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Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Exhilerating Fuente Ovejuna

Fuente Ovejuna
By Lope de Vega
Translation and directed by Laurence Boswell
Featuring Sara Topham, Robert Persichini, Jonathan Goad, Scott Wentworth and James Blendick

The Story: Based on true events from medieval Spain, Fuente Ovejuna is the story of a small village whose tyrannical overlord, Fernán Gómez, took whatever he wanted, including the women of the village. Fed up with his cruel despotism, the town revolted. When King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella found out, they sent interrogators to the village to find what happened but no one in the town would confess, instead all saying “Fuente Ovejuna did it”. Faced with such solidarity the king and queen pardon the town, who then pledge loyalty to these far fairer rulers.

The story is an old one, and so is the author – Lope de Vega was Shakespeare’s Spanish contemporary and the people of Spain know his works like Westerners know Shakespeare’s. Set to wonderfully harmonizing music by Edward Henderson, this play’s new translation is from its director, Laurence Boswell. Truth be told, something is lost in the translation, because it is certain Lope De Vega never used terms like ‘information overload’ and ‘let’s do it’. While this attempt to make an old play sound new is valiant in theory, it is very obvious and the play really does not need this artifice since it is such a good story – it could have been performed in Spanish and it still would have been completely understood.

This is due not only to the director but to the powerful cast. The play really belongs to two characters, the first being Laurencia, played by Sarah Topham. She transcends her usual solid performance to present a character that ranges from spunkily sweet to fiercely enraged: as the object of Gómez’s pursuit, Laurencia escapes his imprisonment and shames the wavering men of the village into revolt, before leading the women in their own offensive strike. Ms. Topham not only portrays the clever, teasing but innocent Laurencia well, but also delivers an impassioned, knock-out speech, and sells the ensuing fight scene extremely well.

The other outstanding performance comes from Scott Wentworth as the odious Commander Fernán Gómez de Guzmán, the governor of the village. Gómez is a master manipulator, and Mr. Wentworth plays him with a mean, paranoid edge (with a bit of a Napoleon complex mixed in) that makes as dangerous a villain as ever seen on Stratford stages. At the horrifying moment he breaks a staff over the elderly Esteban’s back the audience’s loathing is palpable, but Mr. Wentworth never goes too big with the act either. It is a truly outstanding performance.

The entire cast (of nearly 30) deserves praise – it is a first-rate ensemble. As the town’s elder and Laurencia’s father, James Blendick is stately, dignified and jovial, and nearly everything Gómez is not. Robert Persichini is brilliant as the village clown Mengo, to a point where you really do not know if he will or won’t confess under torture to his role in the revolt. The friendship portrayed between his character and that of Nigel-Shawn Williams as the poet Barrildo is sweetly deeper than at first glance. It is terrific to watch Jonathan Goad’s hesitance to be both suitor and hero as Frondoso, and to see Lindsay Thomas’ range as the victimized Jacinta. As Gómez’s henchmen, Stephen Russell is a swaggering “just following orders” kind of guy, while David Keeley provides a touch of hero-worship in his admiration of Gómez that is both sweet and kind of appalling. And although their time on stage is short, Geraint Wyn Davies and Seana McKenna are able to portray why Ferdinand and Isabella are the better leaders, worthy of being followed with just a few subtle motions.

Aside from the one little quibble about the insertion of modern-day colloquialisms into the text (and a detestable slow-motion mob scene), this play is a top pick for this season’s sleeper hit for its excellent performances, complementary sets and costumes and sheer story-telling power. Watching it come to life is gives one a thrill like discovering a long-lost portrait by Velázquez. Do not wait to see it, as tickets will soon be hard to get. Fuente Ovejuna continues in repertory until October 4th. For tickets call 1-800-567-1600 or click here.

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