The Things We Do for Love: An Evening of Spanish Theatre is many things: fun, visually stunning, well-acted, and cheeky. Cohesive, however, is one thing it is not.
The Things We Do… combines three one-act plays into a single evening of the playful physical and mask performance that you would expect from Odyssey Theatre. Each play has its own triumphs and pitfalls, but the main issue plaguing this production is that the three one-acts don’t come together to form a unified whole.
Saving Melisendra, adapted by director Laurie Steven from an episode of Don Quixote, is the first play of the night and features some delightful puppet manipulation. The story of Charlemagne’s brother-in-law who goes off to rescue his wife Melisendra after she has been captured by Moors is a play-within-a-play: the daring rescue is enacted by puppets manipulated by members of Master Pedro’s performing troupe, watched not only by the audience but by the surprise audience members Don Quixote and Sancho Panza themselves.
The puppets are beautifully made and the actors do an excellent job at manipulating them – when we first meet the hapless puppet knight he is several drinks in, and watching a one-foot tall puppet stumble drunkenly around is such an unusually satisfying experience that I completely failed to notice the actor moving it around. Though fun moments abound, they become distracting – when Charlemagne enters to inform our hero of Melisendra’s capture, Charlemagne is surrounded by a large gilt picture frame. With a drunken puppet looking to cause trouble and an imperious king looking to maintain order, an amusing-in-the-moment-though-not-dramatically-necessary homage to Punch and Judy shows occurs (if you’re unfamiliar with the concept, imagine two puppets with anger management issues chasing each other around a framed performance space).
The presence of moments like this takes away from the real focus of this piece, which I think has been altered in the adaptation process from the original story in a way that confuses audience members. In the original story as well as in this play, Don Quixote is overcome with desire to aid the knight and Melisendra in their escape from the Moors and ends up destroying the puppets and the set – one of the main traits of the Don Quixote character is his inability to distinguish fact from fiction. The destruction of the puppet show is the main event in the original story, as Don Quixote is clearly the main character in the novel of the same name. When it is presented onstage, however, Quixote merely sits off the side and watches the same puppet play that the audience watches. Since observation is a passive activity, the audience focus understandably shifts from Quixote to the puppet play itself. For this reason when Quixote eventually springs into action (the puppet play lasts around 15 minutes or so before this happens), it seems to come out of nowhere and the unresolved story of the rescue and escape is dropped and never picked up again.
After a drawn-out scene where Master Pedro bills Quixote and Panza for compensation for the destroyed puppets, the entire performing troupe framework that introduced the puppet show and indeed the entire night of one-act plays is also dropped and only revisited once immediately before intermission.
The next play, The Love of Don Perlimplin and Belisa in the Garden, is a sort of tragic fable by Federico García Lorca and thus is not only much newer than the other two but also is an example of Spanish Avant-Garde. The contrasting styles of the bawdy puppet show and romantic fable with a full chorus is rather jarring, especially as Saving Melisendra ends without any sort of smooth transition and audience members could be forgiven for thinking that intermission had started. Nevertheless, this play not only works onstage in ways that Saving Melisendra doesn’t, but the characters are much more likeable than those in Whether You Like it or Not.
Don Perlimplin, a middle-aged bachelor, is persuaded by his elderly housekeeper Marcolfa to marry. He decides to marry the young and beautiful Belisa, who is less enthusiastic about the match than her mother. After it becomes clear that Belisa sees no reason to stay faithful to her husband – on their wedding night she ‘consummates’ with five other men after Don Perlimplin falls asleep – she starts to receive beautiful love letters from a mysterious admirer. The story is original but feels familiar, like it was taken from Shakespeare or The Canterbury Tales – clearly the real author of the letters is Perlimplin himself. A standout in this play is Scott McCulloch as Marcolfa – behind the mask and bonnet his posture is stooped and his voice becomes scratchy with advanced age, every bit the fussy matronly housekeeper (though there is a subtle wink at the cross-gender casting when, as he descends a ladder, some decidedly masculine legs show under his hem).
Less impressive and somewhat confusing is the chorus, who are either supposed to be crones or crows – they wear conservative black dress that covers their hair and they also remain somewhat stooped, but they also caw. Could the performing troupe from Saving Melisendra not have stood in as the chorus in this play? The metatheatrical metaphor would easily lend itself to García’s chorus, especially the moment during the wedding night when the chorus covers up the climactic moment of Belisa’s dance of infidelity saying “some things should not be seen.”
Equally confusing is the ending, with Don Perlimplin ‘going after’ Belisa’s mysterious suitor as the big reveal rushes closer and closer. At this point the audience has long figured out the deception and yet the scene comes across as rushed with William Beddoe as Perlimplin constantly running on- and off-stage ‘chasing’ the imaginary lover. The ending goes by too quickly for its significance to come across – the program describes Perlimplin’s plan as being meant “to free [Belisa’s] soul,” but the play seems to end with her kneeling over his dead body still wondering where her mysterious lover is. Possibly that’s not actually how it ends, but it all happened so fast.
