THE SPANISH TRAGEDY
By Thomas Kyd
Directed by Lesley Schisgall Currier
For tickets / schedule :
Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, Dominican University of California
RUN: July 5 – August 11, 2013
RATING: 4 of 5 stars
(First preview night, July 5, 2013)
Although a popular play in the 1580s, The Spanish Tragedy is rarely performed today. It demonstrates the reason plays were meant to be seen, not read—on paper, the synopsis and play itself seems convoluted and ill constructed, yet it sparkles to life on stage. Armed with a formidable cast, streamlined costumes, and a stunning set design, Marin Shakespeare Company gives this ancient play a new birth.
The action centers around the court of Spain during a time of dissent and war with Portugal. The young prince, Balthazar (Liam Hughes), has been captured by the Spanish, and his desperate father makes peace to ensure his son’s safety. A marriage pact is struck, little to the liking of Lady Bellimperia (Elena Wright), who is niece to the king of Spain. As a continuous thread, the play is observed, and occasionally commented upon, by a dead spanish noble—Don Andrea (Lucas Hatton), who seeks revenge on the prince for slaying him. His lady love was Bellimperia, who hates the prince as a result. Don Andrea’s bosom companion, Horatio (Erik Johnson), yet lives, and his mutual sorrow and desire for revenge draws him to Bellimperia. Alas, Horatio’s birth is not noble enough to deserve so fair a hand, and the couple are caught amorous in an arbour by the prince and her nefarious brother. The handsome young Horatio is murdered, and Bellimperia dragged off as a prize. Fear not—she is no helpless maid. Writing a letter in her own blood to Horatio’s father, Hieronimo (Julian Lopez-Morillas), she begs revenge for her sweet Horatio. Weighed down by grief for his son, Hieronimo hesitates, so Bellimperia takes matters into her own hands. Talking her way out of imprisonment by pretending to accept the false prince, and her cruel brother, she convinces Hieronimo to make a blood pact that they will revenge his son together. The means by which they bring Prince Balthazar to his knees is clever and appropriate for a play. Don Andrea finally has his death avenged, and sends the guilty parties to their doom, reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno.
With almost thirty characters, the play features simultaneous vignettes—which makes it perfect for attending multiple times. Having been in similar situations, and viewed theatre productions that did not manage to pull off this technique well, I was impressed by the stage direction. Keeping the main action central, while maintaining interesting side action, is more difficult than it appears. Director Lesley Schisgall Currier did a marvelous job of balancing the stage, and providing a visual feast throughout. The set design took advantage of the outdoor setting and surrounding trees, integrating them into Spanish buildings that looked quite at home in California. As evening progressed, the trees around the amphitheater cast stunning shadows upon the walls of the set, surrounding the actors in intricate branches that reflected the theme of Horatio’s having been hanged upon a tree. When I saw the long list of characters, I hoped those from Spain would be garbed in different colours from those of Portugal, and indeed that was the case. I had no trouble seeing the difference, thanks to Abra Berman’s costume design. I was particularly taken by Bellimperia’s dress, which combined a youthful and lethal feel similar to her character.
Like Shakespeare, Thomas Kyd’s play brings dire tragedy and comedy together—the Prince is so full of himself he becomes a comedic figure, while Bellimperia’s brother is so cruel it is difficult to resist throwing tomatoes at him like they would have in the original production. He received many “boooos” and “hhssss” from the appreciative audience. Although there were many similarities to Shakespeare’s later plays, such as the theme of swiftly being brought high and low in Coriolanus, the overall impression I received was of Much Ado About Nothing, if it had a heap of bodies at the end. From the bumbling watch, Horatio and Bellimperia’s interaction, and especially Lorenzo (Dashiell Hillman) and Balthazar “in time the savage bull doth bear the yoke” I saw constant echoes of that play. While the language is not of the calibre of Shakespeare, it has its own attraction, using repetition such as “eternal night” and other devices. Many times I was able to finish a line in my head before the actor said it, merely because the poetry had a charming predictability to it.
The majority of the cast gave a solid performance, and truly embodied their characters. Of especial note was Bellimperia, who shifted between echoes of Kate in Taming of the Shrew to Lady Macbeth in the Scottish Play with smooth precision. Lorenzo has the finest death scene I have seen upon a stage, and Julia Schulman as Revenge, despite being only in seventh grade, did excellent work. Although Hieronimo was not bad, I felt as if the role was being performed, not fully embraced yet. I was attending a preview, so I am sure it will be improved by opening night. Several scenes still had emotional resonance to them, especially toward the end of the play, when Julian Lopez-Morillas threw himself into the role, and the moments feigned madness were well done indeed. Prince Balthazar was deliberately overacted for comedic effect, which I thought highly amusing, but I took note that some members of the audience were confused by it. Although his character is quite elderly, I found the constant fidgeting of the Viceroy of Portugal (Jack Powell) rather distracting, especially when compared to the King of Spain (Jeffrey Lloyd Heatherly) who came across with a powerful presence reminiscent of King Robert Baratheon in Game of Thrones.
The Spanish Tragedy is a highly diverting evening of comedy, tragedy, and mayhem, as exciting as any Shakespeare play. It is a must for those interested in Elizabethan plays, and any theatre-goer who enjoys a good romp. From a historical perspective, it is easy to see how a pile of dead Spaniards at the end would be beloved to a late 16th century English audience, but from a purely theatrical view the play is a gem as well. I would highly recommend attending The Spanish Tragedy not once but twice in order to fully appreciate it. This is the sort of play that cannot be read—it needs to be seen, and this is a rare opportunity, so take advantage of it!