At Sunday’s matinee of In Spite of Love, about half the seats at GALA Theatre were filled by students taking a University of Maryland course called “Approaches to Cultural Materials in the Hispanic World.” It was an encouraging thing to see—a nearby university appreciating a well-done production of a Spanish Renaissance classic—and perhaps an instructive one: Sometimes, resurrecting ancient comedies can feel more like an academic exercise than entertainment.
El desdén con el desdén, as the play is known in Spanish, was penned by Agustín Moreto around 1650. It’s a comic tale about two lovers pretending to hate each other and the circle of friends and rivals that eggs them on. The plot may sound familiar if you’ve seen Much Ado About Nothing lately. For reasons that are not GALA’s fault, the nearly 400-year-old play might feel derivative of Shakespeare, British tabloids, and Telemundo soaps.
This production stars Natalia Miranda-Guzmán as the unfortunately named Princess Diana, who is known throughout Barcelona as something of a frigid bitch. Her “fair hand (has) brought many a hopeful prince to compete with style, spirit, and wit.” But each prospective suitor is rebuffed with lines like this: “For me to wed must be the same as putting noose to my neck.”
Such gibes don’t deter gallant Spanish men in tights, including one count named Carlos (Ignacio García-Bustelo, rocking mauve-colored legwear) who decides to try a little reverse-psychology. For a good chunk of the play, Diana and Carlos play hard to get, flailing barbs at each other like only hotly attracted adversaries can.
In Spite of Love is performed in Spanish with surtitles, which means English speakers’ eyes must dart between the relatively decent comic acting onstage and the parade of hyperbole scrolling above the proscenium. Take Diana’s private acknowledgement that she really does love Carlos: “A volcano simmers in my breast. What flame is this that burns my soul?”
GALA commissioned a new translation for this production, but perhaps it’s time to take a few more liberties with the script. Shakespeare Theatre Company has, in recent years, had great success with several contemporized adaptations of period dramas, and In Spite of Love would be a great candidate for that treatment. There’s some great situational comedy here—for example, a scene in which Diana and her ladies slink off to sing in the garden, and Carlos pretends to be so preoccupied with the hyacinths he doesn’t notice they’re scampering around in petticoats.
Director Hugo Medrano has paid careful attention to movement and blocking in this production, and the cast is bolstered considerably by the nimble footwork of Antonia Vargas as the love doctor Polilla. Medrano also makes the most of the musical interludes and gets the whole cast up and dancing. Guitarist Behzad Habibzai provides live accompaniment, and actress Cecilia De Feo plays a lady of the court who also plays the recorder. It’s in these song-and-dance moments that In Spite of Love feels the most like a worthwhile theatrical experience—rather than just a field trip.