Eliza Lynch is Paraguay’s version of Eva Perón, Argentina’s famous class-climbing first lady. Madame Lynch, as she was known, was born in Ireland, emigrated with her family to France during the Irish Potato Famine (1845–49), and became a highly admired courtesan. In 1845 she met General Francisco Solano López Carrillo, who later became president of Paraguay, and she became the country’s most controversial de facto first lady. (The pair never married.) Once reviled by Paraguayans but now celebrated, the self-named “Empress of Paraguay” is the basis for the Drunkard’s Wife production of Madame Lynch, which is subtitled a “spectacle with music and dancing.”
Audience members unfamiliar with Madame Lynch’s story might have some difficulty putting the pieces of this fascinating woman’s biography together. Written and directed by Normandy Sherwood and Craig Flanigan, Madame Lynch is composed of a series of short, nonrealistic sketches, dances, and even a fashion show. Splicing expositional narration with exaggerated representations, the show depicts the clash of European imperialism with the politics, culture, and social classes of Paraguay.
The play begins with a mud-spattered Madame Lynch (Juliana Francis Kelly) frantically digging a grave (perhaps her own?). The setting then abruptly shifts to a time when the former courtesan commanded veneration, albeit without the respect of her people and fellow aristocrats. Her ladies-in-waiting, Paka (Nikki Calonge) and Isadora (Hannah Kallenbach), prepare her for a lavish ball, which is portrayed as a campy amalgamation of French elitism and South American folk forms.
Juxtaposed with the Madame Lynch narrative are montages of national political history and scenes that reference indigenous spirituality. That is, the play presents the succession of Paraguayan dictators, and alongside the pomp and pageantry there is an enchanted forest in which a Mighty Gatherer (Braulio Cruz) extols the natural treasures of the land. While the dictators pontificate about the country as a “well-run estate,” the Mighty Gatherer describes harmonious music made by the birds, frogs, and “rattling neotropic insects.”
Late in the evening there is even a ritualistic recounting of “The 695 Known Birds of Paraguay.” A partial sampling of just one of the many species includes: “The Solitary tinamou/ the Brown tinamou/ the Undulated tinamou/ the Small-billed tinamou,” and a flock more of tinamous. The 10-minute recitation is an impressive memory feat and will no doubt thrill ornithologists, but it does not make for gripping drama.
As a play, Madame Lynch is frustrating in its lack of cohesive narrative. The fractured structure gives the sense of a fever dream, but the writing is not poetic enough to transport the audience through the preternatural vignettes. As a spectacle, however, there are a number of multisensory delights. The design elements make fascinating use of high tech, found objects, traditional references, and modern sensibilities. For instance, the stage and sets design by Yung Oh Le Page includes gilded frames and lavish curtains (designed by Sherwood) to highlight European grandeur, and cardboard cutouts to represent naturalistic elements. There are also videos (designed by David Pym) projected on scrims that convey the eternal and ghostlike legacy of the historical figures. The surrealistic effect is akin to a Frida Kahlo painting come to life.
The lighting by Christina Tang and costumes by Sherwood with Chelsea Collins and Nikki Luna Paz exhibit a similar cross-period impression. The court scenes glow as if lit by gaslight, and a mock fashion show of stylish soldier uniforms is established by the stark, neon outline of a runway. In the course of the evening, the performers wear 19th-century gowns, traditional Paraguayan skirts, and contemporary jazz clothes.
The spectacle extends beyond the eye-popping visuals. There is an onstage band of three musicians (directed by Rachel Swaner), and there are several musical interludes. (Flanagin is responsible for the music and sound design.) This is a show that even includes a credit for confectionery design (Kristin Worrall).
Unfortunately, without the dramaturgical heft on which to hang it, the spectacle, like the litany of 695 known birds, becomes tedious. Indeed, the highlight of Madame Lynch is a talented group of women dancers, who perform as a company called Ballet Panambí Vera. (Iliana Gauto is the creative director and choreographer.) Dressed in colorful, Spanish-inflected Paraguayan costumes and whirling about the stage, the dancers do not need special effects and layers of ironic visuals. Their grace, folkloric movement, and stylistic simplicity are truly spectacular.
The Drunkard’s Wife production of Madame Lynch plays through June 15 at New Ohio Theatre, located at 154 Christopher Street between Greenwich and Washington Streets in New York City. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturdays and7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 and may be purchased by calling (212) 352-3101 or visiting newohiotheatre.org.