GALA Hispanic Theatre Stages 'Mummy in the Closet: The Return of Eva Peron'

Laura Conforte portrays Eva Peron in
Laura Conforte portrays Eva Peron in "Mummy in the Closet: The Return of Eva Peron." (By Marc Laibson)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Chris Klimek
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 29, 2009

In the 1970s, Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a musical about the beloved Argentine icon Eva Peron, but his version might have been overly preoccupied with the relatively dull early part of her life -- you know, before she died.

Turns out that when Peron succumbed to cancer at the martyrdom-enabling age of 33, her role in steering her country's future was just beginning.

Her husband, Juan Peron, had her body mummified and planned to put it in an opulent mausoleum, one that remained incomplete when his government was overthrown in 1955. The architects of the coup feared that Evita's corpse might be trenchant enough a symbol to rally the people against them.

So they hid her. For years. Eventually, a colonel in the junta fell in love with Evita (her mummy, that is) and claimed she was carrying his child. Understandably, his bosses took the mummy back. More puzzling, they stashed it in a closet for a couple of years before getting the Vatican to help them smuggle the body to Italy.

At this point, the tale gets a little weird.

"It feels like a story Monty Python could have told," says Mariano Caligaris, director of a dark musical comedy recounting Evita's posthumous exploits that has its world premiere at GALA Hispanic Theatre next week.

"Mummy in the Closet: The Return of Eva Peron" attempts a tonal balancing act similar to that of Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins." Like that tuneful profile of president-killers, "Mummy" aims to be a whimsical, if macabre, retelling of tragic events. There is even a zombie number.

The creators of "Mummy" insist that the show is still more historically accurate than Webber's, which, they note, never played Buenos Aires. "They'd burn the theater," says GALA artistic director Hugo Medrano.

GALA commissioned Venezuelan playwright Gustavo Ott and Argentine composer Mariano Vales to write the book and music, respectively. (They penned the lyrics together.) While Medrano acknowledges that the story comes from a "a very surreal time" in Latin American history, he says it resonates on a deeper level than it would were its humor mere Pythonesque silliness.

"It's an ideological play, without being political," he says. "It's about how this kind of perversity starts to develop immediately after the fall of Peron," eventually giving rise to the Dirty War of 1976-83, wherein at least 10,000 suspected opponents of the military regime were "disappeared": abducted, tortured and murdered.

"You could say that Evita's mummy is the first 'disappeared,' " Caligaris says.

The choice of a non-Argentine playwright was a deliberate one, Medrano says, to bring a measure of objectivity to the tale. Otherwise, the entire creative team -- including choreographer Carina Losano, who taught Madonna to tango for the movie "Evita," and four of the nine cast members -- hails from Argentina, where original musical productions are rare. The plan is to eventually bring the show to Buenos Aires, where several of its songs and scenes were presented as works-in-progress earlier this year.

But Ott and Caligaris maintain that the show isn't written for Argentines and that familiarity with Latin American history is not a prerequisite. "I don't want people to have to read a book to understand the play," Caligaris says.

Mummy in the Closet: The Return of Eva Peron GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. 800-494-8497. Thursday through June 28. $34-$38. In Spanish with English surtitles.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company