Federico García Lorca's Blood Wedding isn't a play that's "fun" in any traditional sense of the word; you're thrown into complex states of grief and anger within this classic's first few lines of dialogue, and even the infrequent moments of levity are suffused with dread. (By all accounts, the Spanish playwright wasn't exactly a load of laughs, and for understandable reason.)
Yet in a true surprise, I almost never stopped smiling through the course of Augustana College's current take on the piece, because director Jeff Coussens' endeavor is being produced with such fervor and commitment that happiness almost becomes your default position. Working from a translation by Lillian Groag, this Lorca presentation sounds great and looks even better; it's the rare case of a first-rate stylistic exercise also succeeding as a first-rate entertainment.
Set in Spain's Andalucian Mountains at the turn of the 20th Century, the play finds a bridegroom (Bart Curtin) preparing to marry a local woman (Veronica Smith), much to the dismay of his mother (Sara Potts); the bride-to-be, we learn, was once the beloved of Leonardo (Ben Webb), whose family is responsible for the violent deaths of the bridegroom's brother and father. (Upon the first mention of Leonardo - the only named character in Lorca's play - the mother reflexively spits.) Yet the wedding plans, and the wedding itself, commence, and what follows is elemental family tragedy in which the sins of the past inevitably catch up to the present, and characters that act on instinct, and presume to possess free will, find themselves thwarted by fate.
Considering Blood Wedding's bleak storyline and its reputation as a theatrical classic of high seriousness, is it wrong to admit that, at Augustana's Saturday-night presentation, I felt like giggling about three seconds after the stage lights first came up? I'm hoping not, because this isn't meant derisively - the production's opening beats, with the bridegroom intently sharpening his knife while the figure of Death (a wonderfully creepy Alexandra Eggert) hovers in the background, are so unsettling and filled with portents of doom that they put you in a thrillingly expectant frame of mind from the outset. (The giggles I was suppressing were nervous ones, but enjoyably nervous ones.) And my expectations grew as the scene progressed, because Sara Potts was so completely, passionately in character that you immediately knew that even if the production itself collapsed, this vibrant performer would remain well worth watching. (It didn't, and she was.)
None of the leading actors has an easy task in Lorca's play - relentless intensity and humorlessness is a tough assignment even given Blood Wedding's swift 90-minute running length - but Potts manages to find enormous variety in her bitterness and rage. With the subtlest changes in timbre and inflection, the performer suggests a woman as puzzled by life as she is beaten down and angered by it, and she generates marvelous empathy; in a work that's (by necessity) devoid of even one recognizable joke, Potts' mother manages to score the production's sole laugh when her son explains his intended's wedding-day depression with "It's a difficult day for brides," and she replies, with bewilderment, "It's the only happy one."
All throughout this Blood Wedding, there are portrayals so sharp and assured that you find yourself grinning even though Lorca's plotting hardly merits it. Webb delivers an inspiringly confident and gratifyingly mean turn as a man with no use for tradition or societal conventions, and he shares a series of remarkable scenes with the powerfully affecting Kyle Roggenbuck as Leonardo's wife; their terse, incensed exchanges hint at entire lifetimes of sorrow and disappointment.
Though Curtin could stand to project more vocally - he's difficult to hear when speaking beneath musical accompaniment - he displays impressive fire as the show nears its conclusion, and Liz Stigler exudes a marvelous, plaintive melancholy as the bride's mother. Katie McCarthy and Jake Lange, as the bride's maid and father, are welcome embodiments of sweet-tempered acceptance. And Smith, demonstrating superb diction and stylistic awareness, makes a transition from poised to ravaged with panache. (Smith also pulls off a fantastically uncomfortable moment when the bridegroom places his arms around her from behind and she whispers, "Don't," then turns to look at him and adds, "Oh, it's you.")
Working with Adam Parboosingh's evocative scenic and lighting designs and Ellen Dixon's superlative costumes - the wedding dress(es) alone might be worth the show's admission price - Coussens (who also serves as sound designer) offers a batch of gloriously memorable sequences: the oppressive ticking of a clock as characters suffer through a meeting of the families; an Act I tableau that reveals the nightmare of geniality; a wedding dance that's at once exultant and oddly violent; the climactic, silhouetted face-off between Leonardo and the bridegroom. Through deceptively simple means, the images here pack significant dramatic punch, as does Blood Wedding itself; the production might not be "fun," per se, but it's smart and potent and, for a work haunted by death, determinedly - even delightfully - alive.
For tickets, call (309) 794-7306.