The Best Judge, The King (El Mejor Alcalde, El Rey)
By Lope de Vega
Adapted and Directed by Macarena Baeza (from Chile)
Produced by GALA
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Fling open windows and doors. Let in fresh air and sunlight. Lope de Vega has been inaugurated in Washington D.C. The Best Judge, The King (El Mejor Alcalde, El Rey) transports us to the Golden Age of the 17th century Spanish Theatre, and the GALA Hispanic Theatre rivets it to life with a magnificent U. S. premiere performance of a masterpiece rarely staged outside Spain.
This comes from an era when a new Lope de Vega commedia was performed everyday in Madrid’s dead end streets, plazas or courtyards-outdoors. Chilean director Macarena Baeza, without violating the original text, allows his tragic-comic play to speak a universal language.
The story is taken from an actual 12th century account of a feudal lord’s eminent domain taking of a peasant’s land. Lope, however, in adapting the story to a feudal lord’s raping of a young woman, created a fairy tale to show how idealistic love wins out over unbridled passion.
What works best in Baeza’s direction is not only her attention to the musicality of Lope’s language, but also the physicality of making allegorical characters real. Jose Ignacio Garcia plays Sancho, the noble peasant, with spellbinding charm, as he rhapsodizes over Elvira, (Sandra Milena Sampayo). “With a face like hers,who needs curls or displays? She’s the sun’s full rays.” But dressed in blue jeans and tunics, a mix of costume styles, jarring at first, brings their idealized love down to earth. No, this isn’t West Side Story, but these two peasants are two adolescents, madly in love. Sancho expresses it by sliding down poles and climbing onto balconies.
The pure love between Sancho and Elvira contrasts nicely with the heated kettle of lust that Don Tello is. Mel Rocher (last seen here in Lorca’s Blood Wedding as the Bride’s father) gives a towering, impassioned performance as the predatory Don Tello, a musketeer, a tyrant filled with excessive hubris, who gradually becomes unhinged. Rocher’s Don Tello is as insidious as any Iago or Richard III. Panache in this period is everything and it’s mesmerizing to watch this consummate actor, all in period costume, like a light-footed matador unfurling cape and dagger. Don Tello is an anti-heroic presence – the epitome of the elegant rebel without a cause, a haughty aristocrat, who has the moral values of a street scoundrel. Awareness that the violation of a woman’s honor ruined her for marriage accentuates the force of evil. “When I’ve had my fill, that bumpkin can marry the girl,” Rocher intones in an aside to the audience. At the same time, Rocher’s sweeping gestures and emotional range make Don Tello endearingly human. Welcome to Lope de Vega’s paradoxical, off-the-record underworld.
There’s a good side to pride that protects innocence. A serene, period-dressed King Alfonso VII (Hugo Medrano), the virtuous and honest ruler, reflects divinely-inspired, imperial power, as if he stepped fresh from a Velazquez portrait. Manolo Santalla portrays the stalwart father, Nuno, who has faith in Elvira’s resistance as, in a paternal moment, he reaches out tentatively to touch his imprisoned daughter’s hand.
Baeza accentuates social conflict themes by highlighting significant lines, like King Alfonso’s “He who offends the poor is never wise.” The King sides with the lower class masses against the higher ups like Don Tello, the rebel who has upset the hierarchy of a society. Don Tello’s arrogance has so angered the King that he disguises himself as a mayor (alcalde), or magistrate, to restrain the reprobate. And here Medrano goes undercover in gray business suit under a judge’s black robe. But neither Don Tello’s wise sister Feliciana (the regal Marta Carton), nor the King, who arrives too late, can protect Elvira from Don Tello’s advances.
A classic Lope de Vega plot twist, which you have to see to believe, follows that soothes our world-weary, modern souls with the zephyr-like balm of poetic justice. Although Don Tello’s harsh comeuppance may be hard for us to believe today, the moral is clear: Men like Don Tello, who go over the edge and grow morally reprehensible, bring about their own destruction. Baeza’s direction of the ending is brilliantly understated, deliberately anti-climactic.
Past and present are fused in production values as well. Not only does Baeza capture the grandeur of space, of an outdoor courtyard performance under open sky, where groundlings (mosqueteros) musketeers sat in the pit in front of the stage, but present day costuming by Martin Schnellinger works well.
Ayun Fedorcha’s lighting design captures a feeling of the outdoors and sunlight dappled by shade trees. Sound design by Matt Otto filters in echoes of flowing water.
Scenic designer Elizabeth J. McFadden’s diaphanous curtain panels, illustrated with decorative flowers and rear-lighted to suggest Tiffany’s Arte Nouveau stained glass designs, makes for a gorgeous set. The movable green-railed platform is shifted on stage and is functional, especially as Don Tello’s castle prison tower.
Lope de Vega wrote The Best Judge, The King at the age of 73, in his last season of life, when he was disillusioned after a prolific outpouring of sometimes a commedia a day to keep his adoring public happy.
Welcome to the wonderful, wild world of Lope de Vega. May his prolific pen flow forever from the GALA stage. Go and let Lope abduct your heart.
Loving Lope is the name of the two-fer celebration taking place this month. An earlier Lope play, Dog in the Manger, is about to be launched on February 10 at Shakespeare Theatre. The two companies have launched a free series of discussions, Loving Lope.
In Spanish with English translation by Heather McKay projected in surtitles.
Running Time: 1:20 with one 15 minute intermission.
When: Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm, until February 22, 2009.
Where: GALA Theatre at Tivoli Square, 3333 14th Street N.W., at Park Road (Columbia Heights Metro, Green Line) Secure parking at Giant Food behind the theater for flat fee of $4. on Park Rd.
Tickets: Single tickets #32 on Thurs. and Sun.; $36 on Fri. and Sat. Tickets for students, senior citizens (65+) and military are $20 (Thurs./Sun.) and $26 Fri./Sat. Additional discounts are available for groups of 10 or more.