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Blood Wedding

Lost in Translation

Federico García Lorca was by all accounts a complex, gifted, but deeply troubled character. Like Rimbaud and other hardcore romantics, his flamboyant and brief life (he was executed by Nationalist Fascist troops at the age of 38) still allowed him plenty of time to churn out enough poetry and plays to earn a spot in the pantheon of Western Art. He was also an accomplished pianist, painter, and composer. "Blood Wedding" is the first of his best-known plays in his “rural trilogy”; the others are "Yerma" and "La casa de Bernarda Alba", and is a vehicle for his “Theory of Duende” -- that “great art depends upon a vivid awareness of death, connection with a nation's soil, and an acknowledgment of the limitations of reason,” (or something like that).

Duende as an existential conceit is inextricably Spanish. One feels it, but stumbles trying to define it, although Lorca seems to have expended some effort in doing so. I know the term from my guitar teacher and mentor Guy Horn, who spent a good part of his life in Spain, playing and listening to music. For me, true flamenco is saturated in duende -- maybe that’s all you need to say about it by way of definition. In the program notes for the Shotgun Players production of "Blood Wedding", Turkish-born director Evren Odcikin writes that the play cannot be performed without duende, and that “one cannot achieve duende without flamenco.” Fair enough.

The play deals with the classic Troubadour theme of impossible Romantic love, in this case between a young bride-to-be and the husband of her cousin. Leonardo. The Bride (in the play, strangely, only Leonardo has a name) is promised to a nice young man from a good family, whose mother has lost her other son and her husband to violence that seems to have stemmed from either vicious political machinations or rural clan feuds (or both).

With the exception of the Groom, who is blissful and clueless until it’s no longer possible to be, none of the characters are particularly happy people; the bride is hideously conflicted about the upcoming marriage, the Groom’s mother (la Madre) is paralyzed by fear of the loss of her remaining son and poisoned by hatred for the family of Leonardo, and Leonardo himself is an irritable, imperious vision of a man possessed, riding his noble steed to death all night just to catch a glimpse of the object of his desire. In the end, everyone’s either miserable or dead, so it’s your basic telenovella, sin television.

The set, musical narration (with solo flamenco guitar by David McLean), and original music and choreography, by Mr. McLean and Yaelisa, are all nicely executed. However, the performances are uneven: Scarlett Hepworth as the Mother and Dawn Scott as Leonardo’s wife and the Moon, steal the show. Ms. Hepworth manages to work past the script and project the full image of a mournful, domineering Spanish matriarch. Ms. Scott’s wife is strong and dutiful, but ultimately no match for her foaming-at-the-mouth husband’s obsession. Her Moon is the best thing in the play -- she’s a raging, sensual, elegant apparition in white silk, with the fluidity and grace of Lorca’s best lines.

The two romantic leads, Leonardo, played by John-Paul Goorjian, and the Bride, played by Erin Gilley, are robotic and stiff, without a wisp of sensuality in their fatalistic passion, despite decidedly heated and prolonged stage kissing, rolling around and parental-discretion-advised level physical contact. It’s very difficult to care about Ms. Gilley’s whiny, breathless Victorian doll wimp of a Bride, or Mr. Goorjian’s scowling, one dimensional, arid Leonardo. The other actors turn in credible performances, but fail to inspire.

There are other minor problems with the production, like sporadic out of tune singing and guitar playing. Even worse, and most unfortunately, there’s a general absence of duende. Mr. McLean’s playing is quite lovely at times, and I really liked the role of the guitar as narrator. But he never really gets down to it. Maybe he was having an off night. There are a few moments during the play when you catch glimmers of what duende might feel like when it arrives (such as the piquant, shimmering duet between the two girls), but it never really does.

I’m afraid that the real problem with this production is the adaptation and translation of the text. According to Mr. Odcikin, he based his script on an English translation by Michael Dewell and Carmen Zapata, who evidently have a “unique talent for winnowing down Lorca’s stylistic adornments and converting the playwright’s purple prose into stylish stanzas.” He also claims to have “siphoned off much of the melodramatic dialogue.” You could have fooled me. The dialog was soggy with melodrama, deep purple with over-the-top lines (e.g. “ hands were wet with his blood and I licked them because it was mine..”), and sluggish with flat delivery. There were a few scenes in which Lorca’s poetry shines through, even in English, with lines like “fish without scales or river” (referring to the “little knife” by which men die).

But the whole thing just doesn’t seem, well, Spanish enough, and the second act drags tediously to the bitter end. There are only two Spanish words I remember in the script, each potent with meaning. One is mantilla, the black lace shroud worn by the mother, and the ultimate symbol of stoic Spanish womanhood. The other is venga (come), uttered by Leonardo as he faces the Groom, knives in hand, as they begin their deadly duel. In each case, I was so surprised by the expressive power of the language that I instantly wanted to hear more Spanish words. Lorca’s poetry is very beautiful in the original Spanish.

Which brings us to a difficult question, that of the adaptability of flamenco on the one hand, and of Lorca on the other. I won’t debate either at length, but I do wonder how flamenco can evolve as an art form. You might wonder whether classical art forms can evolve. There have been a few artists in recent decades that have successfully combined flamenco with other musical influences. Cuban and Brazilian music are both significantly influences by flamenco. But in its purest form, the stuff with the most duende, flamenco seems to resist dilution- maybe that’s a good thing.

I don’t fault the director for presenting "Blood Wedding" as a flamenco piece -- that’s a natural pairing. The flamenco choreography is successful and does much to heighten the character’s expression. But sadly, the whole effect seems to me to be seriously marred by messing with the English script, and probably also by doing it in English. I’m sure I would have much preferred the unadulterated Spanish version, with all the “purple prose” and excess that the director thought would offend our American sensibilities. Mas duende, menos mitigación -- that’s my final answer.

Blood Wedding
at the Ashby Stage
runs through April 22
tickets: $17-25