On a blood-red tile floor stained with the sepia of age, rust or dried blood, before a great stucco arch which later becomes the outline of a full moon, The Mother (Scarlett Hepworth) puts a knife which her son The Groom (Ryan O’Donnell) has handed to her on an empty chair in front of the one in which she sits. She stares at it mournfully: “How can it be that something as small as a pistol or a knife can kill a man?”
So one passion, the unrelenting memory of a blood feud, becomes the dark undertow in the seeming happiness of The Groom’s announcement of his engagement. And there is another passion, another unforgotten memory: the secret and thwarted love between The Bride (Erin Gilley) from a remote farm, and hard-riding, ne’er-do-well, brooding Leonardo (John-Paul Goorjian): “To keep still when you’re on fire is the worst punishment we can inflict on ourselves.” Leonardo, the only one in the play with a proper name, is doubly fated, as scion to the family mortally locked in feuding with The Groom’s.
Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding, staged by Shotgun on Kate Boyd’s great set in a new translation (Michael Dewell and Carmen Zapata), begins with discordant notes sounded in The Mother’s complaints, in the gossip of neighbors (“What would he [Leonardo] be doing in that desert? ... they say the horse was drowned in sweat!”), in rumor and in the voiceless attitudes of oppression and hysteria that foreshadow the crisis, though not the manner of its unfolding onstage.
Director Evrin Odcikin has added the guitar (and, for one number, the singing, the heart of the form) of David McLean and the choreography of Yaelisa (daughter to the late singer Isa Mura), who together are credited with the music. Especially since Carlos Saura’s film of a dress run-through of Antonio Gades’ textless dance drama of the story, it’s become something of a cliche to make Blood Wedding into a full-blown flamenco show (an exception being Theatre of Yugen’s Kabuki-Flamenco fusion adaptation a few years back). But here, the music underscores certain moods and moments nicely, coming into its own at the wedding party, with the charming dances of the two Girls (Anna Ishida and Jessica Kitchens), who otherwise tease and attend The Bride and later sing and wind yarn in the wake of tragedy.
The bare plot would seem merely melodramatic, but Garcia Lorca’s poetic text concentrates on the sacramental, liturgical quality of his stylization of the folk speech of his native Andalusia, qualities often ascribed to cante flamenco as well. And the plot breaks, the story opens up to the fantastic, in a nocturnal world of fugitives in the shadow, branches in moonlight. The director credits Kate Boyd with the fine idea of having the cast face away from the audience. They stand on the chairs they sat in upstage, where they reacted to the action earlier like a flamenco chorus, and now they become trees with upraised, gesturing hands as branches which Woodcutters (John Mercer and Baruch Porras-Hernandez) talk of cutting down, so The Moon (a fabulous Dawn Scott, also Leonardo’s Wife) can “shine on the buttons that open the vest” to knife-thrusts as The Beggar (Patricia Miller, also The Bride’s Nurse) demands. “I am the false dawn in the treetops,” says The Moon, entering, “They will not get away!”
In the program and in interviews, the director—who speaks charmingly of seeing Blood Wedding performed as a boy in his native Istanbul, and of the first time he saw Yaelisa dance—talks about the importance of Duende, that relative of Socrates’ Daemon and the Islamic Baraka as well as of Poe’s Imp of the Perverse, which brings a vertigo of mortal anguish to life and art. He also mentions the reservations audiences seem to have about Lorca’s “old-fashioned dialogue.”
But the dialogue is the heart of this poet’s play, a timeless sense of repetition, underpinned by an echoless yet pregnant silence, delivered with a stark, insinuating finality. Just as the contrast between the blinding light of the south, plunged into the darkness of the night, with the seductive flicker of moonlight, defines the play’s setting, so the rhetoric of the dialogue is the very life of its characters, all folk types.
Mistaking decorative stylizations, like stamping, or choral reactions to certain lines, for the real, poetic thing, here the delivery of the text ends up lacking gravity, and is self-consciously thrown away. And the Duende that’s been extolled is passed over at its real, crucial moment by having The Groom and Leonardo fight onstage (choreographed well enough, but in imitation of Gades’ dancers shot in slow motion by Saura), later returning as spectres to present their bloody sashes. The playwright explicitly sets the fight offstage, punctuated by screams, then silence—and irremediable absence.
Most stagings in English of Lorca’s plays (and translations of his poetry, though Samuel Beckett’s friend Thomas McGreevy and Berkeley’s own Jaime De Angulo came up with rare exceptions) dwell on his supposed imagistic and surrealistic qualities. That’s something Bay Area poet Jack Spicer saw through, saying in his book After Lorca, addressing the dead Andalusian: “We have both tried to be independent of images ... to make things visible rather than to make pictures of them ... Things do not connect; they correspond.” That points to the Symbolist aesthetic—“Not the thing itself, but its effect”—from which Lorca innovated a complex, delicate style. Besides the elaborations of folk speech by poet Rosalia Castro and playwright Ramon del Valle-Inclan (both Galicians) another Celtic folk element comes into the origins of Blood Wedding: its inspiration from Riders to the Sea, by John Synge, Irish author of The Playboy of the Western World, close to W. B. Yeats and Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and to Maurice Maeterlinck and the Symbolist stage of Paris. It’s no mistake that James Graham-Lujan, Lorca’s friend and the first (and still finest) translator of his plays into English, used Synge’s tragedy as model for his version of Blood Wedding.
Shotgun’s production reaches out for some interesting effects that prove merely ornamental, making Blood Wedding into a vaguely Expressionistic potboiler. To paraphrase a critic of Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s epics, “Very pretty; not Lorca.”
Photograph by Howard Gerstein
Ryan O’Donnell, Erin Gilley and John-Paul Goorjian in Shotgun’s Blood Wedding.