Audience members attending “The House of Widows” this past weekend found themselves not only thrust beyond the fourth wall of performance theatre, but integrated into a richly vibrant family of grieving Cuban women — all of whom looked somewhat similar.
In addition to producing the script, designing the set and directing the play, honors theatre major Lori Barkin ’12 played all seven of the characters in her Honors Solo Performance Thesis, wrenched from one role to the next over the course of an hour-long funeral.
From the onset, members of the Swarthmore community attending the funeral of Dr. Enerio José López Pardo were invited to step into Barkin’s fictionalized family. At the door, attendees were given prayer cards, black mourning veils, and fans. Later in the play, viwers were instructed to wail, munch, sip, gossip or cackle on cue, providing a shifting interactive backdrop for the characters.
The line between fact and fiction within the play’s cast of characters and plot is “blurred,” according to Barkin. The production helped her realize a long-held goal to write about the women in her life. The female cast and funeral setting is not coincidental. “All the older men — the old patriarchy in my family — is completely dead […] My brother and I were constantly surrounded by old Cuban women of all kinds — my mother’s friends, my aunts, our nanny, my grandmother… even when there were men there, we were constantly in the care of Cuban women who spoiled us way too much and fought over us,” Barkin shared. “So they’re really integral to my upbringing.”
“There’s a language between the women in my family that I think is fascinating, and is only spoken by us. It’s a part of the impetus of the piece. There’s like a secret society between them that the men aren’t fully aware of,” Barkin said.
The decision to include the audience in the performance seemed natural for Barkin. “It was a solo performance, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to stand behind a fourth wall,” she said with a smile. “That would’ve been boring […] I do believe theatre is community, and that’s a big difference between theatre and film. Theatre is flesh and blood, it’s live — you having an experience together in a very immediate way and I think I seek to exploit that as much as possible in a way that’s comfortable for the audience.”
“I also think it makes the characters more empathetic, if they let you into their world,” Barkin continued, “and on a pragmatic level, only one body, and I think multiple bodies can do so much more than my one body could do.”
Adding the audience as a variable also ups the excitement and risk of any given performance. During her Saturday show, a grieving family member began talking with one of Barkin’s characters; at another performance, a viewer believed they were being told to stand up, and received an improvised consolation from the character of Cuqui for not being able to handle the intensity of the funeral.
“I think the way Lori brought each member of the audience in as a Cuban widow was particularly exciting,” Nathan Siegel ‘15 said, after seeing the performance twice. “During the performance, we were not just a passive audience, but really part of the action. For me, this made the production especially engaging and memorable.”
Barkin noted that while “The House of Widows” was a solo performance, she received help from many different sources, including her faculty advisor, Allen Kuharski, professor and chair of the theatre department. “With Lori’s input, I put together the artistic team for her project last April and May, when we brought in Becky Wright as a guest artist to work with Lori as a director, assisted by Alex Torra as a dramaturge,” Kuharski said in an e-mail.
“I knew from early on that Alex Torra would be a unique resource for the project, since he is both a busy director and actor in Philadelphia’s young performance scene, with a long history with our alums in Pig Iron Theatre Company in particular, and comes from the same Cuban-American community in and around Miami as Lori,” Kuharski said.
Additionally, Kuharski served as a pseudo-producer of the performance; he put together the artistic team, made the schedule and budget and lent an extra pair of eyes during late-night rehearsals, which began during the spring semester.
The whole performance took shape over the course of two and a half months, although the idea for the story has existed for much longer. “Lori […] first talked about doing a piece with the themes and characters of ‘The House of Widows’ at the start of her sophomore year, though it was already clear then that she had been thinking about this project for some time,” Kahuarski said.
For Barkin, the story isn’t quite over yet. “I’m not done with it yet. I still don’t know exactly where it’s going,” Barkin said.
Part of the difficulty in putting the performance away may derive from the dramatic evolution it’s undergone, even since December. “I wasn’t done editing the damn script until the Friday before [opening weekend],” Barkin said. Additionally, a monologue spoken by the character of Enerio wasn’t added to the script until the night before the show opened.
“It’s surreal that it’s over,” Barkin smiled. “I’m still surprised it all fell together. It’s been a whirlwind, but it’s showed me that there really is no greater payoff than original work.”