When the lights come up, Death, impersonated by an ominous, stone-faced Matthew Pauli, stands center stage, softly playing a ukulele. Death, who is biding his time, often grinning, even leering, stalks with a cane through just about every scene and takes delight in lovers’ quarrels and family friction.
It’s a directorial choice; a Shirley Serotsky innovation and the message is clear. Death surrounds us everywhere. Whereas Lorca was obsessively preoccupied with the theme of death, Lorca’s original play is written differently.
Federico Garcia Lorca, who wrote his great trilogy about women in the early 1930s, wanted to erase the line between life and dramatic art. He abhorred arranged marriages, a form of death in life for him. A newspaper story of a blood feud at a wedding that ended in murder stayed in Lorca’s head for years. Then in a week’s time, he wrote Blood Wedding, a style-changer that starts with stark reality and edges into a surrealistic third act, rich with metaphysical poetry and a talking moon, thirsty for blood–a theatrical gem. The play became one of the most important plays of the 20th century and brought Lorca rock-star fame in Latino countries.
Serotsky’s premise is stated explicitly in the program: She’s an American director who wants to forego whatever has been staged in Spanish theatre to achieve something that’s forever relevant, “contemporary and timeless.” Serotsky has chosen to use British playwright Tanya Ronder’s translation for its “punch” and poetic power. And even though the acts of physical violence are kept off stage, the poetry that’s retained from the Spanish does get visceral with the blood imagery about the mother licking her hands covered with her dying son’s blood, her immortality, “because it was my blood.”
Serotsky aims for universality by unifying this production with an impressive team of actors. The ending may be mystifying, but the idea of a staged funeral dirge with open caskets ties in with the use of the masque-like character of Death. That in itself is controversial. So, come prepared, you purist Lorca lovers. This is a different play. But to her credit, Serotsky saves herself with a disclaimer: “…from the get-go we wouldn’t be creating an authentically Spanish production….” So we judge her production on that basis.
Lisi Stoessel’s one-set-fits-all, minimalistic white stucco wall with arches works for all the scenes that shift from farmhouse, to church and open courtyard, and cemetery. From a raked seating arrangement, that forces our gaze downward, it’s as if we’re in a Greek amphitheater. The stage floor is painted as a radiating half-circle where two black rectangles represent embedded, sealed coffins.
Family blood feuds can escalate into violence and a cycle of vendettas, whether you’re in gangland LA. or in Lorca’s landscape. Weddings, whether based on greed for land or love, are supposed to heal all that with the promise of rebirth and continuity. We are confronted with the character of the Mother, (Deidra LaWan Starnes), who places a long-stemmed rose at the gravesite of her husband and elder son while caressing the grave stones and singing a dirge about longing for the dead man’s embrace. It’s a touching moment, backed by Mariano Vales’ original music, that offsets a later sense that Starnes is miscast as the Mother, maybe too young and lively for such a monumental character who embodies the stoical Life Force, a Mother of all mothers, who preserves the puritanical rules of the old world generation, the polar opposite of what the Bride is. Unfortunately, it takes a slow first couple of scenes for these latent dynamics to catch fire with palpable intensity on-stage. At least, this is what I sensed on opening night.
What puts electricity in the air is the alternating currents between the characters, who are abstractions without specific names, so we can all identify. Starnes is good as Mother, the party pooper who deadens the joyous singing and dancing at the wedding reception by talking about blood, her dead relatives, and losing hope for immortality. It’s a good moment: Humor is injected when the Father of the Bride (Will Cooke) hushes her up with “Not today.” It gets an audience laugh of recognition.
What projects in the warning scene with the Groom (Mark Halpern), is the Mother’s fear of a “jack knife,” small in size, that reminded me of box-cutters considered by airline security to be lethal weapons. The Mother gossips with her neighbor and learns the news of her hated rivals, Leonardo Felix’s family, the men who killed her husband and elder son. The point is that what appears innocuous can become lethal. What Starnes, who is a very fine actress, successfully shows us through her bent posture and physicality, is a folksy, funny, little old lady, who is crotchety and stiff-jointed, and filled with deep resentments that flame out when the Mother cuts loose with rage at her Fate.
