Taking on a play like Fuenteovejuna is a sign of an ambitious company. And when that company is the National Asian American Theatre Company, whose mandate is a refreshingly creative application of identity politics to theater-making, you know you’re going to see more than just the polishing of an old chestnut. NAATCO tackles Western classics “without forced Asian cultural associations,” intending primarily to serve the plays and explore their timeless themes. The fact that the company members are all Asian American has the effect, as the mission statement so nicely puts it, of “contemporizing these plays, given the changing face of America today.”
This Fuenteovejuna is fully aware—as are we all, increasingly—that the contemporary is also the global. More importantly and interestingly, it is also aware that the contemporary contains within it many overlapping modernities—including oppressive class and gender systems that were supposed to have died with feudalism, whose death this play more than any other originally celebrated. Written in 1619, Fuenteovejuna is the best-known of a tiny handful of plays through which the anglophone world remembers the vast riches of Spain’s Golden Age of theater. Based upon a historical peasant rebellion that took place in Córdoba in 1476, its rousing account of class solidarity has given it the anachronistic reputation of being the first Communist play (it is, in fact, a classic of centralized royalism as anti-feudalism) and a long production history in 20th-century leftist theater.
Fuenteovejuna is the masterpiece of its prolific author, Lope de Vega, who matched the popularity and variety of his contemporary, Shakespeare (whom he far outstripped, however, in sheer productivity, writing well over a thousand plays). The piece tells the story of a peasant community in the village of Fuenteovejuna whose simple pleasures and innocent romances are imperiled by the repeated atrocities of a rapacious nobleman. His brutal violations finally bring the villagers together in an unprecedented act of resistance. When questioned under torture about the killing of their tormentor, the peasants courageously refuse to sacrifice any one person among them, separately and together uttering only their agreed-upon slogan: “Fuenteovejuna did it!”
En route to this triumph of populism, the play combines comedy, pathos, romance, and heroism in the manner of Shakespeare’s histories, but with the focus on the populace rather than on their overlords. Evoking an era of historical transition that is also a perfect metaphor for personal comings-of-age and communal harmonies, the play offers a rich terrain for imaginative leaps and surprising connections. NAATCO’s production, as directed by David Herskovits, enters that terrain not only with great gusto—as most updatings of the classics do—but also, which is much rarer, with great charm and playfulness. This is not a rock-and-roll updating, nor a blood-and-guts one. Nor is it, as often happens with this play, a careful historical and cultural transposition to another time and place (the Old South has been a popular setting for it). Rather, it’s an exploration of how archaic or traditional forms can—and do—speak in modern accents and inhabit the “changing face” of the present.
The colliding modernities which fuel this production are immediately signaled by the neon-green walls on which the flimsiest of frameworks—a rickety affair of plywood and colored tape—proves to be a remarkably evocative performance world. On and around the platforms and cubicles of this witty set (designed by Sarah Lambert), an energetic cast of 20 and an accomplished “Sound Man” (Dave Morreale) join the director in creating a performance style that recalls, without reproducing, forms of folk theater, children’s theater, even puppetry. The droll costumes (by Elly Van Horne) add their riot of form and color to the deliciously handmade quality of the whole production. Even the large ensemble’s negotiation of the small space—they often move in cohorts, making scene changes a matter of lively movement and exchanged places, the physical excitement rising along with the plot’s political stakes—points to the production’s bedrock principles of invention and collaboration.
Those are, of course, the theatrical equivalents of the political values the play’s story extols, and this production succeeds not merely by identifying the similarity, but in working it through every aspect of the performance. A production based on the parallel between making a play and doing an act that changes the world risks being unbearably pompous, a danger that this production successfully avoids by trusting in the leavening power of sheer goofiness. The disturbing core of the story is surrounded here by all kinds of lighthearted high jinx. For instance, the whole tiresome business of exposition is wonderfully lightened by the actors’ jaunty waves to the audience every time their names are mentioned. Similarly, the awkwardness of the play’s many rhetorical shifts is turned to comic advantage by the speaker’s signal to the Sound Man, who inevitably supplies hilariously stereotypical musical accompaniments to the sometimes portentous set pieces. And the torture scene loses its grimness when the sounds of the rack are squeaked out by one of the tinier members of the cast. The set offers a permanent joke as well: the words “Lo Vega” inscribed on the floor in shocking pink tape: J.Lo meets street artist De La Vega! The chief pleasure of this Fuenteovejuna is, finally, the very one that its lively cast, talented designers, and gifted director seem to have taken in it: the joy of discovering that a play can be a playground, and that there is some real fun to be had by playing with big ideas, strong emotions, and utopian politics.