A lone tree trunk, with spiky, bare branches, is the minimalist set. Immediately, I felt thrust into a landscape for Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, uninviting for Spanish hospitality. Yet that tree serves as a perfect symbol for what we see.
House lights fade to blue. Actors come down the aisles and climb the stage steps, as they gyrate jarring percussive instruments that whistle and whir odd clicking sounds. Birds twitter over our heads. Then an owl hoots, a dove coos– calls that linger.
This is the way Teatro De La Abadía, directed by José Luis Gómez, starts the reincarnation of three masterworks, The Cave of Salamanca, The Jealous Old Man, and The Marvelous Show of Figures, by world-famous Miguel de Cervantes, who wrote The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, a novel, sometimes identified simply as Don Quixote.
Last Tuesday night at the Iberian Suite festival at the Kennedy Center, three of Cervantes’ entremeses worked like a tonic for hilarity, with that desolate tree used as a prop for the actors to climb. And three gems from the Golden Age of Spanish Theatre, performed by a boisterous bunch of actors, proved to be joyous offshoots.
An entremese, or interlude, is a lively one-act send-up, performed during intermissions of a serious, classical play. Instead of noble characters, who speak only exalted, poetic language, an entremese uses ordinary people speaking everyday language. It’s like a Saturday Night Live send-up of 16th and 17th century social standards, the way people in Spain behaved behind proper facades.
Washington D.C.’s GALA Hispanic Theatre familiarized us in September, 2013. Cabaret Barroco: Interludes of Spain’s Golden Age, adapted and directed by Jose Luis Arellano Garcia, from Madrid, Spain, inspired bravura performances from local actors. But among the nine 17th century playwrights introduced to us, Cervantes was not included. Why? During his lifetime, Cervantes’ entremeses were perceived as more apt for reading than performing, and the author of Don Quixote fame never saw his interludes publically enacted.
The Kennedy Center Iberian Suite realized Cervantes’ dream and showed us how exuberantly performable and galvanizing these theatrical gems are. The Teatro de La Abadía, a company of charming, young Spanish actors project sheer, energetic joy in their singing and dancing to local folk songs, accompanied by ancient musical instruments. Their flamboyant, broad-gestured, slapstick acting, based on the Commedia dell’arte style, was contagious and fun.
Two selections focused on a familiar medieval, early Renaissance theme, that of the cuckolded husband. In The Cave of Salamanca/El Cuevo de Salamanca, the story of Pancracio and Leonarda follows the old adage: When the cat’s away; the mice will play.
Leonarda (Inma Nieto), the young, frustrated wife, is on the prowl as soon as her cruel, controlling husband, Pancracio (José Luis Torrijo) is out-of-sight. When her spouse is gone, Leonarda takes in a student from Salamanca, invites in her neighbors, and throws a lavish dinner party. Meanwhile, in front of the stage in the pit, Pancracio’s carriage breaks down and inclement weather (reinforced by reverberating tin for thunder) forces him to return home– too soon. “Hide them in the goat shed,” Leonarda cries, running around wildly.
But Pancracio ultimately discovers the concealed student, who pretends to be a conjurer to save himself. The guests all pitch into his bizarre act as devils, who magically produce the already gathered food and drink previously planned for their secret banquet. Pancracio, so superstitious, blinded by his belief in the occult, believes the student is an amazing magician.
This piece is a classic gem. But the way it’s depicted here by the Teatro de La Abadía actors, everything performed is organic. For example, Leonarda, the wife sings a native folk songs that seems relevant: “The candle with no wick lights no one’s way,” the euphemism for cuckoldry. And Leonarda achieves the wife’s hall of fame for participating in the cover-up that ends happily. Leonarda is saved from discovery. The foolish husband is so gullible he enjoys and participates in the banquet improvised to trick him.
