Sunday, August 7, 2016

"Peribañez" - A Play from the Golden Age of Spanish Theater Gets Quantum Staging

RicardoVila-Roger, Siddiq Saunderson, Isabel Pask, Amanda Pulcini, Sol Crespo, Freddy Miyares, Ethan Saks, David Bielewicz Credit: John Altdorfer

Years ago, a fellow employee and I struck up an impromptu conversation about Hispanic culture. As a proud Mexican-American, he began extolling some of the highlights of Spanish and Hispanic arts and literature and brought up the name of playwright Lope de Vega, someone I’d never even heard of at the time.

Comparing Vega’s expertise and renown to that of Shakespeare, he added with self-satisfaction that the former produced many more works than his English contemporary. Vega (1562 - 1635) is believed to have written as many as 1,800 plays (nearly 100 are considered exceptional) as to Shakespeare’s 38, who lived from 1564 - 1616.

Years have since passed since our conversation, and, regrettably,  I’ve never been able to attend a mounting of one of Vega’s plays, mainly, as I gather, because they’re so rarely reproduced in the U.S. That’s why, when Quantum Theatre announced that is was staging "Peribañez," considered by some to be one of Vega’s masterpieces, I jumped  at the chance to experience it.

Don’t let the possibility of listening to a text with archaic language scare you away from catching a performance in the run that ends on August 28. The translated version by Tanya Ronder is very accessible and totally understandable to modern-day  theater audiences. And many of the themes - abuse of power, sexual harassment, class divisions and wealth inequities, are relevant to those interested in current issues broadcast on the news.

Quantum decided to stage the play in the Jennie King Rose Garden in Point Breeze’s Mellon Park, a venue used by the peripatetic theater company three times previously. The stage consists of three parts, a central core flanked on either side by near-circular enclosures, a configuration that symbolizes the polarized world of the peasant/farmers on one side and the aristocracy on the other. Their worlds meet and collide in the middle where much of the linear plot takes place. As witnesses to the action, the audience surrounds the dais on three sides in close and intimate proximity the ten member cast.

The play opens on the wedding day of Peribañez and Casilda, a comely maiden who beauty immediately sparks the obsessive passion of the local Commander, a royal knight and one of the king’s favorites, who arrives at the nuptial festivities unannounced after being injured by a fall from his horse.

One of the play’s most beautiful moments comes early on when both spouses express their love for one another in idyllic, poetic imagery that exposes de Vega’s deft way with words. (The playwright also penned an estimated 5,000 sonnets). Much of his writing is finely detailed which gives the text a rich and dense textural quality.

Peribañez’ wide-eyed naiveté contrasts poignantly with the wily machinations of the Commander, who plots with his two servants ways to seduce Casilda. Along the way,  the audience is taken on Peribañez’ transformative journey that shows him grow from simple farmer to a man of considerable consequence.

Don DiGiulio as Lujan and,Mike Mihm as the Commander Credit: John Altdorfer

While the play does have its brutal moments, it’s also surprisingly ripe with comedy. Al la Shakespeare, it often comes from the lower class characters, servants and lackeys, in this case Costanza/Helipe (Amanda Pulcini) and Lujan (Don DiGuilo). More levity comes from the rounds of live music sung by the cast accompanied by David JM Bielewicz’ work on the guitar.

As the title character, Carnegie Mellon University BFA Acting senior, Siddiq Saunderson, has his youth going for him getting the right pose for the newly wed husband, then grows more worldly wise as the Commander’s villainy sculpts his passion for his wife into a passion for revenge.

As Casilda, Isabel Pask projects a demure guilelessness that’s capable of transforming into a rousing and ferocious loyalty to her new spouse, and Sol M. Crespo is potently credible in the momentous role of Inez, whose gullibility gives the Commander entry into Peribañez’s house while he’s supposedly away at war.
DiGuilio, as the Commander’s peasant lackey, Lujan, is a vivid contrast to the more polished, manipulative and educated henchman, Leonardo (Freddy Miyares), and Mike Mihm is a worthy Commander, full of bravado, self-centered, obsessively chained to his desires and devoid of moral fabric. His character does, however, make a weak redemptive effort near the end, but it too seems much too true to form with its hints of self-aggrandizement.

Husband and wife directors, Megan Monaghan Rivas and Tlaloc Rivas make intelligent use of the stage and propel the narrative at a heady clip. One thing I personally had trouble with is the over zealousness and ardent delivery of the lines by some in the cast, an experience I’ve previously encountered, strangely enough, in the some of the productions of plays by Shakespeare. The tone comes off as overly artificial and prevents me from completely suspending my attitude of disbelief.

Kudos to costume designer Samantha Pollack, whose elaborate regal and not-so-regal outfits are some I’d like to borrow come Halloween. Give credit to C. Todd Brown for his lighting design, which has to take into account the outdoor elements of a full sun at the start of the play, then segue into the lighting requirements for twilight and the even later darkness of nightfall.

Take care to watch for the telling moment at play’s end I almost missed that has Peribañez and Casilda standing on opposite ends of the stage in a nuanced vignette that speaks volumes without the use of words.

Lope De Vega’s rarely produced "Peribañez," a Quantum Theatre production, runs through August 28. For tickets, phone 412-362-1713 or visit website Special evenings include:
Ladies Night on August 10, a ladies-only pre-show reception and viewing.
Quantum Quaff on August 11, pre-show wine-tasting & hors d’oeuvres.
Quantum-on-the-Couch, August 27, post-show discussion of the psychology of the characters led by analyst David Orbison, Ph.D.

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