Monday, June 30, 2008

Fuente Ovejuna Cast Triumphs

Colin Hunter (The Record) reviews Fuente Ovejuna:

"At first blush, the word 'tragicomedy' rings of an oxymoron -- a mashing together of two terms that couldn't be more different in meaning. How can a tragedy be funny or a comedy tragic?

"The answer is that real life is rarely so black and white, never so easily categorized.

"So when a great work of theatre imitates real life, it captures every dynamic of the human condition -- comedy, tragedy and all points in between.

"A great work of theatre is precisely what the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has created with Fuente Ovejuna, a tragicomedy in the truest sense.

"The play, which opened Friday at the Tom Patterson Theatre, is an emotionally exhausting journey that in quick succession delights, horrifies, enlightens, repulses and tickles the audience.

"Fuente Ovejuna is especially impressive because it is an underdog on Stratford's 2008 playbill -- an obscure, rarely performed historical play set in 15th century rural Spain. As such, it is bound to be a tough sell in Stratford, where Shakespeare and glitzy musicals carry the most box office freight.

"Spanish playwright Lope de Vega was a contemporary of Shakespeare's, and while not as canonized as the Bard, he was far more prolific. Lope is believed to have penned as many as 1,500 plays in his lifetime -- an output that justifiably earned him the nickname the 'Monster of Nature.'

"Fuente Ovejuna is regarded as one of Lope's best, and the Stratford production leaves little question as to why.

"On the sparse stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre, a 30-member cast -- guided by British director Laurence Boswell in his Stratford debut -- brings to life Lope's true tale of terror and revenge in a small town.

"The story unfolds in the impoverished village of Fuente Ovejuna, a real Spanish hamlet whose name means 'Sheep Fountain.' The town's name is both fitting and ironic, given the collective thinking that leads the townsfolk to a bloody conflict.

"The villagers are oppressed by a tyrannical military commander, Fernan Gomez de Guzman, whose brutal treatment of men and lecherous advances on women 'are ripping the heart right out' of the town.

"When Guzman crashes a wedding to abduct the bride-to-be as his own concubine, the enraged villagers conspire their revenge.

"On paper, the story sounds like a pure tragedy, but in execution the play is doubly affecting because it is punctuated with sudden bursts of wit, wordplay and even slapstick. Just as you're about to dab a teary eye, some gag inspires an unexpected belly laugh.

"In the hands of a lesser cast, such a play could wind up emotionally lopsided, erring either on the side of laughs or sobs. But anchored by masterful performances by Sara Topham, Scott Wentworth, James Blendick and others, this production delivers on all fronts.

"Topham is gut-wrenchingly powerful as Laurencia, the maiden who galvanizes her townsfolk to rise up against Guzman after he beats and rapes her. Blendick is the ideal choice as Laurencia's father -- a kind, gentle man who is pushed to violence in defence of his family and his town.

"And Wentworth is perfectly despicable as Guzman, the megalomaniacal tyrant. The character is evil, but in Wentworth's chilling portrayal he is also all-too-human.

"Fuente Ovejuna is no simple morality play; the protagonists are also vigilantes, the antagonist is their victim. It's a harrowing story that, in the exceedingly capable hands of the Stratford cast, inspires questions about loyalty, love, honour and justice.

"It's said there's a fine line between comedy and tragedy. Fuente Ovejuna deftly navigates both sides of that line without a single misstep."

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