In contrast, Victoria Reinsel has some sterling, clarifying moments of abandon, as the virgin Bride of a different, rebellious generation. Fast forward to the steamy love scene that takes place between the runaway Bride and Leonardo in the dark forest. Away from social pressure from the small town, all make-believe drops. Here, outside the rule of law, we witness how the Bride and Leonardo have reined in their deepest instincts, their animalistic, sexual attraction for each other.”Nails of moonlight have fused my waist and your thighs,” Leonardo (Dylan Myers) intones.
The sexual chemistry is definitely there. Well-cast Dylan Myers presents us with a smoldering Leonardo, the only character given a specific name. He’s the hot-blooded have-not, who could only offer the Bride “a hut and two cows.” We sense, early on, that he’s capable of going out-of-control. Leonardo is so hot for the Bride, he neglects his pregnant wife and infant son. Nothing can stop his instinctive, primal force from racing wild.
The Wife, Natalie Pyle Smith, as the abandoned mother, aided by the Mother-in-Law, Toni Rae Brotons, have what could be a stronger moment in the strained scene with the Dark Lullaby, a strange but catchy ballad, typically sung by gypsies, is about how you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. Set to Mariano Vales’ minor-keyed original musical composition, this song is a dark nightmare about a joyless life, filled with the hardship of too many children. It’s the singers’ complaint; yet oddly used to lull the baby to sleep. The horse is “crying” and refuses water in a repeated riff, “The horse won’t drink from the stream.” It’s a haunting foreshadowing of the violence to come:.”Down he went to the river,/Oh, down he went down!/And his blood was running,/Oh, more than the water.”
In contrast, Vales’ musical composition wonderfully sets the tone for the joyous wedding celebration, an excellent high point, the “alborea,” or bridal call. “Awake, O Bride, awaken….” is a song sung at the wedding day to call the wedding party together. It symbolizes the dawn of the newlyweds’ life together.
Some of the lesser characters are the liveliest. Of special mention, actor Julie Garner, who plays the servant, a role similar to Shakespeare’s nurse in Romeo & Juliet, offers upbeat comic relief moments with her chatter.
Mention must be made of the stunningly lavish costumes, à la Kendra Rai’s signature style, of the Bride’s gleaming-white, Flamenco-ruffled skirt with black lace overlay and full black veil. Black is the time-honored color for Latino wedding gowns, signifying devotion unto death.
Even though it seems unexpected that Serotsky cannot resist expanding the role of a traditional Spanish masque-like, allegorical figure, like Death, under her guidance this becomes a play of rebellion, defiance, Lorca’s cry for women’s liberation. I felt satisfied by this refreshing take on Lorca. Serotsky’s Blood Wedding in which all theatrical elements are simplified, is a scaled-down fairy tale. And that’s part of the problem. What’s missing is the contrast. In the original, Lorca inches away from the world of human passion into the eeriest of eerie surreality that could be a Dali painting. In this Constellation staging, the talking Moon, (Anastasia Wilson dressed in white veil and tunic, like a Roman goddess, Diana of the hunt perhaps) doesn’t seem as menacing as she speaks of “…..my cheeks will be rouged with sweet blood tonight,….” Some of the terror of primitive ritual is lost.
I must confess I miss the original text in Spanish. Some of the poetry gets lost in this translation. But I’m thankful to see the intrepid Constellation taking the risk to expose Lorca to American audiences. What’s the ending supposed to mean? Do not fear death. Carpe diem. Listen and live instinctively. Seize the moment with gusto. If this is what Serotsky’s production does for you, then this is not a depressing play. I won’t be the spoiler except to say this ending is very different. But I got the message that the Mother should have listened to her instincts from the beginning.
Constellation Theatre Company’s production of Blood Wedding runs through March 4, 2012 at Source, 1835 14th Street, Washington, DC.
by Federico Garcia Lorca
Translation by Tanya Ronder
Directed by Shirley Serotsky
Produced by Constellation Theatre
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes with no intermission