Fuente Ovejuna at City Lit: the Past is Present

Go see Fuente Ovejuna at City Lit! It’s incredible.

There’s something marvelous about reading works from the Spanish Golden Age, and from the English Early Modern: they are incredibly modern. It’s one of the things that has always drawn me to Shakespeare; it’s drawn me to Sor Juana, too, and to adaptions and re/imaginings of her work and life. So—in a very rare case of Facebook getting its advertising right—when I saw a sponsored post for a production of Lope de Vega’s Fuenteovejuna, here Fuente Ovejuna, by Chicago’s own City Lit Theater, I knew I had to go.

Lope de Vega, who was a bit of a womanizing creepazoid (and here’s his Spanish language Wikipedia article for that), was one of the premier playwrights of the Siglo de Oro. Fuente Ovejuna is based on a true story—one which, as City Lit notes, might as well be pulled from the headlines. Much like many of my favorite Shakespearian plays, it doesn’t make the nobility look very good, including the King and Queen (although that might be partially this production, where King Ferdinand is a bit derpy and Queen Isabella as conniving as one might hope). Unlike Shakespeare, Lope de Vega wrote in the shadow of the Inquisition, which also makes an unflattering appearance. As Stefan used to tell us on Saturday Night Live, this nightclub has it all!

It is my belief that once a play has been around for, oh, four hundred years or so, there’s no spoiling it. I mean, come on. It’s older than any of us and it has a Wikipedia article. However, if you haven’t read the Wikipedia article, you might want to be aware that Fuente Ovejuna is, as City Lit has billed it, a #MeToo story of the fifteenth century. There is fairly frank discussion of sexual assault and rape; there is torture and an Inquisitor, because this is fifteenth-century Spain, and also, let’s face it, Lope de Vega, like Shakespeare, was writing to that guy who paid the equivalent of like five cents and wanted blood, guts, and a damn clown on stage. (And, I mean, that guy isn’t that much different from us.) Terry McCabe’s production gives us all the above, in spades.

Our writer: Lope de Vega, in a painting likely by Eugenio Caxés, c. 1627. Wikimedia Commons.

Fuente Ovejuna, in its City Lit production, is an incredible reminder that nothing ever changes. From the teenage Daniel Pass who performs as the teenage Master of Calatrava (and the trombone-playing villager) to Varris Holmes as the swaggering villain and Carolyn Plurad as the marvelous Laurencia, the cast is incredible. The play swings madly from one extreme of emotion to another in its 80-minute run: we laughed so hard we cried, we cringed away from the stage as the villainous Commander raped and tortured his way through the village, we cheered on Laurencia as she reminded her father and the local men that they were, indeed, all wusses (with the exception of her now-husband, Frondoso, played with tremendous sweetness by Brian Bradford), and then we pretty much screamed (with joy, okay?) as Laurencia led the women of Fuente Ovejuna to finish off the Commander.

That cross our villain wears. Via Wikimedia Commons.

We don’t get to see him die on stage—I don’t think that would work, given what we’re told they do to him, although I’m sure it’d make a grand movie—but we do get to see our crew parading happily around with his severed head. (I should note, here, that I’ve read the play at least once, remember liking it, and cannot remember anything else about it. Nonetheless, NewCity Stage tells me it normally runs to two hours, so who knows? Maybe you’d see him die in a full production.) The Commander’s death, complete with a buffoon capering around (think Shakespeare killing off King Malcolm), feels like a personal triumph, not for Laurencia, Frondoso, Jacinta, Pasquela, and the various Inéses alone, but for every audience member who’s been assaulted, too.

Fuente Ovejuna is the bleakest form of the Don Juan tale, one where the women force the men around them to acknowledge that it isn’t seduction, or pleasure, but rape and assault. (Laurencia is advocating for the Age of Amazons, actually.) It’s a world wherein wronged women claim vengeance and, miraculously (or because they all stick together in the face of the Inquisitor and his rack), are pardoned by the King despite murdering a nobleman, supposedly because they won’t budge: Fuente Ovejuna, they insist, killed the Commander, and none other. (This production makes it pretty clear that Isabella is the one behind that pardon.) I guess, therefore, that Fuente Ovejuna is also the most empowering of the various Don Juans, because in it, women take their bloody due from the men who have wronged them—which is incredible enough now, and even more remarkable given that the incident upon which Lope de Vega based his play happened way back when in the late 1400s, in a poor town in Andalusia.

You probably won’t walk away from Fuente Ovejuna with pure joy in your heart. I mean, if you’ve been assaulted, that off-stage death scene will probably leave you feeling pretty good, but you will have run through a full range of emotions beforehand, and you’ll leave thinking about #MeToo, and all the ways in which the past will never die, or maybe the ways in which we’ll continually be borne into the past, because the current will always run the wrong damn way. But should you go see it? If you have the chance, if you are in Chicago, or anywhere in the area, oh, you should go see it. It’s a play for this moment, and this time, a reminder that sometimes revolt and solidarity can actually work, and that sometimes we can flip the tables on those who have abused us.

Fuente Ovejuna is incredible, and fresh, and raw, and timely—and it deserves to be seen by so many more people. So if you’re able, take a trek up to City Lit, and step into the past that is also the present with Terry McCabe’s adaption of Lope de Vega’s 1619 Fuente Ovejuna, still as sharp and as relevant as it was in the seventeenth century.

Because, alas, nothing ever really changes.

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