Fuente Ovejuna: Come On, Sheeple Now

From the moment evil Knight Commander Fernán Gómez (Fred Sullivan, Jr.) appears on stage eager to grab the women of the town by the pussy, there is no mistaking the contemporary relevance of this play by Spanish Renaissance master Lope de Vega.

Grounded in a real historical incident that took place in 1476, Commander Gómez oppresses the village of Fuente Ovejuna, which means “the watering place of sheep,” demanding that the peasant women yield sexual favors to him. In this translation by Trinity artistic director Curt Columbus, the play is titled Like Sheep to Water, or Fuente Ovejuna. Gómez develops a particular obsession with Laurencia (Octavia Chavez-Richmond), and his attempt to rape her in the forest is interrupted by her suitor Frondoso (Orlando Hernández) who seizes the commander’s crossbow and humiliates him. She goes on the run with her female friend Pascuala (Anita Castillo-Halvorssen) and elderly male peasant Mengo (Stephen Berenson), who was earlier seen arguing with Barrildo (Jonathan Oliviera) for the proposition that love of others does not exist and all love is merely self-interest. They encounter another peasant woman fleeing the commander, Jacinta (Angela Brazil), and although they are unable to protect her from capture by the commander’s soldiers Flores (Timothy Crowe), Ortuño (Benjamin Grills), and Cimbranos (Oliviera), Mengo protests and is viciously flogged. The commander demands that Laurencia be turned over to him by her father, town mayor Esteban (Joe Wilson, Jr.), who refuses.

The times are dangerous, as Spain is in formation amidst warfare between King Ferdinand of Aragon (Daniel Duque-Estrada) and Queen Isabella of Castile (Rachael Warren) on the one hand and King Alonso of Portugal (Duque-Estrada) on the other. Commander Gómez has convinced the young and impressionable hereditary Grand Master (Marcel Mascaró) of his order, the Knights of Calatrava, to violate his oath of allegiance to Ferdinand and Isabella and instead capture the strategically important Ciudad Real in the name of Alonso. Initially successful, a counterattack led by Manrique (Grills) recaptures the city for Ferdinand and Isabella. Abandoning Ciudad Real in retreat, Gómez leaves the Grand Master to decide whether to surrender or die.

Escaping the fighting back to his home in Fuente Ovejuna, the enraged Gómez arrives just in time to break up the wedding of Laurencia and Frondoso, ordering Frondoso arrested for having humiliated him with the crossbow. Laurencia is also imprisoned, and her father Esteban is relieved of his position as mayor and beaten with his staff of office. The townspeople, led by Juana Roja (Janice Duclos), are outraged to action and call a secret meeting. Laurencia, having escaped, appears at the meeting and shames the town, accusing the people of acting like sheep. The villagers (Angelique Dina, Kafui Glover, Wenricka Griffith, Valearie Keane, Yanasia Tarr) declare their allegiance to Ferdinand and Isabella, to whom Flores runs begging for help against the villagers, and the king and queen send a judge to investigate, who tortures everyone – even a small boy (Bedros Kevorkian) – to try to find out who was responsible for the popular uprising. The Grand Master, realizing that it is hopeless to oppose the king and queen of what is about to be a unified Spain, pledges fealty to them. When the judge reports back, it is left to the royal couple to decide where justice lies.

First published in 1619, Fuente Ovejuna is the most well known among about 340 extant plays by this prolific contemporary of William Shakespeare, although there are claims he wrote as many as 2,200. Its recent popularity in the English-speaking world is significantly attributable to inclusion in the Oxford Classics Lope de Vega: Three Major Plays, edited and translated by Gwynne Edwards. (The others are The Knight from Olmedo and Punishment Without Revenge.) Columbus wisely abridges much of the text that would have been hilarious to an audience in 1619, such as joking soliloquies about the diminishing quality of writing brought on by the then-new introduction of printing with movable type in 1439, only a few years before the setting of the play in 1476: timewise Gutenberg was to Lope de Vega about like Thomas Edison is to us. Director Mark Valdez clearly wants to move the story along at a reasonable pace.

Written on the cusp of modernity, Fuente Ovejuna graphically demonstrates the collision between the inherently incompatible mindsets of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Gómez makes much of “honor,” and the first scene of the play is his venting about how the Grand Master disrespects him by being late to a meeting – but to Gómez, honor comes from birth and heredity, not from intrinsic qualities. His cruel oppression of the villagers, especially of women, result from his regarding them as less than human, and to him the possibility that they could organize themselves into a popular uprising capable of posing a real threat to his knights is as ridiculously unthinkable as worrying about a similar uprising from his horses. For understandable reasons, this play by Lope de Vega resonated again during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) where Francisco Franco, in an alliance with the other European fascists and authoritarians of the era – Benito Mussolini of Italy, Adolf Hitler of Germany, and (ironically) António de Oliveira Salazar of Portugal – gained power and remained dictator until his death in 1975. The play is, in many ways, one of the earliest expressions of a political philosophy that would come to be known as the Enlightenment, valuing the rights and conscience of the individual, although still then couched in the worldview of an anointed monarchy.

Sullivan’s masterful performance as Gómez holds the play together, and Chavez-Richmond as Laurencia contributes nearly as much. Berenson as the gracioso Mengo is outstanding. Hernández as Frondoso and Wilson as Esteban are worthy of note. Trinity and the entire ensemble do a wonderful job of turning a 400-year-old dramatic work into shockingly relevant and modern entertainment.

The staging is relatively bare in keeping with the traditions of Spanish Golden Age theater, although some of the props and costuming seemed a bit puzzling. The village boy raced around on a Razor scooter, and I’m pretty sure the mayor was wearing Clogs: strange as that was, perhaps it was an artistic choice to remind the audience that, as the famous contemporary of Lope de Vega said, the past is prologue.

Tickets for Ocean State Theater Company will be redeemed for free to see Like Sheep to Water, or Fuente Ovejuna.

Like Sheep to Water, or Fuente Ovejuna, directed by Mark Valdez, Trinity Rep, 201 Washington St, PVD. Handicap accessible. 2h15m including one intermission, through Jun 11. Tel: 401-351-4242 Web: trinityrep.com/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=fuente-ovejuna&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::context_id=

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