A bold new play tells the story of a 19th century Irish refugee who becomes “Empress of Paraguay”

Photos by Russ Rowland


During the so-called Irish Potato Famine or the Great Hunger, a period of mass death and starvation between 1845 and 1852, about one million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland.

The play, “MADAME LYNCH,” brings to life the little-known story of Eliza Lynch, a feisty Irish woman whose fortunes took her from potato famine refugee, to French courtesan, to the self-proclaimed “Empress of Paraguay.” Her extraordinary beauty and intelligence won the attention of the soon-to-be dictator of Paraguay, Francisco Solano Lopez and she became that country’s unofficial first lady during his reign.

You can experience the colorful adventures of this remarkable feminist on stage through June 15, thanks to this edgy and irreverent music spectacle now running at Manhattan’s New Ohio Theatre, located at 154 Christopher Street between Greenwich and Washington Streets.

“The directors of the play have done a great job at bringing together the elements to deliver an in-depth historical portrayal of Madame Lynch’s inner struggles and the reality that changed Paraguay as a nation,” said Elmhurst-based choreographer Iliana Gauto, who was born in Asunción, Paraguay and moved to the US when she was 4.

Gauto’s Paraguayan folkloric dance group Ballet Panambí Vera and The Drunkard’s Wife, a theater company led by Normandy Sherwood and Craig Flanagin that creates darkly comic theatrical and experimental musical spectacles in NYC, have joined forces to create this bold and unexpected play.  

“The audience will experience beauty in the costumes, set designs, live band and dance numbers. They will understand the story of the protagonist’s attempt to build a nation, her moments of defeat and her efforts to rebuild again,” Gauto noted.

The show also reaches peaks of horror with real and imagined scenes from La Lynch’s life as an adventuress, cultural doyenne, femme fatale and microfinance pioneer.

“Madame Lynch handled many duties as female leader. Although the Paraguayans at the time didn’t agree with her methods, she was able to introduce ideas like ‘Micro-finance’ to a society that wore no shoes. As a result, Paraguay developed into a growing nation but that was soon taken away after the Triple Alliance War between Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil was set in place,” Gauto explained.

“Even after the war was over and Paraguay defeated three nations, Madame Lynch continued her efforts to aid Paraguay back to stability. She was powerful and unstable. She was cultured and savage.”

So, how does this enigmatic “heroine” reflect today’s feminist mindset?

Gauto said it was “her ways of conquering a society” as a female leader.  “Madame Lynch offered financial assistance to other women in society known as the Gold Comb Girls. She allowed for this collective of women to hold power. After the war she gathered a group of women to help repopulate the nation.”

Paraguay’s “empress” sought to civilize the nation through introduction of literature, fabrics, shoes and music. “She assumed beauty in everything she brought to Paraguay. Only it was the beauty she obsessed over that caused the catastrophic events in Paraguayan history,” Gauto continued.

Ballet Panambí Vera’s mission has been to educate, demonstrate and spread Paraguayan culture through collaboration with local artists, organizations, and leaders in the community.

Although their headquarters are based in Mineola, NY, Gauto said they have “represented in Queens” since her mother Berta Gauto founded the dance company in 1995 when the choreographer was just 4. Dancers hail from Queens and Long Island.

“Everyone knew me as “La Chiperita.” I always performed the same dance until I grew out of my first ñandúti costume,” she shared, adding, “After living for many years and working hard in search of the American dream, my parents felt a desire to share our cultural roots. The goal was always to maintain and teach others about our culture through art and dance. I then became the lead choreographer and started the Ballet Panambi Vera Dance Academy.”

The troupe has represented Paraguay throughout the world. They recently performed in Tokyo, Japan for an annual Paraguayan Festival with over 2,000 attendees.

And, they’ve had many performances in Queens: Queens Theater, Flushing Library, Sunnyside Shines Festival, Woodside on The Move, Queens Museum, Flushing Meadow Park, Queens Hispanic Day Parade, US Open Queens Day, and many more. Future shows include the Junta Hispana in July, and they’re getting ready to compete in the Desfile de la Hispanidad.

Gauto said her dream is to continue sharing her rich culture and entertaining audiences. “Paraguayan history holds many stories that need to be heard. I’m excited to be collaborating with great story tellers.”

Performances: Thursdays – Saturdays at 8 p.m. & Sundays at 7 p.m.; Wednesday, May 29, 8 p.m. No show on Sunday, June 2. Tickets are $25. Purchase at NewOhioTheatre.org or 212-352-3101.

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