Love! How do you define it? An insane passion kept Lope de Vega (1562-1635) churning out plays, sometimes a play a day. Nothing could stop this 17th century genius, once called “a monster of Nature,” from writing so truthfully about what he observed.
Did de Vega live a rough and rowdy life and write from what he knew? Did art follow life? Or did he dream up plots and allow his life to follow his wild imagination? Did life follow art? These are questions that Argentine writer/director Mariano Moro raises in a torrid tell-all about de Vega’s life and invincible spirit in Quien lo prob?, lo sabe (Those Who Taste It, Know), a U.S. premiere and the first of six plays from different award-winning Latino theatre troupes, (plus three children’s plays), in Teatro de la Luna’s 14th International Hispanic Theatre Festival.
Moro, the playwright representing Argentina in the festival, takes an intriguing look at the great writer and ingeniously interweaves a self-referential narration with a mosaic of lyric verses from Lope de Vega’s poems, sonnets, and plays. This renowned playwright, equally well-known in Spain as a great poet, enjoys a world-wide reputation as a Spanish Shakespeare or Mozart of Spanish literature.
Although a man filled with earthy passion, at the end of his life, he turned to divine love and became a priest. Why? Moro starts with his funeral in 1635.
From the moment Argentine actor Mariano Mazzei slides off a center stage pedestal that represents his coffin, Mazzei’s marionette-like pantomime suggests that he is an old man at the mercy of powers beyond his control. The actor’s arms and legs jerk grotesquely, as if strings are being pulled and his broken body is being pulled back together again. It’s a thrilling moment as you realize what the actor is doing. Mazzei with an exciting physicality embodies the resurrected de Vega slowly coming together to discover a new world around him. And the line “Is this God’s first gift to the dead: recovering our vigor?” takes on an added dimension. We connect viscerally.
Immediately, Mazzei as the volatile Spanish Shakespeare shows his disappointment by insulting the audience. The dead poet ridicules our hairstyles, the men’s shaven faces, and unfashionable clothes. We don’t belong in his century. No matter. We’re modern and Lope is more worried about us sitting in judgment of his self-indulgent life as a seducer and abductor of women.
But before we pass judgment on him, it is tremendously significant that Lope de Vega was the first in Spain to write for the box office and make lots of money. The excerpts from the play Barlan y Josafat/Barlen and Josephat show us the genius’ talent by giving us a sublime snapshot of 17th century Madrid street life, as sumptuous as a Velasquez painting. Lope confesses his objective in art was “…to paint the world with words.” At a highpoint, Mazzei speaks each lyrical line conversationally and physically acts out Lope’s ecstatic delight in the rich diversity of Madrid in a play that obviously entertained the Golden Age of Spanish Theatre audiences.
To dramatize and heighten de Vega’s defense, Mazzei storms the stage with pantomimic skill. Women begged Lope de Vega to abduct them, he tells us. And Lope’s defense against harsh judgment for accommodating them is that he did his best writing when he was in love, which was most of the time. One of the greatest writers who ever lived comes across as a hyperactive lover of women who wrote hyperbolically, until tired out, he became a priest. And Mazzei’s portrayal is endearing, funny and profoundly human.
Like the nursery rhyme about the old woman who lived in a shoe, Lope had so many children he didn’t know what to do. He had at the least 16 children from two marriages and multiple mistresses. “Is it my fault that girls throw themselves at me from their balconies, like carnations?” Mazzei understates the line, modestly, almost tongue-in-cheek, while his expressive face is like a little boy’s overwhelmed by fame and overpowering forces.
As a man of honor, de Vega was driven by hunger to write and he wrote rapidly. Yet his critics attacked him for the lack of depth. “Someone will say my plays are poorly thought out. If I thought for a while, we’d go to bed empty! And how children cry when they’re hungry!” There are tragic moments of loss that prove so disturbing they’re debilitating, and Mazzei handles these moments by underplaying them sensitively. “Children! I’ve had many, and I’ve seen almost all of them die. How much strength do you have to ask God for, to endure the death of a child!”
After his own death, de Vega sums it all up by having the last laugh on posterity. He trumped his disputes with other celebrity writers of Spain’s Golden Age by outliving them. Cervantes, famous for his characters Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, gossiped unmercifully about Lope’s sexual escapades, yet died first. Ironically it was Lope de Vega who became renowned as the father of Spanish drama, for shoving off-stage the stilted Italian neoclassic rules of time, place and action and allowing heartfelt emotions to reign. Action he saw first hand after going through scandalous affairs, adultery and libel that got him thrown in jail and exiled from Madrid. By integrating what he as a philanderer lived into his sonnets and plays, Lope created the “cape and sword” style and the tragicomedy that conveyed a folksy message, new dramatic models imitated by all.
Without question Lope de Vega’s life was as adventurous as his plays. And his art was tightly knit from his personal life. His artistry and fame triumph.
I really enjoyed this refreshing slice-of-life period piece. The proverbial twists at the end keep you at seat’s edge, enthralled to the last spoken word. I felt fulfilled from the rich lore that is mined here, but I wish Moro, the playwright, would consider expanding this monologue to a full-length play. To experience what’s staged now, you have to hurry to catch the three weekend performance.
In Spanish with headsets available for English translation.
Quien lo probo, lo sabe/Those Who Taste It, Know has 2 performances remaining: Friday and Saturday, Oct 14 and 15 at 8pm, and Saturday, Oct 15 at 3m at Gunston Arts Center – Theatre 2, 2700 South Lang St., Arlington, VA.
Details and tickets
The Festival continues Oct 20 with Latinas by Denise Duncan from Costa Rica.
Quien lo probo, lo sabe/Those Who Taste It, Know
Written and directed by Mariano Moro from Buenas Aires, Argentina
Produced by the Compania Los del Verso as part of Teatro de la Luna’s 14th International Festival of Hispanic Theater
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running Time: about 85 minutes with no intermission.
We already have met Lope de Vega from the Loving Lope Festival in 2009 between the GALA Hispanic Theatre and the Washington D.C. Shakespeare Theatre. For more on Lope de Vega, you might enjoy reading about: Fuente Ovejuna/The Sheep Well; El Caballero de Olmedo/The Knight from Olmedo); The Dog in the Manger, El Perro Del Hortelano; and The Best Judge, The King/El Mejor Alcalde, El Rey.