John Coulbourn (Sun Media) gives Fuente Ovejuna four out of five stars:
"It could be described in its way as a kitchen-sink drama, written in the days before there were kitchen sinks.
"The play is called Fuente Ovejuna and it was written by Lope de Vega, a Spanish contemporary of Shakespeare and it opened on the stage of the Stratford Festival's Tom Patterson Theatre Saturday, in a new translation by Britain's Laurence Boswell, who also directs.
"And it's an interesting bit of work, at least from a scholarly point of view, in that, unlike most of Shakespeare's history plays, it tells the story of great events, not from the top down, from the point of view of the kings and potentates, but rather from the bottom up, the more prosaic viewpoint of the common man instead.
"The play shares its name with a little town in Spain where, in the time of Ferdinand and Isabella, history tells us the local peasantry rose, en masse, and transformed their local overlord, an officer with a Spanish order of religious knights, into the Spanish equivalent of chopped liver.
"The reason for this rather un-neighbourly behaviour, it would seem, was not an early manifestation of the revolutions that would sweep Europe in later centuries, but rather a simple desire to put a stop to the depredations of a nobleman who was, in fact, anything but noble.
"Set in the village of title (which translates along the order of 'the spring of water for sheep'), Fuente Ovejuna introduces us to the story through the peasantry involved, first establishing a nascent romance between fair Laurencia (played by Sara Topham) -- daughter of the village elder (James Blendick) -- and the brave Frondoso (Jonathan Goad).
"It also introduces us to the evil Commander Guzman (Scott Wentworth in delicious villain mode) and his henchman, soldiers who spend their time either fighting against Ferdinand's and Isabella's forces or pillaging the countryside around Fuente Ovejuna and raping the women or bringing them home so their boss can do it for them.
"But when the commander encounters Laurencia and sets more than his cap for her, Frondoso intervenes, saving his sweetheart but unleashing the vengeance of the evil Gomez on the community -- a vengeance so terrible that the citizenry is forced finally to rise up to stop it.
"Stopping it comes at a price, however -- and when authorities arrive determined to exact that price, the villagers find a unique way to thwart them.
"Even in the hands of a friendly translator, which Boswell most certainly is, one is forced to conclude that Fuente Ovejuna is all but unstageable for a modern audience, filled as it is with dialogue more friendly to eye than ear, and freighted with enough dated melodrama to float an entire armada.
"But one is also forced to celebrate the fact that Boswell, in his role as director, fails to notice such flaws and manages to produce what proves to be an odd, but oddly compelling piece of theatre.
"In this, he has the full complicity of an excellent cast, with Severn Thompson, Nigel Shawn Williams, David W. Keeley, Stephen Russell, Geraint Wyn Davies, Seana McKenna and, most particularly a high-flying Robert Persichini teaming up in support of the superbly cast principals.
"Working on a simple but effective stage, designed by Peter Hartwell and lit by Michael J. Whitfield, Boswell has encouraged this fine cast to think their way through de Vega's tale as much as act their way through, using the choreography of Nicola Pantin and the music of Edward Henderson for both ornamentation and occasional dramatic camouflage.
"The end product is a simple story, told with heart, spirit and finally intelligence, a story that instead of pretending to greatness, finds its strength, its heart and its deep appeal in the simplicity in which it was born. "