Chicago Theater Review: FUENTE OVEJUNA (City Lit)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 14, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


If it didn’t actually happen, this play would not be believed. Its climax soars as, tortured by the Inquisition to reveal the murderer of the evil-doing Commander of Calatrava, 300 villagers declared that it was Fuenteovejuna — not a person but their town that struck the blow for freedom.

Their defiance, reminiscent of the captured rebel slaves who proclaimed “I am Spartacus,” inspired the most vivid work by Lope de Vega, master playwright from Spain’s “Golden Age” of theater. (A prolific writer and sedulous womanizer, he supposedly wrote an average of two plays a week!) Fuente Ovejuna premiered in Madrid exactly 400 years ago and was last seen in Chicago at Court Theater with Denis O’Hare as a reluctantly courageous villager.

Now strenuously revived by City Lit Theater in an adaptation by director Terry McCabe from a translation by Stanley Appelbaum, Fuente Ovejuna is a concentrated, fast-moving, mini-epic that, at three acts, runs only 80 minutes including one intermission.

Best of all, it very much plays into the present.

The action rushes to reveal the dynamics behind this hamlet’s sterling heroism. It’s 1476 and the town finds itself caught up in a dynastic rivalry between Alfonso, King of Portugal, maliciously meddling (like Russia with the U.S.) in the fortunes of a recently united Catholic Spain. Newly nationalist, Spain’s patriots, are inspired by Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile who will ultimately reconquer the peninsula from the Moorish occupation. Accordingly, they deeply resent this Iberian interference.

But the embattled burg of Fuente Ovejuna has more particular problems, namely the 20-year-old sexual monster Fernan Gomez de Guzman (Varris Holmes). This fiend is the commander and protector of the boyish Rodrigo Tellez Giron (Daniel Pass), Master of Calatrava and secretly in league with his relatives among the Portuguese royal family.

Fernan, a monster of a military governor, has seduced, abused, harassed and raped the town’s women. His dirtiest designs are directed against Laurencia (Carolyn Plurad), the mayor’s daughter, in love with and engaged to Frondoso (Brian Bradford), a bold peasant lad.

Fernan goads the locals with arbitrary arrests, his minions reviling the townsfolk as “livestock.” The misogynist pig doggedly pursues the valiant Frondoso, especially after Laurencia’s lover dares to train a crossbow on him. It’s then that the townsfolk, sick of his insolent oppression, dare to take a stand, urged on by the fiery Laurencia in a proto-feminist denunciation worthy of Lysistrata.

De Vega orchestrates the escalation with aplomb, setting in motion a seemingly irresistible force against an immovable object. It all peaks with Fuente Ovejuna’s astonishing refusal to name Fernan’s executioner, a profile in courage — from boys as much as grownups — that rings down the centuries, the #Me Too movement four centuries ahead of its time. (It also wins a pardon for the town from Ferdinand and Isabella.) The dramatist also includes a merry debate about the selfishness of love and some commentary on the possible effects of Gutenberg’s new printing press on writing.

Jeremy Hollis’s evocative set, the colonnaded corner of the town plaza, complete with fountain, melds well with Beth Laske-Miller’s sumptuous medieval costumes. A tad less authentic, the performances on opening night suffered from a certain declamatory stiffness that unfortunately reinforced rather than reduced the melodramatic excesses of this passionate play.

Nonetheless, proudly declaring herself a modern Amazon warrior, Plurad’s ardent Laurencia is Mulan and more, a gypsy whose sense of “honor” is as proud and implacable as any Spanish hidalgo. Similarly engaging are Bradford’s chivalric Frondoso, Kristen Alesia as Laurencia’s loyal confidante, Val Gerard Garcia, Jr.’s comic-relieving scrapper Mengo, and Rob Grabowski’s bumbling but determined mayor. Each gets to shine in the sun.

Unfortunately, Holmes’s cartoon-like villain Fernan, however loathsome his stage behavior, doesn’t pack the gravitas to make us hate him enough to relish his ghastly downfall. Better at sheer nastiness is Ty Carter as a rapacious captain.

No question, the occasionally wooden performances on opening afternoon will catch fire well before the run is over. And then this old play will gain a new urgency as Fernan morphs into Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey and Donald Trump, while Laurencia becomes the once and future feminist galore.

photos by Steve Graue

Fuente Ovejuna
City Lit
Edgewater Presbyterian Church, 1020 West Bryn Mawr Ave.
Fri and Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3
ends on February 17, 2019
for tickets, call 773.293.3682 or visit City Lit

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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