Review: FUENTE OVEJUNA at City Lit Theater

Review: FUENTE OVEJUNA at City Lit Theater

Pictured (l-r): Jimmy Mann, Brian Bradford, Dylan Connelley, Dan McGeehan. Photo by Steve Graue.

By Elizabeth Ellis

Novelist Willa Cather posited that “there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” One such literary interpretation of this theme becomes apparent in Lope de Vega’s 400-year-old Spanish classic, FUENTE OVEJUNA: a bullied community rises up against its oppressors to finally regain control over their own destinies. In City Lit’s short and streamlined production, FUENTE OVEJUNA strikes a familiar chord for anyone who has had to take a stance against a cruel dominion.

FUENTE OVEJUNA, a small and vulnerable hamlet, has long been a battleground between two contentious 15th-century royal rivals: Alfonso, King of Portugal; and the Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. The young Grand Master of the Order of Calatrava, Rodrigo Téllez Girón (the driven Daniel Pass) operates as a pawn under the guidance and influence of the heartless and brutal commander and supporter of Alfonso, Fernán Gómez de Guzmán (the smoothly evil Varris Holmes), who regularly terrorizes the citizens, especially the women, he is charged to protect. Fernán whispers to the impressionable Rodrigo to take over the village, which will secure his influence with the Portuguese. As Fernán enters the village, he sees two townswomen, Laurencia and Pascuela (the strong and inspiring Carolyn Plurad and Kristen Alesia), who he attempts to abduct and bring back to his castle. The two fight him off and manage to escape. Laurencia and her fiancé, Frondoso (the bold and earnest Brian Bradford) later meet secretly in the forest. Fernán discovers Laurencia and approaches her to try to steal her away again. When he puts down his crossbow to assault Laurencia, Frondoso (who had hidden away to observe Fernán) emerges, picks up the crossbow to aim at Fernán. Laurencia wrestles from Fernán’s clutches, and while Frondoso doesn’t kill Fernán, the commander promises revenge on Frondoso.

Later, the village peasants meet under the leadership of their mayor and Laurencia’s father, Esteban (the wonderfully weak and fawning Rob Grabowski). Fernán happens upon them and demands that Esteban surrender Laurencia unto him, which Esteban refuses. Enraged, Fernán then has to depart immediately when one of his soldiers enters to inform him that the Spanish forces have surrounded a nearby city. Laurencia and Pascuela then escape with two other peasants: Mengo (the energetic Val Gerard Garcia, Jr.) and Jacinta (the feisty Carlyle DePriest), who endured beatings and rape at the hands of her captors. Upon their return to their home. Esteban allows the wedding of Laurencia and Frondoso, but Fernán interrupts the nuptials to arrest Frondoso for the crossbow incident. When Esteban and Laurencia protest, Fernan arrests them as well, and Fernán attempts to utilize the cruel practice of droit du seigneur. She escapes again and returns home to reprimand the men of the town for not better protecting her and the women of Fuente Ovejuna. Riled up by Laurencia’s harsh words, the men rush to attack Fernán, and kill him and all but one of his men, who then rushes to the Spanish to tell of the uprising. Ferdinand and Isabella respond by sending a member of the Inquisition to extract, at any cost, the truth of who is responsible for the crime. Despite the torture of men, women, and children, the townsfolk uniformly answer that the perpetrator is “Fuente Ovejuna!” (for modern day audiences, it brings to mind the classic response from the 1960 film: “I am Spartacus!”). With no one to charge, Ferdinand and Isabella pardon not only Fernán, but all the villagers as well.

Jeremy Hollis’ simple town plaza set, with a functioning fountain, provides an effective backdrop for Beth Laske-Miller’ rich and gorgeous costumes, the highlight of the production. Director Terry McCabe, who also adapted the script, has assembled a cast of more than able actors, but they seem somewhat stiff and uncomfortable with the formality of the language, and don’t completely connect with each other as characters. Though the play moves at a brisk pace, some moments of more intense drama don’t land, as when the men are mobilized to attack their oppressors, and some humor turns strangely farcical, as when Mengo licks the blood from his hands after the attack on Fernán. Despite this unevenness, this FUENTE OVEJUNA still has excellent and applicable lessons for a 21st-century audience. Rebellion against an unrepentant authority, the strength and unity of the people versus those in power, and that freedom and dignity belong to all people: all these concepts are as vital and as necessary now in our world as they were in 15th-Century Spain.

FUENTE OVEJUNA runs through February 17. For more information visit citylit.org.

About author

Elizabeth Ellis

Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.

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