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When the same farcically violent energy that gave rise to the slapstick puppetry of Punch & Judy also inspired Federico García Lorca to create Don Cristóbal, the poet and playwright was not engaged in a nostalgic exercise—he was reinventing the form for a modernist aesthetic. Not content just to tell the tale of Cristóbal, an aging rogue whose phallic billy-club compensates for his impotence when consummating his marriage to the much younger and fecund Rosita, who cuckolds him early and often—Lorca broke the fourth wall by having actors portraying the poet and an ambitious director take opposite positions on the morality of their lead character. Directors taking liberties with the script even with the playwright is in the room is nothing new—perhaps this explains why Lorca directed the 1935 premiere himself.
This free adaptation written by Pointless Theatre’s co-artistic director Patti Kalil in collaboration with the show’s directors Rachel Menyuk and Eric Swartz, brings the puppet show into this post-modern era. As the audience settles into their seats, the actor-puppeteers can be seen practicing hand positions and silly walks, or trying to get the attention of the actor playing the oleaginous director (Thais Menendez). The actors have developed stage personae and relationships for the puppeteers—this is not a stylistic affectation, but by design: After playing the first act close to the original source material, Kalil, Menyuk, and Swartz have added an entire second act in which the director travels, Dante-like, with the dead Lorca (a charismatic Paz Lopez, who also doubles as foley artist) as her Virgil, through a series of strange worlds inhabited both by human avatars of the first act’s puppets who mistake her for Cristóbal (Matthew Sparacino), and by actors who experienced the play as an allegory for toxic labor she relations she created in the rehearsal room.
Menendez’s director has not just attempted to push aside the playwright, but abused her cast, silencing their creative input, and despite thinking herself a feminist, subjected Rosita (Vanessa Chapoy) to the sort of notes that can leave actors, who are trained to trust their directors, wondering if they were being subjected to an unconventional creative process or sexual harassment. Meanwhile, she is pursued by a bumbling pair of police officers (Adrian Iglesias and Adrianne Knapp) who bear more than a passing resemblance to the fascist forces who assassinated Lorca in 1936.
As usual, Pointless’ ensemble excels. Scott Whalen‘s silent performance as a patient whom Don Cristóbal has abused is notable for its pathos, as well as its physical stylization. Chapoy, too, is a wonderful comedian whether or not she has a puppet in hand, layering the ribaldry and tragedy in her performance.
Speaking of the puppets, Francisco Benavides has created a cast of stick and rod puppets with the grotesquely exaggerated features one hopes from such a knockabout show, large enough to require two puppeteers to manipulate as well as an even larger cast of smaller puppets for the second act.
The set, designed by Mel Bieler, is a grand proscenium-style puppet theater that can accommodate the entire cast, and with a few partial rotations, transforms into the streets of Lorca’s Granada, the surrounding countryside, and an interrogation chamber that evokes the surrealist-inspired prison cells of Alphonse Laurencic in which Anarchist forces hoped to psychologically break prisoners loyal to Franco’s Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. The highlights of Frank Labovitz‘s wide range of costumes include the fascists’ chic meets occult-surrealist police uniforms, Lorca’s elegantly flamboyant floral print suit, and the hoop skirt and ridiculously exaggerated padding of Rosita’s pink dress. Lighting designer Niomi Collard creates striking effects whether symbolizing shifts between the worlds of the second act or the illusion of an early morning sunrise pouring through the theater’s wings.
If one opts to take great liberties with a classic, this is the way to do it—and one hopes that Kalil, Menyuk, and Swartz’s script has a life beyond this production, in the hands of other similarly adventurous companies.
To Sept. 8 at Dance Loft on 14, 4618 14th St. NW. $15–$30. pointlesstheatre.com