Isabel Sandoval Modas: a play that stands the test of time

"Isabel Sandoval Modas" at Teatro del Puente

"Isabel Sandoval Modas" at Teatro del Puente

Geografía Teatral does a stunning job of presenting their latest play at the Teatro del Puente in Santiago. Isabel Sandoval Modas reflects critically on Chilean culture, social class, family, group loyalty, and social immobility. Although this play by Chilean author Armando Moock first opened to rave reviews nearly 100 years ago (1915), it remains relevant today with only minor wardrobe and linguistic adaptations.

Social class is one of those overarching cultural issues that makes its mark on nearly every aspect of daily life in Latin America. This has been true since the original settlers brought their Spanish caste-like hierarchical system to the New World, and today, nearly 500 years later, little has changed. Kyle Hepp wrote a recent post on her blog on tensions between social classes, and I couldn’t help but think about it throughout the play.

The Story:

Señora Isabel Sandoval is a worker. Widowed with three adult children, she sews and rents rooms and manages to make ends meet. She doesn’t complain. It is her lot in life; she has faith that she’ll get her reward in the great beyond. But just to be on the safe side, she and her extended family pin their hopes on her son Juan, the law student, who will one day pull them all out of poverty.

All of the action of this 1-set play takes place in the combined living-dining-sewing room of the Sandoval family. While the story explores universal themes of young love, sibling rivalry, coming of age, future dreams, losing one’s way, and the prodigal son, it does so in a way that must be interpreted within the cultural constructs and constraints of Latin American culture. It reflects broadly on the three great cultural pillars of social class, family, and religion and provides insight into how they work together to define society and weave the inalterable destiny of those who live within it.

Each character is carefully defined to stereotypical precision: the doting, self-sacrificing mother Isabel, the down-to-earth yet envious sister Inés, the blue-collar brother Lalo, the future hope of the family Juan, the senior male Don Alejo whose authority is based on gender and age, his intelligent yet heartsick daughter Adriana who laments the impossibility of further study, and the upper-class (cuica) customer Doña Enriqueta. The interaction between them reveals cultural values of family ties and responsibility, group loyalty, faith-based resignation and fatalism, the importance of knowing one’s place, and the dangers of social climbing (arribismo).

The Production

The cast does an excellent job, although there are two aspects of the production that I found disconcerting. As it happens, both pertain to the character Lalo, the underappreciated brother, although I would attribute them more to script and direction than to the admirable performance of actor Rafael Contreras.

Lalo is the steady-Eddy of the family, a young mechanic, who, it turns out, is quite talented and on the rise, although his grease-stained blue-collar success earns him little respect from the others, who dream of having a professional in the family. Lalo is simple, decent, and kind, but lacks the good looks, commanding personality, and professional future of his brother Juan, who is the family darling despite being self-centered, inconsiderate, and completely charmless. Lalo also stutters and has problems expressing himself, further emphasizing the contrast with his brother who fancies himself a poet.

The problem with the Lalo character is two-fold, and without having read the original script, it is difficult to define precisely where the problem lies. Lalo is certainly socially inept and an odd duck, but he also comes across as intellectually limited, although the words that he does manage to stammer out and his success in his own work indicate that he does indeed have his wits about him and realistic dreams for the future. I suspect this is more a matter of the director’s interpretation than the author’s intent or actor’s presentation. The same words delivered with less hand-flailing and a slightly different intonation would lend the character more credibility. For example, when Lalo overhears Juan tell a third person to lie and say he wasn’t there, a simple alteration in inflection would change the emotion portrayed from bewilderment to a more believable hurt or anger.

The other problem results in two minutes of audience confusion toward the end of the play when Lalo attempts to reveal his innermost feelings and comes across as a potential mass murderer as he delivers a couple of lines that are completely out of sync with the rest of the character. Is he bungling and inept? Yes. Dangerous? Doubtful.

In Summary

Go see it. As simple as that. For anyone interested in a closer understanding of Chilean culture, not to mention a very rewarding way to spend a couple of hours, this is a must. It doesn’t say it all, but it will give you plenty to reflect upon for quite some time.

Your Turn! Got something to say?

Seen the play? Tell us what you think! Haven’t seen it but got something on your mind? here’s the place! We’d love to know what you think!

Teatro del Puente: Parque Forestal s/n ( just west of the Pio Nono bridge)
Access from Costanera and Santa María, with limited parking on each side.

Dates: May 14 – June 28, 2009  (Fri, Sat, Sun, 8 PM)

Tickets: $3000 CLP  (2 x 1 with Club de Lectores!)

Reservations: (56-2) 732-4883


6 responses to “Isabel Sandoval Modas: a play that stands the test of time

  1. I have one million and six things to say about class in Chile, but the number one is, I really should see this play. I’ll save the other million and five for later. But yes. All of it, yes. Thanks for mentioning it.

  2. Oh yeah… it’s an endless topic… but definitely see the play! I’d love to hear your impressions!

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  4. Eileen,

    Say something, please, anything.

    Don’t save it for later. Now.

  5. You heard the guy Eileen! We’re waiting on baited breath!

  6. Thank you for that. It is really good read.
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