Court Theatre

The recent videotape of the LA police assaulting a black motorist raised a storm of anger; outraged by the casual cruelty inflicted on a helpless victim, a nation temporarily behaved like an infuriated community. Some things, it seems, still connect us.

However rare it may be today, this sudden fury is not a new response: the 17th century had a dramatic equivalent of that videotape in Fuente Ovejuna. Now in a stirring Court Theatre production, the play revives the memory of a small Spanish town’s refusal to endure an intolerable injustice. It’s a story that the Court Theatre rightly refuses to let sink into history.

Written by Lope de Vega, one of the most eminent playwrights of Spain’s golden age of drama, Fuente Ovejuna (1619) is based on Spanish chronicles that describe an event in 1476. Commander Fernando Gomez de Guzman was a knight in the Order of Calatrava, a religious paramilitary organization, and the overlord of the town of Fuente Ovejuna (“the sheep well”). Despite his vow of chastity, he raped Laurencia, a peasant girl and the mayor’s daughter; when the townsfolk learned of her ordeal, they stormed Gomez’s fortress and killed him.

King Ferdinand sent a judge to learn the name of the murderer, but even though the villagers were tortured, they would say only that Fuente Ovejuna killed Gomez. Amazed by the villagers’ solidarity, the king pardoned them. (A less flattering reason for Ferdinand’s clemency was the fact that Gomez was a soldier of fortune working for the king of Portugal.)

If only the tale had ended here–but later Ferdinand reconsidered his decision, and the principal buildings of the town were leveled to destroy any reminders of the citizens’ rebellion. (No need to establish a dangerous precedent.)

However ambiguous the aftermath, the events depicted in the play are unequivocal. Like that LA tape, Fuente Ovejuna reminds us that some struggles are cut-and-dried, especially the struggles of the humble against those with unchecked power. The soldiers in Lope’s play behave like parasitical scum, feeding on the hardworking peasants who make their prosperity possible. Commander Gomez, a 15th-century Saddam Hussein, thinks nothing of having a simpleminded shepherd flogged 100 times for possessing a slingshot. To Gomez and his marauding mercenaries, every wife and virgin is a pretext for an orgasm.

When Frondoso, Laurencia’s fiance, defends her by threatening Gomez with his own crossbow, Gomez explodes at the peasant’s audacity. But the tyrant’s outraged Spanish pride is nothing to the desperate village’s revenge when an outraged Laurencia stirs them to revolt. Just as courageous as their uprising is the citizens’ later steadfastness under torture.

Immediately and inevitably, the play triggers memories of those who’ve organized in our own time–the people who boycotted the buses in Montgomery, Alabama; the shipworkers of Gdansk; turn-of-the-century Mexican mine workers in Arizona; the protesting gays who surrounded San Francisco’s city hall after Harvey Milk’s murderer was all but pardoned.

Fuente Ovejuna creates these resonances through sheer specificity: the precise sympathy with which the playwright depicts the townsfolk–impetuous shepherds, boastful drunkards, all-purpose good-time girls–as well as his well-rounded depictions of the soldiers, who know how much they’re hated. (Gomez gets no shading.)

Lope de Vega was smart enough to know a good tale when he saw one: powerful history makes irresistible theater. Richard E.T. White’s sprawling, kinetic staging is Les Miserables without the hokum, a triumph of ensemble rapport. It works splendidly with Adrian Mitchell’s vivid translation; the old play feels as contemporary as a Costa-Gavras film (it even includes a delicious attack on astrology).

Linda Buchanan’s artfully open-ended Iberian costumes and earth-toned set–rolling platforms and stairways and a balcony as wide as the stage set against a gnarled and very Spanish wall–are appropriately universal. The play’s soldiers, holstered and clad in black (seemingly Spain’s national color), eerily resemble the ruthless Guardia Civil of the Spanish Civil War.

Inspired by a rhythmically supple folk score composed by Willy Schwarz and Miriam Sturm, the cast of 22 surges through assorted tumultuous crowd scenes, among them two exuberant and well-contrasted victory celebrations (choreographed by Ginger Farley); a wedding feast interrupted by terror; and the slaughter of the soldiers. This last spectacle, excitingly staged by David Woolley, all but invites audience participation. (Stay out of the aisles during this show.)

In so communal an effort it’s almost inappropriate to single out performances. But Jacqueline Kim is exceptionally skillful at charting Laurencia’s evolution from flirtatious free spirit (she calls herself a “tough little hen”) to avenging firebrand. It’s a killer gamut, but the intrepid and canny Kim sets fire to almost every line.

Director White inspires deft, concentrated performances from David New as Laurencia’s valiant lover, Frondoso; from Denis O’Hare as a sedentary, self-loving Sancho Panza type who achieves an unlikely heroism; from Daniel Mooney as Gomez; and from Bruce Orendorf as his swaggering but ultimately chastened superior.

As in Serious Money, The Beggar’s Opera, and The American Clock, Court Theatre shows itself a great company for crowd scenes. Whether the actors are bursting with song, prancing to flamenco rhythms, or flailing swords and banners, rakes and hoes, this ensemble creates the most commotion inside a theater since the Goodman introduced The Gospel at Colonus last June.