The GALA Hispanic Theatre has launched its 37th season with a bracing, not-to-be-missed U.S. premiere of a comic masterpiece by Agustin Moreto, a Spanish Catholic priest and contemporary of Lope de Vega and Calderon de la Barca during Spain’s 17th century Golden Age.El Desdén con el desdén (literally “Disdain with Disdain”) is heady, magnificent time-travel. I highly recommend the trip. Rarely do production values and ensemble acting mesh so beautifully.
Playwright Agustin Moreto, who was upstaged by the more prolific Lope de Vega, was highly respected in his time for his metaphoric language, that blended images of sexuality with spiritual love, the secular with the sacred. What makes this play, set in 1654, work so well are the conceits, or poetic images of fruits and vegetables, such as grapes and green figs, that become extended metaphors for an aloof woman. Boys throw stones to hit the hanging fruit. But fruit, like a woman, won’t fall until ripe. Allegorical images like this are repeated throughout and unify the text like a musical composition.
But what is surprising is that Moreto’s characters come across as real human beings, with psychological depth, while using wit with maximum power. Two sophisticated, headstrong young lovers, who affectionately hate each other, get into a word war and fall passionately in love. The lovers, who are caught up in a competitive game of one-up-on-the-other, delve deeply, philosophically into the nature of love, until they realize they are kindred souls. What adds dramatic tension and makes the action breathlessly exciting is we’re never sure what the characters really feel until they share confidences in the presence of eavesdroppers, or asides with us in the audience.
It’s important to note that excellent program notes disclose the entire plot so you know the end before the play begins. It’s like a story from Shakespeare or an opera by Mozart. Knowing helps without hurting enjoyment.
Seamlessly directed by Hugo Medrano, a quick-paced first scene is where we get a glimpse of the reality behind an illusion of harmony. Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden’s economic but gorgeous Baroque set, with Doric pillars and arches framing Cupid and Venus tapestry backdrops, conjures up an era of mock-heroic grandeur. The Count of Ugel, Carlos, appears to vacillate between moods of cold disdain and committed passion. The actor, Ignacio Garcia-Bustelo, a New York actor from Spain, who debuts at the GALA, strips Carlos of all pretense by whipping off tunic and breeches and taking a bath on stage in a claw-foot tub. While bathing, Carlos comes clean by confessing his deep love for Princess Diana (Natalia Miranda-Guzman), to his gracioso, (or servant), Polilla (Moth in Spanish), played with riveting physicality by Antonio Vargas. It’s a wonderfully unexpected revelation at the start.
Garcia-Bistelo, as Carlos, projects a virile presence and tantalizing emotional levels while delivering an impassioned soliloquy about winning tournaments and falling hopelessly in love with this lady, who zaps him with scorn. So guided by Polilla’s advice, Carlos schemes up a trick to hide the truth behind lies. If Diana refuses love, then Carlos will get one up on her by pretending to refuse to be loved.
Sparks fly between the actors. Beguiling Natalia Miranda-Guzman, who is all heat under ice, plays to the hilt Diana’s refusal to love. A Renaissance lady is supposed to be friendly and gracious to all suitors. And to be labeled Lady Disdain is a huge insult. In actuality, Diana is attracted to Carlos, but, based on the classics she’s read, believes any form of love invites suffering. Plus, she’s terrified of arranged marriages, dictated by a patriarchal society. So she treats all men badly.
And that includes Carlos’ competitors: Prince Bearne, played by GALA company member Carlos Castillo with sweeping flamboyance. The same goes for Count Fox, impersonated by actor Ricardo Navas. And Diana’s befuddled father, the Count of Barcelona, who longs for an heir, is played flamboyantly and soulfully by Manolo Santalla. But what is truly intriguing in this 17th century world is the freedom of choice Diana has in her selection of dancing partner. Diana is the behind-the-scene manipulator, as evidenced from the delightful ribbon-choice scene before the Carnival.
Miranda-Guzman as Princess Diana creates a bewitching blend of controlled sweeping gesture and steely reserve, sparked by fiery outburst. Through the actresses’ icy aloofness, warm flickers of smiles shine through, that tell us Diana is also a schemer, full of tricky maneuvers. When Diana trades barbs with Carlos, Miranda-Guzman is having a wonderful time, relishing every minute. That is, until her pretense goes too far, jealousy kicks in, and mutual disdain almost backfires. The lovers almost go off with the wrong people. And Miranda-Guzman’s performance builds to a climax that is heart-rending and hits us in the solar-plexus.
But it’s Anthony Vargas’ spellbinding portrayal of Polilla, the Moth, who flits between Carlos and Diana, and uses terms for card games, fencing and hunting to comment on the battle of the sexes. Polilla is the shaker and mover in the play, the exuberant eavesdropper, the informer and co-conspirator, who propels the plot forward and makes the pieces fit, as if in a puzzle. A wise fool, who does what a prince can’t do, creates chaos and mischief, like an invisible Puck. Polilla can eat into Diana’s head and heart, until she confides in him as a love doctor, one of his guises. Then, like the Moth that he really is, he can fly back to his master, Carlos, with sound advice, such as, “There’s no better drug for a crazy woman than a dose of disdain.”
El Desdén con el desdén or In Spite of Love
Closes October 7, 2012
GALA Hispanic Theatre
3333 14th Street, NW
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $26 – $40
Thursdays thru Sundays
The deceptions and conflicts that evolve are reinforced and clarified by costume designer Alicia Tessari Neiman. Lush flowing dresses and feathery caps are organically connected to the play’s characters. For example: All three ladies of the court, who are dressed in warm hues, express openness to romantic love. The character Cintia is played with outgoing warmth by Lorena Sabogal. Laura is depicted with saucy verve and bounce by Belen Oyola-Rebaza. And Fenisa, by Cecilia De Feo, who has a lovely singing voice, sings sweet love ballads. Yet, Diana, in ruffed collar and black veils, as if she is a nun, stands out in stark isolation. Her gradual transformation is exemplified in outward costuming. In the next scene she’s in virginal white, draped with sweeping silvery overlay. Ultimately, she emerges pert and majestic, in shades of pink and peach, hooped warm pink skirts, like an elegant Valesquez Infanta portrait. And in still more marked contrast to Diana, the cavaliers, including Carlos, wear deep shades of scarlet red and maroon, brocaded doublets, plumed hats, in keeping with the Renaissance code to be elegant and witty at all times and never to stray from the golden mean.
Behzad Habibzai’s performance of guitar interludes serve as shields for scene changes. And Heather McKay’s translated sur-titles in easy-to-understand, modern English are conveniently placed at each side of the stage.
El Desdén con el desdén at first pass appears to be a clone of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (or Noting, the Elizabethan word for eavesdropping). Moreto, born in 1618, lived after Shakespeare, who died in 1616. Rather than imitating the great British playwright, it’s possible that Moreto fell under the spell of similar Italian sources that Lope de Vega also used, such as Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso.
El Desdén con el desdén or In Spite of Love, stands on its own as a neglected but worthy classic. Scorn works wonders and we don’t want the love-war to end. And that’s the spite behind In Spite of Love.
El Desdén con el desdén/In Spite of Love by Agustin Moreto, directed by Hugo Medrano, by Agustin Moreto. Directed by Hugo Medrano; Featuring Ricardo Navas, Belen Oyola-Rebaza and Cecilia De Feo. lighting, Joseph R. Walls; sound, Brendon Vierra; properties, Tessa Grippaudo; music selection and arrangements, Mariano Vales; choreography, Lourdes Elias. In Spanish with modern English surtitles by Heather McKay (English translation, Heather McKay). Produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre, reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.