Stage Struck Review

Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years

Women’s World: “Real Women Have Curves” returns to the stage in Pasadena

Santana Dempsey, Cristina Frias and Blanca Araceli in

Santana Dempsey, Cristina Frias and Blanca Araceli in “Real Women Have Curves”. [Photo: Philicia Endelman]

Theater’s greatest purpose, above and beyond the poetry, the pathos, or even the sense of artfulness, has to be the role of holding a mirror up to society. Sometimes this mirror reflect’s an observer’s own experience. Sometimes it reflects a world much of the audience would not otherwise see in such a visceral way. This window can create an almost subliminal path to empathy and understanding in a way any less immediate art form may not.

Take as example the seminal “Real Women Have Curves,” now at the Pasadena Playhouse. Josefina Lopez’s semi-autobiographical tale of struggling Latina garment workers in Los Angeles rings as true today as when it first appeared on the stage decades ago. Now in an enthusiastic, occasionally flawed, richly organic production at the Pasadena Playhouse, the show has lost little of its humor or its transformative power.

The tale centers on the rebellious Ana, the recent high school graduate with a newly minted resident’s card who has been strong-armed by her mother to help in her big sister’s tiny garment factory. There, while the sister, Estela, sweats the bills, deadlines and possible ICE raids (as she does not have the legal status her sister and mother have acquired), Carmen journals her frustrations and hopes, and dreams of college and a brighter future. She also documents the daily frustrations of factory life, with her mother, Carmen, and the two other factory workers: the angry Pancha who dreams of a life with the children she cannot have, and the delicate Rosali whose body image issues underscore her general fragility.

Director Seema Sueko has gathered a strong ensemble cast, and each character stands out even as they all create a unified sense of place and purpose. Santana Dempsey leads the cast in many ways as the rebellious Ana, vibrating with frustration and a deep unwillingness to give up on her dreams. Cristina Frias makes Estela wryly hopeful and in her own way, deeply committed to dreams which deepen as the story unfolds.

Blanca Araceli has the older generation’s attitudes and habits down cold, and makes the cultural references which define relationship and background with a particular conviction. Ingrid Oliu manages the balance of anguish, anger and community as the conflicted Pancha, while Diana DeLaCruz emphasizes the fragility and yearning of Rosali’s negative self-image all the while making her perhaps the most earnestly sweet member of the group.

Indeed, the only issues one can find with the production are subtle. There is constant talk of how heavy everyone other than Rosali is, and that is used to define character, yet the two sisters Ana and Estela are not particularly heavy. Though I would not have noticed it, the young Latina sitting with me pointed out that some of the most off-hand Spanish lines “a Mexican would say without thinking” are given an almost artificial, even hesitant, intensity. Yet these are only nit-picky things in what is generally a fine, funny and deeply satisfying production.

It looks good, too. David F. Weiner’s evocative set becomes a character all its own, while Abel Alvarado provides exactly the right clothing (and underpinnings) to define each character’s view of themselves, and a splendid splash for the show’s ending scene. The pacing, under director Sueko keeps the necessarily talky piece moving, and develops each character’s individual rhythm.

“Real Women Have Curves” was written by Lopez when she herself was very young. How splendid to see that it still speaks truth to an audience in 2015. Indeed, with the characters’ haunting, almost elemental fear of ICE, their determination to struggle against the assumptions of the powerful, and the balance of older values with the ambitions of the young, makes the piece a timeless window on an essential part of the American story. Not only that, it’s just a lot of fun to watch.

One mild disclaimer: there is a certain amount of stripping down that goes on, and for those who find even fairly innocuous exposure of female undergarments offensive, this one’s not for you.

What: “Real Women Have Curves” When: through October 4, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $87, with premium seating $125 Info: (626) 356-7529 or

2 responses to “Women’s World: “Real Women Have Curves” returns to the stage in Pasadena

  1. Dr. Arlene Simmonds September 30, 2015 at 10:03 AM

    Usually I agree with your reviews but “Real Women Have Curves did not meet my expectations. We had much difficulty understanding what the actors said in English and since we don’t speak Spanish we missed all the jokes or funny comments. There were 4 Hisanics sitting next to us and they laughed often during the play but we got nothing. We left at intermission as well as at least 50-60 Anglos who obviously didn’t “get it” either.
    I plan to call Pasadena Playhouse and again complain about the sound. The actors don’t have head set mikes and what they say isn’t clear. I have in the past used their headsets which often didn’t work but now have expensive working hearing aids (my boyfriend hears well and had the same problem) and still missed a lot of the dialogue.

    I was amazed at the large number of people who walked out during the break. The problem with sound has been an issue for 2 years. This is the last season for us to buy tickets. Thank you for listening.
    Arlene Simmonds Ed.D
    (626) 335-5726

    • Frances Baum Nicholson October 2, 2015 at 2:16 PM

      I am sorry you did not have a successful experience. I do know that if you sit underneath the balcony in any theater, and the Playhouse is no exception, the sound is rarely ideal. Since I have no idea where your tickets are located, however, I cannot speak to your particular concerns. Still, as audiences age, this is an on-going concern at many theatrical venues.

      As for the play, I do know from talking with some of them that groups of high school students from the area have seen the play and come away feeling energized by something they felt spoke to them. And, as a lifelong Pasadena/Altadena resident, I can say that having taken Spanish in high school has been of great benefit, since nearby Los Angeles has the second largest Spanish-speaking population of any city in the world. Most certainly, it helped when watching this play, though I’m not particularly proficient, and I don’t think I needed it to get what the play was about – particularly at the end, which was very powerful. I’m sorry you weren’t there to see it.

      But further, and this was important for me in watching this particular play, I was moved to have a window into a world I would not otherwise get a chance to see. That is, I believe, what good theater has to offer, whether it is another culture, another time period, or simply another economic frame of reference. In my own case, the Latina sitting next to me – who was my guest, as this play inspired her to also go to college in New York (like the young protagonist) and also study writing (like the young protagonist) – I wasn’t getting all the jokes she was getting, as she grew up in a very Mexican family, and in the barrios of L.A. Be that as it may, I think I understand her and many others just a bit more because of a play written about that part of my own home area by someone more like my guest than like myself.

      Diversity is important in the arts of a state in which Caucasians like myself are the minority. If we don’t listen to each other’s stories, how can we work together effectively as fellow Americans? I hope you will find other mediums with which to enjoy that challenge more fully.

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