Trinity Rep reaches back 500 years or so to a Spanish play to close the theater season. Critic Bill Gale says it has plenty to say about then and now.
Every regional theater wants to finish its performing year with a hit, with a production that will send audience members home thinking, “if they can be that good, I'll renew my subscription.”
Well, at Trinity these nights there's no doubt in my mind that the theater has turned to a masterpiece and made it a triumph, once again. “Like Sheep to Water” was written in the early 1600s by Lope de Vega, a Spanish writer perhaps second only to Miguel de Cervantes.
The work reaches deeply into the pride and prejudices of Spain then, and also means much today. It concerns a small town, Fuente Ovejuna, which is attacked and scorched by vicious, slaughtering soldiers who rob and rape at will, until the townspeople, men and women, fight back. They lose much. There's great pain and mental suffering but, finally, the peasants overcome their attackers, renew their lives.
At Trinity, this Shakespeare-era play has been cut up and added to with considerable grace by the theater's artistic leader, Curt Columbus. He and director Mark Valdez, brought in from Los Angeles, have combined to reach physically and mentally into the 1600s and today.
Sure, Queen Isabella, played with wonderful snobby nastiness by Rachael Warren, wears a gorgeous gown by designer Garry Lennon. It is all 1600. But others scamper over the upstairs stage in gaudy 2017 sneakers and shoot around on kids’ bikes, too.
Director Valdes's pace is quicksilver. Every action receives its due at high speed, with clear, direct indications. On Michael McGarty's seemingly old-fashioned set, actors pop from corners, surprising you and immediately letting you know just what they mean and what they want to put across.
Each scene in this two-hour production including an intermission is crisp and sure. Whether it was women coming to battle, to be just as vicious and killing as their male counterparts, or others such as a remarkable Stephen Berenson playing a whipped but never defeated peasant, the production is always clear as a great bell, serious as the best kind of theater.
Fred Sullivan Jr. is a bitter, slimy Commander who never lets up in his drive to win all. You find yourself gleaming when he gets his. Joe Wilson Jr. is the peasant leader who is at once loving, but with the ability to fight, too.
Women take a large, forward movement in this production. Octavia Chavez-Richmond, Anita Castillo-Halvorssen and others carry the fight as well as the men. Add to this a terrific on-stage all-the-time band led by Jerediah “Big Scythe” Gonzalez. It gives this season end-er a continuous musical back-up.
Now, I suspect, there will be theater-goers who will find this work a bit tough to take. Despite all the humor, and there's lots of that, the production essentially points out the nasty side of life whether in 2017 or hundreds of years ago.
But it is so well done, so true to the way the world turns, that anyone who loves theater ought to see it.
Like Sheep to Water continues at Trinity Rep through June 11. Bill Gale reviews the performing arts for Rhode Island Public Radio