BWW Review: Power to the People of FUENTE OVEJUNA
Like Sheep to Water, or Fuente Ovejuna, by Lope De Vega, was written in the early 1600s, but has been largely unproduced in the United States. Similar to a Shakespearean history, it's based on actual events that occurred in the Castilian region of Spain in 1476. This production was translated and adapted by Trinity Rep Artistic Director Curt Columbus, and manages to stir up plenty of emotion while injecting much-needed moments of comic relief. While the production, costumes and performances are excellent as they always are at Trinity Rep, the play itself is somewhat underwhelming despite containing classic themes of romance and triumph over oppression.
The people of Fuente Ovejuna are being terrorized by the military hero commander Fernan Gomez (Fred Sullivan Jr.), who at first protected and defended them, but more recently has let his hero status go to his head with horrifying results. He and his henchmen have the villagers completely under their control, and those who defy him suffer unspeakable horrors. Eventually the people of Fuente Ovejuna reach a breaking point and band together to overthrow the tyrant and take back their village. Of course, there may be another usurper waiting in the wings to take over what Gomez had, but the people of Fuente Ovejuna manage to win the day by sticking together.
The de facto leader of the villagers is Laurencia, played by Octavia Chavez-Richmond. She is a complicated character who fiercely prizes her independence, but who also falls in love with Frondoso, played by Orlando Hernandez. Unfortunately, on their wedding day, Fernan Gomez decides to lash out against her for resisting his advances and he kidnaps her, ultimately setting into motion his own downfall.
For a play as old as this one is, it seems remarkably ahead of its time in certain ways. Female characters are strong, and beaten down, but not defeated. Chavez-Richmond in particular does an excellent job endearing Frondoso and the audience to her, but then becomes almost terrifying when she decides to take on Gomez and stop waiting for men to save her.
The staging and pacing in this production work particularly well. Columbus was canny enough to add some modern vernacular to the translation, which makes it not only more accessible, but also gives Stephen Berenson ample opportunity to steal scenes as Mengo, the town hunchback. Unfortunately, Fred Sullivan Jr. feels miscast in his role as Fernan Gomez as he looks considerably older than one would expect a conquering hero to, and his performance seems somewhat bombastic rather than truly menacing. Timothy Crowe is also well-used as Flores, one of Gomez's henchmen, but one feels almost like he was chosen to make Sullivan look more appropriate for his role. It's hard to picture these two riding horse all day and fighting wars.
Overall, there's nothing inherently wrong with this production, but it just feels somewhat lackluster. Despite excellent sets and high energy scene transitions, the resident Trinity players seem as if they're struggling to make the script their own. Still, it's an inspiring story with some excellent music and a hopeful ending, which is a nice way to begin the summer.
Performances run through June 11. Tickets are on sale by phone at (401) 351-4242, online at www.trinityrep.com, or in person at the theater's box office at 201 Washington Street, Providence.
From left to right: Joe Wilson, Jr. as Esteban, Janice Duclos as Juana Roja. Forefront: Orlando Hernández as Frondoso and Octavia Chavez-Richmond as Laurencia, surrounded by the cast of Lope De Vega's Like Sheep to Water, or Fuente Ovejuna as translated by Curt Columbus, directed by Mark Valdez. Set design by Michael McGarty, costume design by Garry Lennon, lighting design by Karin Olson. Photo Mark Turek.