Before intermission the women of Master Pedro’s troupe insist on showing the audience the feminine side of love in the second half, which is all very well for getting the audience excited for the next play but has troubling implications once you consider the play they actually present.
The third and longest play, Whether You Like it or Not, is certainly well-acted; but the script itself maintains a questionable double standard between what is acceptable for men and women to do in the name of love, and the lack of any substantial response on the part of the production is even more concerning.
Federico, a nobleman from Naples, has spent some time at the home of Alberto in Hungary on a diplomatic mission between the two states. Federico’s charm and good looks have forced Alberto to keep his sister Finea and Federico separated the entire visit, so Federico has never even seen Finea. Finea, however, falls in love with Federico while spying on him, despite the fact that they have never spoken let alone the fact that she has already committed a major breach of trust between them. Once Federico leaves, Finea decides to disguise herself as a man and follow him back to Naples, with only the skimpiest of plans for winning Federico over.
There are a few obstacles: firstly Federico is only vaguely aware that Finea exists; he is already in a loving relationship with a noblewoman back in Naples; Finea cannot reasonably expect Federico to fall in love with her if he thinks she’s a man; and her surprise disappearance from her brother’s house leads him to believe that Federico kidnapped her, causing even more diplomatic strain between the two nations and completely negating the benefits of Federico’s trip to Hungary in the first place.
The real issue with this play is not that Finea is an awful person (though she undoubtedly is by modern standards); since this script is over 350 years old and was written by a Catholic monk, an unflattering portrayal of women is practically to be expected. The problem is that the production doesn’t take enough of a stance on this aspect of the script, which clearly hasn’t aged well. Karen Knox performs the role of Finea with great energy and takes on the ‘breeches’ role admirably – as ‘Celio,’ Finea’s male alter ego, she speaks with a grounded, lower voice, and her physicality is muted and typically masculine. As Finea, however, her announcement to her trusted servant that she’s in love at the beginning of the play is as follows: “I’m a woman in love and I’ll do whatever it takes to get my man!” This line is delivered completely whole-heartedly, and her voice becomes shrill and high-pitched. Later on while in conversation with a male character she rolls her eyes while claiming that pleasing a man is the most important thing for a woman (or something along those lines), but it’s not enough. Indeed, Finea’s actions lead to Federico losing the woman he loves as well as being accused by the King of Naples as well as Alberto that he has kidnapped a woman he has never even met, quite literally driving him to the point of breakdown. Finea’s punishment in the end? She is given to Federico to marry as a “reward for her resourcefulness and cunning.”
I can see this script working in a Brechtian context where moral lessons are the goal, but as a silly bawdy comedy this play is more frustrating than entertaining. The acting, at least, is quite good, especially Mark Huisman as Federico and Chandel Gambles as his Neapolitan lady love Florela, as well as Knox’s Finea/Celio. Sadly there is no trace of Master Pedro’s troupe in this half of the show, and it is this lack of cohesion with the other plays which is its main pitfall.
The Things We Do for Love is an imaginative, energetic, and lengthy romp; however in trying to include a wide variety of Spanish plays in one evening, Odyssey Theatre keeps the only real link between them as ‘Spanish,’ which by nature of Odyssey’s artistic mandate is fairly well stripped away by placing them in the world of mask and commedia. While this show is certainly enjoyable, it is not, perhaps, the best example of an evening of Spanish theatre.
The Things We Do for Love: An Evening of Spanish Theatre
Saving Melisendra, adapted by Laurie Steven from Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote
The Love of Don Perlimplin and Belisa in the Garden, adapted by Laurie Steven from the Spanish original by Federico García Lorca
Whether You Like it or Not, translated and reconstructed by José Ruano de la Haza from the Spanish original by Tirso de Molina
Directed by Laurie Steven
Set Design by Marcelo Donato
Costume Design by Naomi Fontaine
Mask Design/Construction by Jerrard Smith
Mask on Stick Design by Clelia Scala
Puppet Design and Coaching by John Nolan and Kathy MacLellan
Lighting Design by Ron Ward
Music Direction by John Armstrong
Fight Choreography by Mark Huisman
Choreography by Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière
Starring: (In alphabetical order): William Beddoe, Dana Fradkin, Chandel Gambles, Mark Huisman, Karen Knox, Matthew Lawrence, Scott McCulloch, John Nolan, Alan K. Sapp
Stage Manager: Barry Cook
Production Manager: Gordon Mitchell
Apprentice Stage Manager: Meghan Froebelius
Head of Props: Ashley Proulx
Milliner/Wardrobe Manager: Erin Whitney
Cutter & Pattern Maker: Susana Vera
Seamstresses: Lisa Lurette, Mirielle Tremblay, Daniel Séuin, Sandra Chirico, Deborah Adams
Technician: James Richardson
Security: Ahmed Osman
Youth Apprentices: Mackenzie Breeze Bone, Conor Bradshaw, Alec Cuillerier, Natasha Kruse, Erich Margulis, Jacqueline Morrison, Janani Suthan