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Saturday, 08 October 2011 15:40

'Blood Wedding' - a strong effort which falls short

Written by Dennis Corcoran
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Blood Wedding, the best known play by arguably the greatest Spanish dramatist of the 20th Century, is very big – a highly dramatic, highly stylized, epic tragedy.  In fact, it proved too big for Upstream Theater whose opening night effort, while laudable, fell short of filling the play’s vast canvas of human emotion.

 

For me, this was a must-see piece of dramatic literature.  It was penned by Federico Garcia Lorca in 1932, a famous Spanish poet, dramatist, teacher and theatre director.  Those were tumultuous days in Spain. Political forces tore at the fabric of a society soon to convulse into civil war.  Lorca was not only one of his nation’s brightest literary lights but he was a liberal and gay – outspoken and not willing to knuckle under to the right-wing pressures being brought to bear in all strata of Spanish society. 

It was never proven, but most suspect those were the reasons for his disappearance and presumed assassination in 1936 at the hands of the soon-to-be fascist rulers of Spain. 

Lorca’s personal story is compelling but, alone, doesn’t make for fine literature.  He also had gifts: dramatic vision; a personal feel for the life, both noble and tragic, of rural Spain; and a spirit which allowed him to pen deep wells of sensuality, sorrow, power, and determination, all within a uniquely Spanish ethos. 

The story of Blood Wedding is deceptively simple.  Boy meets girl.  Boy loves girl.  Girl loves another, married man.  To honor her father’s wishes, she marries but soon runs off with her first love.  The “sinners” are hunted down in the forest at night by the bridegroom where, betrayed by the moon, they are found and both men die in combat.  All who remain alive must now forever deal with the sorrow, pain and unrequited hope for a different life which lay before them.

It isn’t the story, per se, which makes Blood Wedding such a powerful and dramatic piece of literature.  Rather, it is the culture and the archetypes of cultural manifestation inherent in the play which make it epic.  And this is where Upstream Theater, in spite of several interesting and moving scenes, fell short.

The acting, overall, lacked the power and soul I expected to see on stage.  True, there were strong moments, especially toward the end of the play, when it seemed the ensemble finally began to feel the haunting silent rhythms which pulse through Lorca’s words.  Linda Kennedy, who played the neighbor, the servant, the beggar and death, was the most consistently strong performer on the evening.  And while she, too, at times, seemed flat and uninspired, her portrayal of the beggar and death toward the end of the play gave a glimpse into what I think Lorca was trying to portray – not just words, but haunting, atmospheric, painful, sensual pictures of the human condition.

Some of the acting was, frankly, disappointing.  Peter Mayer, playing the father and moon, seemed emotively stunted.  This was especially poignant during the “moon monologue”, an incredibly powerful, cold, chilling speech which, as delivered by Mayer, seemed … well, blah.  And the mother, played by Elizabeth Ann Townsend, while delivering her many moving speeches with style and conviction, also seemed emotively flat and disconnected, especially toward the end of the play, at the very moment when it is most important that she be connected, expressive, and strong.

I don’t want to give the impression there isn’t much to enjoy in Upstream’s Blood Wedding.  There are moments of subtle and not-so-subtle brilliance, particularly involving staging and choreography. 

-           There is a short, slow “dance” by the bride, played by Julie Layton, and Kennedy, as the servant, which visually hinted at what I believe is one emotional touchstone of the play – flamenco.  As they each moved in unison, backing upstage away from the audience, their posture, hand gestures, movement of trunk and limbs spoke to the power and grandeur of this uniquely Spanish dance form.  It expressed power, passion, and surrender more eloquently than any of the actors’ speeches.

-           There are very interesting and effective moments when those present on stage adopt a pose, and, first in freeze-frame, then in unison, with slow, pulsing, rocking or swaying motions, silently depict movement of time, place or emotion.  At one point a character gracefully weaves through this sculptural montage - all quite nice.

-           There is a long, sensual “dance” scene in which J. Samuel Davis as Leonardo, the married man who runs off with the bridegroom’s bride, and Layton, as the bride, swirl, intertwine, caress.  During the dance, they engage in dialogue which, as in other parts of the play, seemed rather lifeless and disconnected in contrast to the choreography and movement which had a magnetic, entrancing, almost hypnotic quality.

-           The staging of the final scenes of the play was powerful:  the now dead bridegroom, played by Michael James Reed, and Leonardo are “waked” on stage, sitting unmoving in chairs, both wrapped in a single piece of funereal gauze, rose petals fallen on their torsos, under a single, bright overhead spot light.  It was very moving.

Blood Wedding was written as a 3-act play but Upsream’s production was performed as a full-length play in 1-act, which was effective.  Set design by Michael Heil was minimalist – two chairs, a small table off stage, and a scrim forming a backdrop for the play.  Costumes by Michele Siler were very appealing, particularly the neighbor’s and the bride’s wedding outfit, and all costumes were appropriate for the time, place and setting.  Lighting design was adequate with moments of brilliance, as noted above. 

And kudos to the fine guitar work of Lliam Christy who provided Spanish musical context throughout.

After reading the many honors bestowed on the cast in prior productions, I began to wonder if the flatness and stunted emotion of many of the speeches reflected the hand of director Philip Boehm.  Certainly, with no choreographer given a credit in the playbill, I must cite Boehm’s beautiful work in the staging and choreography of several of the scenes.  He clearly has a keen eye for his canvas and is adept at using his palate.   I’m puzzled, however, how such a fine ensemble could miss the mark, in some cases, widely. 

I was there for opening night.  My hope is that as the run continues the ensemble finds its center and, like a good wine sauce reduction, grows richer, darker, deeper and more immersed in the spirit which haunts Lorca’s great work. 

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