City Paper is not for tourists
Doomed love and dark destiny may never have seemed so dreamy and poetical as they do these days at the Washington Shakespeare Companyand not just because the folks at Clark Street Playhouse have picked a lyrical but little-performed Langston Hughes translation as the liturgy for their Blood Wedding. Co-directors Jose Carrasquillo and Paul MacWhorter layer on the atmosphere, too, supporting the text’s purple majesties with an uneven but exceptionally moody staging concerned more with the broad themes of Federico García Lorca’s play than with the period specifics a purist might expect.
Transferring the action from its native place and time to the “now” and “realm of passion” indicated in the program might invite confusion about some issuesnotably the rigid social customs, the models of feminine virtue and manly virility, the careful segregation of class and gender that so fascinated García Lorcabut Carrasquillo and MacWhorter compensate with an array of elegantly executed directorial gestures designed to express metaphorically what’s been lost by way of authentic detail. And, of course, this is a play in which the moon speaks greedily of knives and blood, and in whose passages death comes to call wearing a beggar woman’s rags, a cloud of black birds following close behind her; perhaps metaphor, after all, is the purest imaginable approach.
So actors of each gender play characters of both; that vision of death is a white-haired man masquerading as a concept masquerading as a crone. Performers pace the boundary of the playing floor, conscious of what transpires within but constrained from taking part until their cue; others sit, brooding, at either end of the oblong strip, punctuating the action with rhythmic clappings and rudimentary sound effects. Men and women tread careful measures within that central space, stiff shoulders and stylized movements underscoring the idea of the distances prescribed between them. The “stage” is a concrete rectangle bordered intermittently by a band of bright light, painted with a Miró-inspired image of sun and void and scarlet circle; the last of those patterns, inevitably, is the ground for the play’s central tragedy.
The sheer richness of imagery at work here compensates for a small multitude of minor sins, including a downright puzzling bit of opening byplay, in which actors introduce themselves to the audience like overeager waiters at an undistinguished restaurant. There are several performances, too, that slip over the line between stylized and mannered: Most distracting among the overplayers is Tim Marrone, whose brooding Leonardo scowls rather too blackly, skulks rather too broadly, and shows little of the dangerous magnetism that might lead a well-bred bride to leave her doting groom at the reception. Kamilah Forbes, as that errant maiden, is as striking a figure here as she was in the African Continuum Theatre Company’s recent production of Gris Gris, but she too drifts occasionally toward the overly emotive, and she creates onstage a vivid presence rather than a vivid characterization; so far, she’s not learned to disappear into a part, and unless she intends to become a capital-S star, it’s a skill she’ll need to acquire.
More evenly effective is Jon Cohn’s jilted husband, whose outrage is another thread in the tangled skein of rivalry that has set generations of his family against Leonardo’s. If the young actor hasn’t quite figured out how to play earnest emotion so it rings true, he’s excellent at the grand and gallant gesture; he’s appealing enough to deliver such things honestly when the moment calls for it, and smart enough to know when to tinge them with self-mockery. He cuts a fine figure, in Edu. Bernardino’s high-collared wedding finery, as the gentle, hapless Boy (so thoroughly an archetype of conformist innocence that he has no name to counterbalance the romantic sound of “Leonardo”); his aristocratic poise and pale beauty makes sense of the Girl’s decision to marry, but there’s something effete about him, too, enough that there’s a kind of sad logic in her hunger for something more robust.
Vera Soltero gives Leonardo’s wife the worried self-awareness of a virile man’s second choice; her dialogue seems to taste bitter in her mouth. Richard Mancini, too, makes an impression in a variety of roles, the bride’s all-too-perceptive maidservant not least among them.
The show belongs, though, to Rena Cherry Brown, whose severe Titian beauty and singular, dark-grained voice are fine expressive qualities for a character who’s raised her children in a nursery furnished with regrets and grudges. The Mother is a precarious role, all dark prophecy and lamentation, and Brown makes her at once a fearsome and pitiable figure. The actress slips only once or twice into camp, and only in the deep-forest scene in which she doubles as the vengeful Moon; possibly it’s the blood lust, or Hughes’ hyperventilations on the theme of futile flight, but in this one perfervid sequence, Brown’s cries seem to be at least a small homage to the immortal Margaret Hamilton.
Mostly, though, she’s riveting, as memorable for any number of small gestures as for the deliberate, dramatic flourish that caps the flurry of vivid images at the play’s conclusion. In a heated, near-Gothic Blood Wedding, her performance is the sealing oath.
Teatro Gala’s latest take on El Beso de la Mujer Araña (Kiss of the Spider Woman) is a subtler affair than Blood Weddingand a more understated reading of Manuel Puig’s politics-and-prejudices play than the company turned in the last time around, in 1993. Abel López’s production has less of allegory about it, more of quiet anguish, and it turns out to be as affecting as anything the company has ever done.
As before, the production (in Spanish with headset translations for English audiences) turns on Hugo Medrano’s sensitive performance as window-dressing sissy Molina, sentenced for corrupting a minor to an Argentine prison cell that he shares with a young revolutionary firebrand (Mijail Mulkay). Puig’s notion of this wonderfully dignified queen is an essentially humane one, if rooted firmly in ’70s attitudes about queerness and specific cultural assumptions about masculinity. Medrano, who surely feels keenly the difficulty of negotiating a modern theatrical milestone with so much of what Americans would call stereotype threaded into its weave, finds in the very outrageousness of Molina’s mannerisms an expression of his individuality and resolve; the gentleness and sureness of the actor’s touch makes that precarious notion seem somehow sensible.
The set, by Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden, is similarly unobtrusive in the way it marries realism and symbolism; coarse blankets and bare floor seem somehow fit complements for the rhetoric of democracy inscribed on the cell’s bloodstained back wall. Likewise Ayun Fedorcha’s lighting scheme, which employs a relatively understated signature to introduce Molina’s regular flights into film-world fantasy. (He distracts himself and his cellmate with celluloid stories during moments of physical and emotional distress, but the plot is metaphorically linked to a crucial decision he’ll make before the play’s end.) Even the unseen English-speakers on the other end of the radio link are more sensitive to inflection and pacing than usualthough they still seem to drop the occasional line without regard for its importance to plot or psychologyand if Ron Oshima’s sound design doesn’t quite disappear into the production’s fabric, its brand of obtrusiveness is an unusually effective kind.
The weak link is Mulkay’s Valentin; what may seem like subtlety from his perspective seems like placidity, even opacity, from the fourth row, which is bound to leave some wondering how this man ever managed to draw the attention of even the most vigilant of authoritarian regimes. He’s a solid physical presence, at least, and López takes several opportunities to heighten the contrast between Valentin’s masculinity and Molina’s delicacy. (Some such gestures are more successful than others; it’s startling, yes, when Mulkay stretches out on the altarlike bed, bulging crotch and powerful thighs thrusting aggressively at the audience, but when he sits shivering in a blanket moments later, you wonder why he keeps walking around in his shorts if the cell’s so cold.)
More damaging to the play’s fabric is the way López rushes his actors through a pair of pivotal scenes, both of which detail the incremental intimacies that eventually awaken each man’s trust in the other. The two turning points don’t build, don’t really peak, certainly don’t shock; they merely pass, raising eyebrows perhaps, but never pulse rates.
And yet the damage is not lasting; Medrano and Mulkay both shine in the final sequence, generating enough lyricism and emotion in the play’s last five minutes to leave a palpable glow as the lights go down. The play’s essential argument is that understanding and engagement are bridges for the greatest of gapsand Gala’s reading of it is rich enough to carry that idea across in whatever decade, in any language. CP