Teatro Tercera Llamada has returned to the stage with “Las Mujeres Verdaderas Tienen Curvas,” or “Real Women Have Curves.” The production is in Spanish with English supertitles projected above the action, and it continues at the Kentucky Center Jan. 20-28.
The play focuses on five Latinx women working in a small dress factory. Though one of these women, Estela (Penelope Quesada), owns the factory, it’s still a hot, uncomfortable environment. Maybe not a sweat shop, but certainly a sweaty one. The production is buoyed by a strong and socially relevant script, as well as solid performances, but it struggled with technical issues, rhythm and tone.
While the main action of the play centers around producing dresses fast enough to pay off the loan on the small factory, “Real Women” is more a slice-of-life play. It shows the daily life and conversations of five women, three of whom are family, working and living together.
As the quintet sews and sweats, a handful of other subplots are introduced: a mysterious van; a handsome man; and the fear of immigration finding Estela, the sole women in the factory who has yet to obtain legal status.
The themes are more important than the plot devices. Women’s relationships — with each other and society — are examined from a variety of angles. The play shows us women in numerous roles as mothers, daughters, lovers, cooks, business owners and undocumented workers.
As the title suggests, many of the ideas are combined with a discussion of physical beauty. The topic is neatly locked into the action of the play as the women work and sweat over dresses they could neither fit into nor afford.
More than anything, the play reminded me of “Steel Magnolias,” another lady-led workplace drama that examines family and women’s relationships, providing males in audiences a window into a world they don’t know, and women in the audience the rare opportunity to see characters living a full range of experiences on stage rather than being relegated to playing either a love interest or a woman looking for love.
The script also shows an important and underrepresented subset of women by examining the immigrant experience. It makes this play doubly important as the President-elect Trump discusses how best to ban and imprison women like the ones featured in this story. While not aggressive, the politics of the play are not subtle, including a righteous and well-executed attack on fat-shaming.
Sadly, the body image discussion is marred by the title “Real Women Have Curves.” It body shames the thin, the trans and the muscular, while accepting an implied binary definition of beauty.
In addition to the action, in the dress shop, there is a loose frame for the story, as Ana (Jay Marie Padilla) narrates the action. We see her recording some of the actions of the play in her diary in stolen private moments, and it’s a familiar enough device that we assume she is narrating the story from the future. Padilla makes good use of these moments as an actor, but the device sometimes felt unnecessary — a crutch to make sure the audience was picking up on the themes and ideas.
With the exception of a wonderful and engaging meltdown from Sarah Baker’s Pancha, the cast never takes the action from sweaty simmer to boil. With a character study like this one, that’s not necessarily a bad choice, but I would have liked to see the actors go a little bigger.
Conversely, the comedy occasionally felt a little too broad for the quieter moments, but the laughs from the small audience were frequent Saturday night.
With director Padilla on stage playing one of the main roles, I can’t help but wonder if the tone would have been a little more even with a director whose focus wasn’t spilt between a difficult role and the difficult job of direction.
There were some ongoing problems with the projected English supertitles as well, making it difficult to keep up with the nuances of the action on stage. While it’s hard to say for certain when evaluating a performance in another language, it sure seemed like some of the actors were struggling with lines, a problem that is hopefully fixed for the second weekend.
Despite problems with the show, the script forces the audience to grapple with important issues, ones that likely wouldn’t be addressed by the rest of the theater community in Louisville.
“Las Mujeres Verdaderas Tienen Curvas” runs Jan. 20-21 and 27-28 at 7:30 p.m., and Jan. 22 at 6 p.m., at the Kentucky Center, 501 W. Main St. Tickets are $21.