14 November 2009: de Molina, Marta the Divine

Translated and adapted by Harley Erdman. Umass Theater, Rand Theater. Directed by Gina Kaufmann

A thoroughly delightful and very funny adaptation of a play by the prolific Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina, author of some ninety surviving plays out of an unknown total. There is a certain formulaic quality to the play. If it were an Italian playwright in question, one could make certain references to pasta machines churning out delightful but predictable semolina concoctions that needed only a few minutes in boiling water to be palatable. As it is, although I do not know of a Spanish equivalent, the formula is safe in the hands of a master. Melina had a good idea and spent a very productive weekend on it. The good idea was to write a play with a central character, a woman who wants to rebel against the few, colorless conventional choices available to most women in this society, without having to pay any price at all. The resourceful Marta is capable of responding to any challenge by disguising herself, telling what are in grave moral situations called lies, pitting fools against one another, biding her time without ever seeming in the least passive, and otherwise demonstrating her talent for seizing the main chance. The actress playing Marta, Monica Giordano, is fully up to the challenge, as much as her character is. More round than sylph-like, in another ten or fifteen years she will be fully up to such roles as Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, Volumnia, Queen Katherine, and other commanding, self-asserting women of such ilk.

This is a way of saying that Molina’s play would be somewhat bland without a strong actress playing the title role and, for that matter, a clear-sighted, imaginative director to pick up all of Molina’s signals, written originally for a company of actors who were very used to doing that and running expertly with them. That director also must be someone who is confident enough of her abilities to have a really good time with the script and to encourage all her actors to do the same. Gina Kaufmann is such a director, and her production turned out to be a sheer joy to watch. This was just the third performance, but already it seemed that all the kinks had been thoroughly ironed out; the timing was faultless from beginning to end, and the actors had all relaxed into their parts.

The characters are type characters, of a kind that reminded me of the characters of the Italian commedia dell’arte: nicely inhabitable by performers who are used to playing the same role in a number of marginally different guises, using the special business, the body language, the gait, the vocal mannerisms that go with the role. (Perhaps the most memorable example of that, in a crowded field, was the servant Inés, who had a delightful way of walking pidgeon-toed up on her toes, her forearms held at bosom-level and the hands dangling from the wrists, all the while with a perpetual empty-headed “I’m just a servant but I’m good at my work” smile on her face.) And so we have the resourceful heroine, the sister who lives in her shadow, the clever servant — two of them, in fact — the braggart warrior, the anxious father, the doddering old man who knows himself so little that he looks to marry a young wife, and of course the young lover. Molina knows these characters very well, knows how to put them together in various combinations, spinning out a plot that it would be worth your life to try to summarize, and has such confidence in his acting company that he can leave the finer points to them. I do not know where Gina Kaufmann learned all she needed to know to reenact these dramaturgical and actorly circumstances, but somehow she knew it. While the characters are on, they are at the center of attention; we do not need to worry about the further evolution of the plot, we only need to be concerned with the crisis uppermost at the current moment. And so, the more the characters get into difficulty, or are led into it by the scheming Marta, the more we are delighted to laugh at their problems, knowing that somehow they will all be worked out. Kaufmann added an extra measure of up-to-date-ness by extensive cross-casting, using a wonderfully fey man, Sam Bosworth, to play Marta’s hesitant but surprisingly resourceful sister Lucia, and also cross-casting the clever servant and the adventurer Don Gomez. The only disappointment in the play was the colorless young lover, Felipe, who did his bit and adopted the various disguises that the plot required, but never really showed himself to be the kind of partner, lover, and eventual husband that would be suitable for a woman as charming and self-reliant as Marta. (Come to think of it, perhaps the kind of man she would be best off with would be Mr. Bland.) He was, in fact, doubly unconvincing because as the story would have it he had killed Marta’s brother and had been forced into hiding and adopting some disguise or other as a result. I do not think it was the fault of the actor, Andrew Ferlo, in this case. It reminded me in fact of the rather colorless lovers in Gilbert and Sullivan operas, who are there because they can sing the high notes of the tenor role but cannot really convince you of their virility, their self-reliance, or their genuine taste for love-making. (We had such a tenor in the recent Valley Light Opera Pirates of Penzance.) Setting that one exception aside, the rest of the cast was extremely well-suited to their roles and launched themselves into them with energy and elan.

The stage setting was very effective and quite simple. A bare stage, for the most part, with easy entrances and exits through curtains left and right. And on stage a set of portals, I suppose they should be called, seemingly representing an architectural feature such as one finds in the exuberant architecture of both medieval and modern Spain: a simple arch, its two sides curving together and joining in a point at the top. There were five of these arches, a good six feet tall, painted aluminum, wide enough for one or sometimes two persons to walk through together, and light enough for one person to lift and move about the stage or carry offstage. The deft manipulation of these arches by the characters as needed to serve the exigencies of the action was easy and always a pleasure to watch. It was a simple and very effective way of changing the “scenery” without impeding the flow of the action for a second. Sometimes as many as five or six characters would perform a kind of snakelike chain of movement through one arch, then back through the next, then winding around and moving forward through another. These movements were wonderfully suggestive of various settings in the urban landscape, settings through which characters come and go in unpredictable combinations.

Then we came to the last scene, a night scene set in the garden of the ducal palace, where fantastical costumes were the rule and where the arches were pressed into multiple service, facilitating what one might call the triumph of disguise and confusion. It was difficult to understand just what this scene was doing in working out the problems that beset the characters; perhaps if I read the play, I would be able to figure that out. Really, it did not matter. It was a delightful scene, in the half light of a night setting, and we found we could just sit back, relax, and enjoy it, without troubling overmuch over what ulterior purpose it might have been designed to serve. And, as I think about it, it seems it added a larger, dream-like dimension to a play that seems to focus on the everyday, real difficulties of people who are trying to remain optimistic in an uncertain, unpredictable world.

That is Molina’s world of comedy. It stands, actually, on closer inspection, on the threshold of a darker universe, but determined not to look through the door. The play begins with news of the killing of the heroine’s brother, and were it not for generous forgiveness, exercised at the end by more than one person in authority, and the outlay of exceedingly large sums of money, all would have come to naught.

The costumes, which took a lighthearted look at the styles of the age, an age when costume described status and occupation as much as personal taste, were equally serviceable, very much indicative of the type characters that they clothed, and as much representative of high imaginative design as anything else in the play. I cannot imagine that the UMass Theater Department has lots of money for such things these days, but it certainly looked as if they did not have to scrimp.

In short, it was a beautifully and sleekly well mounted production from beginning to end. I should add that the music also had a kind of animated, illustrative quality that was used frequently to point up a piece of the action or otherwise enhance the moment. At this point, having seen the first two of six plays scheduled for the UMass Theater subscription season and having been amazed by the quality and care of selection, mounting, and performance, my only wonder is whether they will be able to keep it up at this remarkable rate.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book