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LETTERS TO EDITOR
By Brad Bradley
The National Asian American Theatre Company makes a welcome return to Manhattan's smaller stages with its arresting approach to a relatively unknown play by Lope De Vega called Fuenteovejuna. As adapted by NAATCO artistic director Mia Katigbak and directed by iconoclastic director David Herskovits (of Target Margin Theater), the play seems more like a concoction of Bert Brecht than a 17th century sample of the Spanish Golden Age. Given Herskovits' Brechtian approach in which the audience frequently is invited to suspend its concern for the play's characters, sharing the press release giveaway of the plot outcome is not inappropriate here. It states that the "citizens of the small garrison town Fuenteovejuna revolt against the aristocrat commander who commits a heinous crime. But while his murder restores the town's honor, it leads to an investigation from the royal court. In the ensuing pressure from their inquisitors to reveal who killed the commander, the townspeople's only response is, "Fuenteovejuna did it."
Much happens onstage even before this spirited production begins, easily establishing a community atmosphere and the apparent zest for living of the townspeople, perhaps twice-two-often described as "peasants." The knowledge received much later that the town's name means "fountain of sheep" seems both apt and ironic, for while the townspeople are able to function in uniform passivity when required, they otherwise seem highly individualized and often independent characters.
The core of Sarah Lambert's effective set design is an undecorated open frame network with suspended flexible curtains (intentionally there has been no attempt to disguise to their normal placement in a modern shower stall). This design approach gives the small stage amazing dimension and a dynamic spacial variety. The entire cast of nineteen is seen throughout the uninterrupted performance, seated at the stage's extremes including even the front row of the house when not in the scene. Visually, the company is imaginatively but weirdly attired: a bizarre assortment of costume pieces support the Brechtian demand for audience detachment. Jackets are cut horizontally at the halfway point, and anachronisms such as a Mickey Mouse tie are boldly worn. Ultimately puzzling, however, are the cast's charcoal-darkened lower arms and hands. Perhaps their muddied limbs intend to convey a humble connection to the soil, but they provide more of a puzzlement than atmospheric enhancement.
As in Brecht, musical diversions are interpolated into the action. A musical background along with assorted sound effects add to the rustic sound environment. A bell rings from time to time, apparently to change the audience's mental focus.
As Laurencia, the Mayor's daughter, a young woman who "needs to be taught," Lydia Gaston is a standout as the heroine and chief woman abused by Commander Gomez, that conventional villain played with distinction and nuance by the forcefully appealing C. S. Lee. His competition, the youth Frondoso is Joel de la Fuente, a striking performer himself with unflagging stage presence, certainly more than suitable for the romantic lead in the just opened Flower Drum Song.
Director Herskovits has coached his players to perfect ensemble coordination, with the group behavior richly supportive of the principal players. Ample featured moments are provided for virtually every member of the large and impressive company. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella make regal appearances to aid the story's conclusion towards mercy for this humble village, and Pun Bandhu as Ferdinand is especially compelling in his brief appearances. The story's necessary violence has been so stylized as to be more provocative than disturbing.
The play's short run is unfortunate. This production should be a natural to tour, if an educational circuit booking were considered. In the hands of NAATCO, the classics surely are safe for audiences new and old. Its multi-racial approach to established material is welcome and convincing.
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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