the first act with a moment of pure delirium. Though the second act grows melancholy, the wild spirit persists, so that even weighty themes such as the death of hope and the erosion of love retain a blithesome quality.


Local playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, in his new play A Piece of the Rope, turns to history with the same sort of hysterical affection for language evidenced by García-Romero. He has given the subtitle "a dark vaudeville" to his retelling of the 1860 hanging of Ann Bilansky, the first white person put to death in the newly established state of Minnesota. Bilansky was accused of poisoning her husband and carrying on a torrid affair with her nephew, and her conviction depended entirely on questionable testimony from the coroner and circumstantial evidence.

While Bilansky's story is an odd one, including juicy details such as backroom politicking and midnight escapes, Hatcher relies on clever stagecraft and witty writing to do most of the storytelling. His decision is a good one, as so much historical theater simply seems to be an upscale version of Chataqua lectures, in which professors dress as Ptolemy and regale their audiences with first-person narratives about the rotation of the planets.

Hatcher, instead, makes elaborate use of purely theatrical devices like humorous sound cues and comic asides. While Kristen Frantzich plays Bilansky with a toothsome grin and an engagingly menacing Southern accent, the production really belongs to Julian Bailey, who plays multiple characters, all of them essentially serving as the narrator. During the trial, Bailey depicts both prosecutor and defense merely by alternating which hand he uses to gesture.

Hatcher has made his reputation on plays, such as the ghoulishly funny Three Viewings, that are notable for their sardonic sensibility and wry use of language, and these qualities buoy A Piece of the Rope, bringing out the darkly comic undertones inherent in the story. It is not enough for Hatcher to describe a character as "sweaty," for example. Instead, he writes, "His perspiration--never meager--has in these past weeks become a roiling stream." Little flourishes like this are played throughout the script like grace notes, making what could have been a grim little song into a jocund, if morbid, melody.

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