European Repertory Company

at Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, Baird Hall


Dolphinback Theatre Company

at the Neo-Futurarium

Pedro Calderon de la Barca was not quite a contemporary of Shakespeare (who died in 1616, when Calderon would have been a youth), but the plays of both reflect the secular intellectualism and humanitarianism of the Renaissance. Spain being Spain, however, the dominant theme in many of Calderon’s plays is honor and its maintenance. The 1640 Mayor of Zalamea is revolutionary, not only in the choice of a commoner, Pedro Crespo, as the true man of honor but in its championing of human values over the strictures (and hypocrisies) that formerly defined the ways of honor. Thus Crespo comforts his daughter when she has been raped and abandoned by a handsome captain and refuses to allow her brother to do violence to her or her assailant; instead he adheres to the law. Indeed, the two most noble and chivalrous men turn out to be the humble Crespo and the rough-and-ready Don Lope, the captain’s superior officer–their innate dignity and wisdom contrast sharply with the false gentility of the highborn but venal captain and the ludicrous Don Mendo, whose lofty title hides the penury of a street beggar.

In this European Repertory Company production the setting of the play has been changed from 17th-century Spain to the American southwest of the 1880s. The results are mixed: the locale is familiar to modern audiences because of the films of John Ford, Sergio Leone, and many others, which makes the story seem closer to our culture, but the retention of a king as the ultimate arbiter of justice strikes a jarring note. And Crespo is played with a distinctly American accent (Tennessee, if I were to hazard a guess). Also the soldiers complain of “foot-slogging marches” when it’s obvious that they’re cavalry. Whatever distress these inaccuracies may cause purists, however, the universe created by dramaturge Peter Christensen and director Charley Sherman maintains an internal consistency that makes its anachronisms all but negligible. (Isn’t the Old West as we know it largely a product of fantasy anyway?)

The physical milieu is well established by Paul Foster’s multiarea set, Ladonna Friedheim and Christy Jones’s lighting, Matt Kozlowski’s sound design (including music of spaghetti-western composer Ennio Morricone), Marguerite P. Picard’s costumes, and Sandy Morris’s makeup, which creates a strong impression of sweaty, sun-scorched faces. Then there are the gypsy songs, composed by the ubiquitous Michael Bodeen, and some spectacular saber, firearm, and hand-to-hand battles choreographed by Ned Mochel.

The perfectly chosen cast play their melodramatic characters with a seriousness and conviction as impenetrable as the armor of El Cid. Anchoring the action are the heroic performances of Ray Wild as Crespo and Stephen Ommerle as Lope (a master fight director himself whose flashy swordplay alone is worth the price of admission). Katie Dawson, one of Chicago’s most intelligent ingenues, breaks with traditionally passive female heroines as Isabel, Crespo’s daughter. She proves a feisty match for Mochel, cast against type as the bullying captain: his handling of the potentially shocking rape scene makes clear it’s a combat atrocity, devoid of eroticism. Other noteworthy performances include Steve Herson as the sad sack Rebolledo, Kozlowski as the avuncular platoon sergeant, and Dale Goulding (covered with a mass of cosmetic and prosthetic deformities) as the crippled servant Nuno.

Between the original and vastly entertaining Mayor of Zalamea and Zorilla’s Don Juan, currently swashing buckles at Bailiwick Repertory, a second Spanish Renaissance appears to be warming the Chicago winter.

Once upon a time there was a talented Bad Boy who married his teenage girlfriend, then skipped the country with the intellectual daughter of notoriously radical parents–an incident rumored to have spurred the suicides of both his wife and the sister of his paramour. While in exile, the fugitive couple took up with an older, more famous, and equally talented Bad Boy and his girlfriend, the latter of whom had no discernible accomplishments beyond a willingness to sleep with any of them. And so they all lived together in a sybaritic menage a quatre, haunted only by the ghost of the first wife and a very real tabloid reporter hoping to make money off their scandalous antics.

Who cares? one may ask. Ah, but these Bad Boys are none other than Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord George Byron, and Shelley’s paramour is Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein. Playwright Howard Brenton has a jolly time in Bloody Poetry detailing the outrageous behavior of these selfish brats before he settles down to grind his own ax, supported by Shelley’s hyperemotional idealistic views on the need for revolution–anywhere at all, but preferably in his own native England.

These roles are virtually impossible to overact though Christopher Kubasik as the news hound and Melanie Dix as Byron’s mistress Claire Clairemont come close. Director Kelly Ann Corcoran seems to have made a valiant effort to keep her cast reined in, and the result is a vigorous, enthusiastic production that only rarely spills over into juvenile excess (though the audience seemed bent on pushing the show in that direction–with friends like this, who needs hecklers?). Ian Christopher is a suitably cherubic Shelley, even managing to make the poet’s mannered verse sound like ordinary speech, and Tom Gottlieb is a suitably jocular Byron (albeit with an odd Eastern European accent). The only fully realized performance, however, is Beth Stephenson’s as Mary Shelley: she emerges as the welcome voice of common sense in a drama that revels in adolescent irresponsibility.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tamar Berk.