The 11 Minutes Theatre Company has revived Fuenteovejuna, a seventeenth-century play by Lope de Vega based on a historical incident that took place in 1476. Fuenteovejuna is a small village that has come under the control of a violent and amoral commander. The play begins by celebrating the joyous innocence of the villagers, their spontaneous music-making and teasing, familiar warmth with each other, and also the love between Frondoso and the mayor's beautiful daughter, Laurencia, which culminates — after an eloquent conversation in which Frondoso asks the mayor for Laurencia's hand — in a wedding celebration. But Laurencia has already caught the Comendador's eye: Earlier, he tried to abduct her; Frondoso thwarted the attempt, and both know they are in danger. Sure enough, the Comendador returns to claim Laurencia, and Frondoso is taken away to be tried and hanged. In an extraordinary scene, Laurencia returns in her torn and stained wedding dress, her hair wild. The townspeople and the mayor prepare to comfort her, but comfort is not what she wants. What she wants is revenge. A medieval Pasionaria, she abuses the peasants for their passivity, mocks their cowardice and incites them to revolt.
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Lope de Vega was a contemporary of Shakespeare, whose great female roles were all played by boys. But actresses were allowed on Spanish stages at that time, and it's fascinating to realize that this frantic, suffering speech would have been delivered — as it is now on the stage of the Denver Civic — by a real woman. Images of Joan of Arc come irresistibly to mind as Brittany Lynn Wolff rouses her cohorts to action. But unlike the Maid of Orleans, Laurencia is driven neither by righteousness nor religion, and the revenge she and the villagers inflict on the Comendador is bloody and dark. Fuenteovejuna shows the irresistible force of a roused peasantry and the overthrow of tyranny, but the play is less a celebration of individual freedom than of what the villagers hope will be an ultimately just monarchy. Ferdinand and Isabel reclaim the village and use torture to investigate the uprising; the fate of the villagers rests entirely on their judgment and mercy.
This is a low-budget, low-tech production, but director Janine Ann Kehlenbach and her cast have worked with intelligence and commitment to fill the bare little auditorium with life. Flowers and other symbolic objects dot the acting space. The costumes are a skillful mix of historical and contemporary — the red fleury cross adorning a white T-shirt, for example — and blue jeans multiply as the action progresses. The style is presentational at points, sometimes satiric, with the Comendador's sidekick carrying a puppet and periodically snorting like a pig. Cast members provide musical accompaniment, move through the audience, sit silently in a semi-circle watching the action. They have varying skill levels, but there are a few standout performances, including Brock Benson as the Comendador and the passionate and beautiful Wolff.
Presented by 11 Minutes Theatre Company through June 2, Su Teatro @ the Denver Civic, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 720-333-3499, www.brownpapertickets.com.
Not only is Laurencia played by a woman, but several of the male roles are also taken by women. In this case, the mayor is Laurencia's mother, played with gravity by Margaret Amateis Casart. Instead of being a drawback, this adds poignancy to the mayor's courage in standing up to the Comendador, and even more to the moment when a furious Laurencia renounces her after the abduction: You are not my mother. Watching, I couldn't help remembering the photograph from My Lai of a cowering teenage girl buttoning her blouse while her mother tries desperately to shield her. We know now what happened to that mother and child when the photographer turned away; the crimes committed by occupying soldiers against unarmed populations is a theme as old as war itself.
This new company has taken on an ambitious project with very limited resources and tackled it with integrity. Despite the production's limitations, it leaves lingering memories: of human vitality even in the midst of carnage, of the horror and sadness of war.