at the Viaduct Theater
In our age of caution and half gestures, the stage too is dominated by fear, inhibition, and ambivalence. Modern plays revolve around characters who spend much of their time screwing up the courage to act or trying to sort out a mass of conflicting feelings. Even David Mamet's men, for all their loud, testosterone-poisoned talk, are afraid of losing their jobs, their houses, their cozy lives. If they're motivated at all, it's by the desire to do the deed, complete the deal, make the quick buck, and move on.
Early-20th-century Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca could hardly be more out of step with our time. He loved strong feelings, action, the expression of primal urges. His plays are filled with people who yearn, who hate, who smolder for years and then suddenly ignite, who love with an intensity that overwhelms them. When he does turn his attention to repressed feelings--as in his last play, The House of Bernarda Alba, about marriageable women locked in the house by their disturbed mother--Lorca's heart is clearly not with the characters who submit to their mother's whim but with those who rebel against their imprisonment.
At the center of Lorca's 1933 Blood Wedding are two thwarted lovers, a headstrong bride-to-be and her former suitor, now married to her drab cousin. On the eve of the Bride's wedding, she and her ex-lover discover they still burn for each other and run off together. No one around them has any sympathy for their plight. The Bride's father dreams of her betrothed's land, and her future mother-in-law is too consumed by hate for the men who killed her husband and oldest son many years ago to notice what's going on now.
Lorca's tight focus on emotions rather than the psychological or sociological reasons for them makes this work as refreshing as a full night of dreams. A lifelong devotee of Freud strongly influenced by his surrealist buddies Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, Lorca loathed realism and filled his plays with the fantastic imagery and wish fulfillment of dreams. His early short plays are bizarre little theatrical experiments, mixtures of poetry, drama, and song that might move, provoke, or amuse but seldom make a lot of sense. Soon after he began touring Spain with his own small theater company, however, performing classic works by 17th-century Spanish playwrights Lope de Vega and Pedro Calderon de la Barca, Lorca's own plays became more traditional in shape and length.
Blood Wedding was the first of three attempts Lorca made to pour his vision into the form of a three-act tragedy, the other two being Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba, all set in the desolate plains and lonely villages of Andalusia. Using a strict definition of tragedy, Lorca's forays into the form are only half-successful. For one thing, he seems to aim for archetypal rather than individual characters, giving all but one of those in Blood Wedding generic names: the Bride, the Bridegroom, the Mother. The exception is Leonardo, the Bride's former suitor--who turns out to be a pivotal character and the first of the bunch to throw off his social role. But despite their names, the characters in Blood Wedding are sufficiently vivid to be tragic figures.
On the other hand, where traditional tragic heroes are trapped by their fates, Lorca's hero and heroine in Blood Wedding are liberated by theirs. The desperate flight inspired by their love redeems them from the dreary world of the Bride's land-hungry father and Leonardo's clinging, needy, sour wife. This in turn blunts the intended tragic conclusion. Yes, the play ends in death--but Leonardo's death seems a fair trade for a night of love, to paraphrase his own words. The Bridegroom also dies, and his death seems pointless. But then so does his life, dominated as it is by hard work and crushed feelings. The world of Blood Wedding seems more sad than tragic--which is itself a sort of tragedy, though it's untraditional.
Moreover, Lorca regularly breaks the rules of storytelling--yet his plays remain compelling. When the lovers have run off and we're eager to learn their fate, he interrupts the action with a series of soliloquies delivered by Death (disguised as a beggar woman) and the Moon. These moments in particular annoyed New York critics to no end when the play premiered in America in 1935. But in a sensitive, intelligent production like this one by the Hypocrites, these scenes are moving as well as strange.
Director Sean Graney has always made good choices, coaxing great drama from difficult texts. Even when he's tackled something nonsensical, like Sam Shepard's crazy one-act Action, he manages to find the right cast and the right rhythms and moods to transform words on the page into theater. And when he's given something great, like Blood Wedding, the result is gold.
It helps that Graney has chosen poet Ted Hughes's translation, being given its U.S. premiere here. Though some have knocked it for being colorless, its lack of pretension is one of its virtues. Hughes could have clotted Lorca's dialogue with lots of poetic imagery, but that would have thwarted the playwright's intent: an accomplished poet himself, Lorca here seems more interested in the direct expression of feelings than in making beautiful word knots. (He did plenty of that in earlier plays.) Emphasizing clarity, Hughes falls into none of the traps that make previous English translations of Blood Wedding arty, stilted, or opaque. Even the Moon's monologue sounds restrained, making it more effective.
Graney has chosen his cast as carefully as he has the translation. Donna McGough, all gristle and tendons, is utterly convincing as the bitter Mother. And Dana Green is a remarkable Bride, playing her as a full-grown woman entirely aware of her overwhelming feelings and of the rules she's breaking when she flees her wedding. Steve Wilson's Leonardo is wonderful, as common and downtrodden as a squashed cabbage at first. Only when he sees the Bride again, and his former feelings well up, does he become heroic.
The real secret of Graney's direction, however, is the cast's delivery. The play's comic moments--there are a number of remarkably funny scenes--are humorous without derailing the essential seriousness. And the script's highly charged speeches are performed with an understated grace that rules out melodrama.
This is not to say the Hypocrites' production lacks emotion. From the first moments, when the Bridegroom's mother rails against her lot as a widow who watched one of her sons die, we feel in the pit of our stomachs every twist and turn of Lorca's emotional roller coaster. In the end we feel--and feel deeply--not for the lover who's died but for those who survive and believe their half-lived lives are enough.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Margaret Lakin.