The Jealous Old Man/El Viejo Celoso revolves around a similar theme and employs the most famous of all 17th century scenes of deceit. A crabby old man, wed to a young woman, is plagued by chronic jealousy. Cañizares (Luis Moreno), constantly complains that his spunky young wife, Doña Lorenza, (Elisabet Gelabert), will cheat on him. So she does just that.
To protect her chastity, the silly man locks his wife away behind seven locked doors. (Sound effects reproduce doors opening and slamming, like a theme song accompaniment.). Nonetheless, Lorenza and her resourceful neighbor use an embossed leather tapestry, decorated with lifelike depictions of celebrated knights, as a disguise to smuggle in a young man. A masquerade succeeds before the old man’s eyes. And clever women outwit their tyrannical husbands.
I most enjoyed Cervantes’ withering ridicule of a form of domestic abuse, in his day and age. The first two selections, La Cueva de Salamanca and El Viejo Celoso showed us how Cervantes paved the way for the modern emphasis on respect for women.
In contrast, The Marvelous Show of Figures/El Retablo de las Maravillas, seen in the context of political satire, came across as a more cautionary tale with uncomfortable overtones. The piece reminded me of Don Quixote’s charging windmills, that he mistakes for a four-armed giant monster.
The Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is about foolish people who are unable to see the world as it really is. After hiring a do-nothing, worthless tailor to stitch up a glorious outfit, the emperor, surrounded by fawning sycophants, is duped into believing he is wearing an elegant new outfit. Only an innocent child sees the naked truth, and says, “The emperor isn’t wearing anything at all.”
IBERIAN FESTIVAL: global arts remix
Includes 7 theatrical productions
March 3 – 24
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
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In Cervantes’ one-act, The Marvelous Show of Figures, two rogues claim that they can produce events that can only be seen by persons of “pure blood,” not by Moors or Jews or bastards. Teatro de La Abadía actors are cast as characters in the 17th century audience. They are lined up in chairs downstage, so we see their reactions. In a state of mass hysteria, the spectators imagine they are charged by a bull, flooded with a swarm of mice and a deluge of water. All but one are terrified to see that nothing is happening. Only one spectator has the courage to tell the truth. “I can see nothing. So I’ll have to pretend,” the honest man says in an aside. “I must be the only bastard here.” Everyone is keeping up appearances, living a lie, believing whatever is suggested. That is, until the no-nonsense quartermaster arrives from the army, the embodiment of hard core reality, who has to fight a war and exposes the rogues. Everything is illusion. There is nothing there.
The program notes reveal that Cervantes was ridiculing “the blood cleanliness” laws, that first appeared in 1449 and continued during the Reconquest and Inquisition. Thus, we see the exposure of anti-Semitism and prejudice that was a tragic part of Iberian history. The most disquieting of the three interludes, The Marvelous Show of Figures embodied Cervantes’ plea for tolerance and reasonableness.
Entremeses cycled around to the beginning, where the ten strolling players engagingly recited poetry, sang and danced. It’s an ending that elevates with poetic, imagery, exquisitely lovely, “Birds fall silent in murmuring trees…..” We are brought full cycle to the end of a day where the players, now exhausted, lean against the trunk of the branching tree in blue moonlight.
Bravo to these ten amazingly veratile players: Eduardo Aquirre de Cárcer, Diana Bernedo, Julio Cortázar, Miguel Cubero, Palmira Ferrar, Elisabet Gelabert, Javier Lara, Luis Moreno, Inma Nieto, and José Luis Torrijo that made up the Teatro de La Abadía company, now celebrating its Twentieth Anniversary. .
Overall, this was a thrilling debut that received a warm ovation from an enthusiastic American audience that filled the center section of The Terrace Theater. Cervantes would have glowed with pride at the recognition.
Entremeses was performed March 17 and 18, 2015
Entremeses, U.S. Premiere production by Miguel de Cervantes . Directed by José Luis Gómez . Produced by Teatro de La Abadía . Presented by the Iberian Suite festival at the Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.