The Teatro de Parla Youth Company of Spain delivers a powerful blast from the past. On the backs of black t-shirts worn by three actors, white print spells out: GUERRA (war), ENFERMEDAD (disease), and HAMBRE (famine). The characters stand upstage on a platform littered with bodies. These villains represent the rewards of war.
This is only one of the memorable tableaus in director Jose Luis Arellano-Gracia’s dynamically-alive Numancia, a condensation of an allegorical play by Miguel de Cervantes, the world-famous author of the novel “El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha” (The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha).
Written in 1585, Numancia is a play dedicated to the idea of freedom. The fate of this walled-city is similar to the finale in the Jewish community of Masada in 73 A.D. Who is the victor if the conquered people commit mass suicide?
The energy that pours from 22 inspired Young company actors, well-versed in their own national history, is inspiring. For 70 mesmerizing minutes we sit transfixed. It’s 134 B.C. at the waning of the Republic and the advent of the Roman Empire. Rome is growing more imperialistic in its reach to swallow Spain and beyond. For 16 years, the small town of Numancia has held out against conquest. But time is running out. Corruption is rife within the Roman camp from the stalemate.
The drama opens with the Roman general Scipio changing his strategy from open confrontation to starvation. He has dug trenches surrounding the city walls to cut off supplies and trade to force surrender. Victory means returning to Rome with many slaves and cart-loads of stolen property.
To prevent a mass slaughter, the Numantians propose a one-on-one, man-to-man tournament to decide the war’s outcome. The Romans refuse. So the Numantian Senator Theagenes advises the people to build a bonfire and burn all valuable property, to kill their wives and children and throw themselves into the flames to escape enslavement.
Topical relevance and music make this graphic slice-of-history palatable. Musical director David Peralto, who along with a 17-year-old company member, Alberto Granados Reguilon, have composed music that enlivens the emotional force behind the dialog with the help of a rock band, consisting of three electrical guitars, keyboard and drums. Suicidal enactments are pantomimed through symbolic throat-slitting and gesturing. Throughout the play, the sung cries of “Freedom!” from the actors echo and remind us of the cries from crowds in nightly news broadcasts from Middle Eastern city squares.
After six months of rehearsals two times a week and during holidays, the heartfelt commitment from these youngsters just bubbles over and demonstrates impressive physicality and effortless teamwork in acting and singing.
The leading characters are groups of people, the penned-in people of Numancia or Roman generals who move and speak like a chorus. In one turning-point moment, the Numancians interlock arms and form a protective circle. Actions speak louder than the words about the concept of strength through solidarity and teamwork. And the secondary characters of Marandro (Granados Reguilon, who also is a composer) and Lira (Violeta Ramirez Diaz-Marta) show us how war blockades the fulfillment of love and dreams.
The abstractions of Spain, the River Duero, War, Hunger and Disease have songs to sing. And the important Fame who appears near the end holds the key to the moral of the play and sounds an upbeat warning for us today. Judging from the audience post-show talk-back among the students from St. Michael’s High School in Fredericksburg, Virginia on Wednesday morning, what grabbed them were these allegorical characters talking like individualized people.
Educators and political leaders of Washington D.C., take note of what the GALA Hispanic Theatre is doing. Director Arellano-Garcia already is well-known to GALA audiences for his acclaimed staging of Lope de Vega’s El Caballero de Olmedo in September 2010 as well as the 2009 production of Fuente Ovejuna, the classic about powerful rulers versus ordinary people. The driving force behind this international cultural exchange with Spain is to make us think. Who really wins wars? Does might always make right?
Sadly, there remains only one more performance of Numancia at 10:30 a.m. on Friday. But watch for more to come.
In Spanish with translated sur-titles.
By Miguel de Cervantes
Adapted by Mar Zubieta
Directed by Jose Luis Arellano Garcia
Produced by the Teatro de Parla Youth Company of Spain, presented by GALA Hispanic Theatre
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes with no intermission