In Spite of Love

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Editorial Review

Theater review: ‘In Spite of Love’ at GALA Hispanic Theatre
By Celia Wren
Sept. 17, 2012

They’re not quite Beatrice and Benedick, or Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Still, an appealing antagonism waxes and wanes between Carlos, count of Urgel, and Diana, princess of Barcelona, the headstrong protagonists of the Spanish Golden Age comedy “El desden con el desden (In Spite of Love).” Witness, for instance, the archly tense garden scene in Hugo Medrano’s decorous if sometimes plodding production of the play for GALA Hispanic Theatre.

Diana (the charismatic Natalia Miranda-Guzman) is a haughty bluestocking who had no interest in romance until Carlos (Ignacio Garcia-Bustelo) proclaimed himself immune to amorousness. That piqued her interest. Now, in the garden, each is thoroughly smitten with the other, and each is striving to inspire passion while personally maintaining a show of chilly indifference.

To that end, dressed in her petticoats, Diana is clustered with her attendants at one end of the courtyard, warbling a song designed to make her seem irresistible. The princess keeps casting sidelong glances at Carlos, who stands at the garden’s opposite end, studiously examining the flora instead of the ladies. Irritated, the princess launches into another melodious verse. “The laurels are fine,” Carlos muses, though he’s obviously finding it difficult to keep his back turned on the women. “But that cherry tree spoils the hyacinth bed.”

There’s an appealing undertow of goofiness in this scene, which benefits from designer Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden’s sedate Renaissance-garden set. But much of the liveliness in 17th-century playwright Agustin Moreto’s comedy percolates on a more intellectual plane. As they slog towards a happy detente, Diana and Carlos wage a battle of wits, exchanging abstraction-laced banter about love, reason and willfulness at such speed that the logic of their arguments can be hard to follow. (The play is performed in Spanish with English surtitles.)

But you don’t need to process every syllogism to appreciate the romantic intrigue, and you can’t help but enjoy the expressive performance of Miranda-Guzman, whose Diana glides from scholarly aloofness through annoyance, resentment, fuming jealousy and desperation. Garcia-Bustelo’s Carlos sometimes seems a little too subdued in comparison. Meanwhile, Antonio Vargas capers around animatedly in the role of Polilla, Carlos’s servant. A self-satisfied rascal who’s not shy about sharing opinions, Polilla eventually dons spectacles and a fuddy-duddy hat and affects a stoop to impersonate a doddering doctor and win Diana’s confidence.

Carlos Castillo minces around amusingly as the Prince of Bearne, one of Diana’s suitors, and Manolo Santalla nails the genial vexation of Diana’s father, who is exasperated by his daughter’s refusal to wed. Lorena Sabogal hits the right easygoing notes as Diana’s kinswoman Cintia, and guitarist Behzad Habibzai supplies tuneful underscoring and accompaniments as a court musician.

All the performers look handsome in designer Alicia Tessari Neiman’s period costumes — colorful, festive outfits reflecting the Carnival-setting, a detail that ties in nicely with the disguises and deceptions in the plot.

“El desden con el desden” isn’t as arresting as other Spanish Golden Age productions GALA has mounted in recent years — 2010’s “El Caballero de Olmedo” (“The Knight From Olmedo”) by Lope de Vega being a memorable example. But the central romance is elegant, and you have to admire some of the characters’ snarky remarks about love. At one point, for example, Polilla declares that love makes people go bald. The makers of Rogaine must wish that were true.

By Agustin Moreto. Directed by Hugo Medrano; lighting, Joseph R. Walls; sound, Brendon Vierra; properties, Tessa Grippaudo; music selection and arrangements, Mariano Vales; choreography, Lourdes Elias. With Ricardo Navas, Belen Oyola-Rebaza and Cecilia De Feo. In Spanish with English surtitles (English translation, Heather McKay). About two hours. Through Oct. 7 at GALA Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. Call 800-494-8497 or 202-234-7174, or go to www.galatheatre.org.