Don't be fooled by the title. Los Desaparecidos is not a grim sociodrama recounting atrocities in South American dictatorships. In this case, it is the 'vanished' who engineer their own disappearance in Barbara Lhota's swashbuckling romance set amid the repressive society of 16th-century Spain.
Los Desaparecidos. Photos by Beth Cummings
Los Desaparecidos is the winner of an international playwrighting competition, now in its second year, sponsored by the Joining Sword And Pen branch of the Babes With Blades—an all-female performance group dedicated to expanding opportunities for women in the field of stage combat. The eligible scripts were required to include, in addition to plenty of swordplay and fisticuffs, a replication of the scene depicted in the painting by José Ribera entitled Duelo de Mujeres or Duel of Women. ( The image chosen for last year's contest, based on 19th-century artist Emile Bayard's Affair of Honor, resulted in several actresses stripping to the waist before proceeding to slash at each other with rapiers. )
The challenge for Lhota, then, was to forge a coherent dramatic narrative incorporating a battle in a public square, fought by two women garbed in classical robes and armed with shields and espadas ( Spanish single-swords ) , while a crowd of surly commoners bear witness to the altercation. And since the Babes With Blades troupe boasts a number of trained female fighters—none of whom would be happy at being excluded from the martial action—this must not be an isolated spectacle, but one of many complications leading to the clash of steel on steel.
Two sisters of noble birth comprise the central characters in our play—Isabel Garcia de la Barrera and Diana Garcia Diaz, the former married and the latter, widowed. Isabel's straitlaced mother-in-law has been demanding grandchildren, but her husband cannot bring himself to fulfill his marital duties, instead spending his time with his 'business associates' in the city. Compounding his young wife's predicament is her curious attraction to her newly-hired maidservant, the hoydenish Eliana. In the meantime, Diana has her own problems, having fallen for her Muslim dressmaker, Antonio—a match likewise forbidden, despite the suitor's having long ago converted to Christianity.
Windy City Times: Are you, yourself, trained in stage combat?
Barbara Lhota: Not at all. When I was in graduate school at Brandeis University, David Woolley came to teach stage combat to the acting students. Unfortunately, it wasn't offered to the playwrights. We were expected to analyze the geometric structure of the absurdists and things like that.
WCT: You were part of the graduate playwrighting program in grad school, then?
BL: I wrote my first play when I was an acting major undergraduate at Wayne State University. It was later performed in the studio with my roommate directing. The professors seemed more impressed with my writing than with my acting, and frankly, I liked it better, too.
WCT: How did you hear about the Joining Sword And Pen competition? And what attracted you to try writing a play with such strict prerequisites?
BL: My partner, Lisa [ Herceg ] , has worked with the Babes throughout the years, so I've seen their shows, and I think their mission is totally empowering! I was at one of their benefit events, when Dawn [ Alden, founder of the troupe ] held up this Spanish painting and announced a call for scripts inspired by this image.
WCT: And you jumped at the chance?
BL: Oh, no! I didn't consider myself the appropriate playwright for this contest at all. Some of my plays had physical confrontations in them, but never sword fights—and certainly not in the context of a full-length period play.
WCT: So did you start out to write a fight play, or did you write a romantic comedy and then add the violence?
BL: Actually, it all came together symbiotically. I was writing specifically for the Babes, yes. But when I began reading about 16th- and 17th-century Spain, I was struck by the similarities to things happening today in the world community—especially the persecution of Jews, Muslims and homosexuals by religious groups looking to enhance their political power. Then I asked myself, 'Why would two women fight?' Growing up in Detroit, I saw lots of schoolyard fights, and none of them were over boys. They were mostly about a friend's feelings being hurt, or somebody 'messing' with somebody's sister or brother. That's when I decided that the characters and dynamics in my play would focus on siblings. I could easily imagine a woman fighting for her sister.
WCT: So the play is based in historical fact?
BL: It's true that homosexuals were not only suppressed, but punished severely, at that time. Where I took some liberties was in the equating of lesbianism with witchcraft, so that poor Isabel has to undergo exorcism. It's more likely that in the 16th century, homosexuality in women, as opposed to men, would probably go unnoticed almost altogether.
WCT: How have your gay sensibilities affected your artistic vision?
BL: I think everything about me—being from Detroit, being the youngest child, being short—affects my artistic vision in some way. The play deals with being gay, but it deals more with intolerance and the need to overcome intolerance. The prejudice of 16th- [ and ] 17th-century Christians against Muslims, the post 9/11 prejudice in our own country, the hostility faced by my own sisters' interracial relationships during the 1970s and '80s—they aren't so different.
WCT: So we've got a play with three gay and two het lovers. They're all being helped,or hassled, by well-meaning relatives. They can be imprisoned, starved or burnt at the stake. Everybody waves sharpened blades at each other on the slightest provocation. And it all ends happily?
BL: [ Laughs ] It sounds so dark and dreary, doesn't it? But I see it as more of a romantic adventure. I set out to make it entertaining—and there's a lot of humor—but I still wanted to explore some serious issues. I hope that's what I've done, even with the shifts in tone.