Saturday, August 23, 2008

Fuente Ovejuna

Unless you’re a theatre scholar — or you took Dr. Delmar Solem’s theatre history classes at the University of Miami — you probably never heard of the plays of Spanish playwright Lope de Vega (1562-1635). But this contemporary of Shakespeare was probably the most prolific playwright in history, cranking out over 1,500 full-length plays, with about 450 still extant. Compared to Shakespeare — and Lope de Vega is often called the Spanish Shakespeare — the bard of Stratford-upon-Avon is a piker with his mere 37 plays.

The best-known work of Lope de Vega is Fuente Ovejuna. As Dr. Solem explained to me, the title translates literally as “The Sheep Well,” but the play is not about a hole in the ground where sheep drink. It is a small town in Spain, and Lope de Vega wrote this play relating an actual event that occurred there in 1476.

While under the command of the Order of Calatrava, a commander, Fernán Gómez de Guzmán, mistreated the villagers, who banded together and killed him. When a magistrate sent by King Ferdinand II of Aragon arrived at the village to investigate, the villagers, even under the pain of torture, responded only by saying “Fuente Ovejuna did it.”

That sums up the plot neatly, but in the new translation by Lawrence Boswell, the play explores much more than just a village rising up against tyranny. It explores the people’s view of their status in Spanish society, the role of women in that time and their stature, and the intense feeling of community that brings these common folk together to stand up for themselves.

I must admit that when I first read the play, over thirty years ago in a translation that did its best to convey the language of the time, I didn’t find it any of those. But in this production at Stratford’s Tom Patterson Theatre (a converted curling rink) Mr. Boswell has done a masterful job of finding nuances in words and characters that surely must have been intended by the playwright. The villagers are as multidimensional as Shakespeare’s characters, and the plot, while complicated by the politics of the time, moves along smartly, never taking your eye off the real story, and that is how the people of this benighted village respond to their mistreatment at the hands of their government. There are powerful performances by James Blendick as the mayor of the village, Sara Topham as his daughter Laurencia, who is abused by the Commander (the wonderfully villainous Scott Wentworth), and Jonathan Goad as the peasant who initiates the confrontation by having the nerve to stand up to the Commander by protecting Laurencia’s virtue. Robert Persichini does a wonderful job as Mengo, the shepherd, who provides both comic relief and the brutal truth in the role of the classic clown.

This play, as the villagers state under threat of torture, is not about them as much as it is about the sense of community: “Fuente Ovejuna did it.” There is a populism to this drama, and where Shakespeare enlightens us and delves deeply into the human character, Lope de Vega shows us those human characters working together as one. (Shakespeare did not write a play with only the name of a town in the title and turn it into the main character, and no, “Hamlet” doesn’t count.) Fuene Ovejuna is the main character in this play, and yet we never forget that there people who live there.