How can a hero be so blind to the palpable warnings encircling him; so deaf to his own instincts?
Lope de Vega, the Spanish Shakespeare, shows us the answer through Alonso, the title character from one of his masterpieces, El Caballero de Olmedo (The Knight from Olmedo.) The knight believes he is invincible because of his devotion to his code of honor. But he really is courting disaster because he erroneously believes that he is dealing with honorable men. Alonso, played with great depth of feeling and nuance by Juan Caballero, a young actor from Spain, is akin to the archetypal tragic Greek hero, Oedipus who denies the truth of the oracle’s prophecies until it is too late.
GALA, now launching its 35th season, has hosted an amazing cross-Atlantic collaboration with the Spanish company Acción Sur in Madrid, to bring us a Golden Age of Spanish Theatre masterpiece, based on an ancient legend and song about love, jealousy and honor. For this project that started during the “Loving Lope Festival,” in April 2009, a highly creative team of techies and actors rehearsed and workshopped in Spain and here in Washington D.C. This production is the result that is hauntingly beautiful, inventive and unique.
Lope’s audience knew the legend well. The plot is based on a Spanish folksong about a brave young horseman who kills a bull in the bullring yet is murdered in the forest by a defeated and jealous rival. The synopsis at the back of the program really is a must-read for full enjoyment. Sur-titles translating the Spanish into English flash by at a rapid-fire clip. This is a play where it’s okay to know the ending, as with a Shakespearean play, before the lights come up on stage.
Set designer Jose Luis Raymond puts us in a symbolic bullring. That’s why the five, evenly spaced vertical fences, built with rungs like a ladder, are placed upstage against the black curtain. They represent the protective barriers, or barreras in a Plaza de Toros. One exception: The eight-pane window frame in the middle, making a total of six barricades, is located on a movable platform that is pushed forward for the balcony love scenes. In a way, the story is Romeo and Juliet in a bullring.
Director Jose Louis Arellano Gracia, from Madrid, Spain, writes in the program that he asked his cast of nine actors “to find the beast in each character.” The results are phenomenal. The physicality of the team unites the physical with the spiritual and creates a heightened reality.
We are introduced to nine, energetic actors who burst on stage and stare confrontationally into the audience; then reach down and slap the floor. We are shocked into another reality. Later as the characters deliver Lope’s lyrical dialogue, the characters’ feelings are physicalized. For example: “Two sparkling eyes were the cause of my love,” is a line in Alonso’s opening. By the end of the soliloquy, the actor (Caballero) collapses and lies prostrated, like a gored matador, on the floor. Apparently he is devastated by love at first sight of Dona Ines (Emme Bonilla). When we meet Ines, she is similarly hyperactive with joy at her first sighting of Alonso as she tells her sister Leonor (Karen Morales-Chacana) “…but the instant I laid eyes on the handsome stranger at the fair,/my soul told me: ‘I love this man” and the sisters romp and roll on the floor like kittens.
The style is beyond real to convey the passion of the moment. Ines and Alonso are destined for each other. And hopefully we’re in for some fun as the plot moves forward. The match-making cynic, Fabia, all out for what she can get in a world of declining values, is given a heart-winning, swaggering performance by Monalisa Arias; and Alonso’s sidekick Don Tello, in a matching, knock-about depiction by Pedro Martin from Spain, scheme to win approval from the girls’ father, Don Pedro, a gentleman played as a gentle man by Mel Rocher. But this is a Lope de Vega commedia and comic situations escalate into tragic dangerous points.
Lope’s lyrical language takes over and builds into a warning: that of the goldfinch and the hawk. Alonso tells Don Tello (Pedro Martin), his devoted sidekick, the symbolic story of how he watched a hawk swoop and kill a goldfinch. It’s a prophecy but Alonso doesn’t trust his instincts. Was it a dream or a real event? The way the actor Caballero (as Alonso) stands demoralized in a spotlight against the void of the black upstage curtain makes for an arresting moment. Musician Kevin Payne plays a Baroque Vihuela (a lute), accompanied by a tenor and soprano recorders, cajones and various percussive block instruments. Then the full cast gathers to sing a liturgical song upstage as if from a cathedral choir loft. The mood turns funereal.
Act III (in the program synopsis, Act II in the production) cuts to the bullfight, the test of manhood, and the action takes off like a speed-of-light train. This GALA/Accion del Sur production builds with a tension so tight, you can scarcely take a deep breath. The audience falls silent with reverent attention from one high point after another. The balcony window love scene between Ines and Alonso is spellbinding: The eight-pane window that unites and separates the lovers is mounted on a rolling platform and becomes emblematic for requited but unconsummated love. Even though Alonso saves Rodrigo’s life during the bullfight, the premonitions of disaster build with increasing intensity until Don Rodrigo (Jerry Nelson Soto) and his accomplice (Oscar Ceville) attack Alonso in the dark just before dawn. In the full light of day, the truth is exposed and the King (a cameo appearance by Hugo Medrano) restores balance to society by administering poetic justice. A bench falls and smacks the floor. The ending comes like a rifle shot.
There’s a moral here to remember: When the peasant (Sebastian R. Delta) who sings the warning song (seguidilla) is alone with Alonso in the depths of the forest at the darkest point before dawn, he says: “Yours is a stupid kind of courage.” And we are hearing Lope’s mocking voice, as we do throughout, telling us to use our common sense and not blindly follow Alonso’s code of honor.
“They killed him by night
The young caballero
The toast of Medina
And flower of Olmedo.”
The shades tried to stop him
From venturing forth,
And gave him advice
That he should not leave,
The young caballero,
The toast of Medina
And flower of Olmedo.”
The adaptation by Mar Zubieta and Francisco Rojas, with English translation by Dawn Smith, pares down some of Lope’s pompous literary allusions and mannerisms for effective clarity. El Caballero de Olmedo is a play worth seeing for its poetic power and passion.
El Caballero de Olmedo (The Knight from Olmedo)
By Lope de Vega
Adapted by Mar Zubieta & Francisco Roja
Directed by Jose Luis Arellano Garcia
Produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre and Accion Sur from Spain
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
El Caballero de Olmedo plays thru Oct 17, 2010 at GALA Hispanic Theatre.
Click here for details, directions and tickets.
EL CABALLERO DE OLMEDO