GALA Theatre stages Lope de Vega's 'El Caballero de Olmedo'

Jerry Nelson Soto, left, Juan Caballero and Emme Bonilla in "El Caballero de Olmedo"/"The Knight From Olmedo" by Lope de Vega.
Jerry Nelson Soto, left, Juan Caballero and Emme Bonilla in "El Caballero de Olmedo"/"The Knight From Olmedo" by Lope de Vega. (Stan Weinstein)
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2010

"Passion" is a word that José Luis Arellano García, the director of GALA Theatre's new production, "El Caballero de Olmedo," frequently reaches for when describing the dramatic traditions of Spain, his native country.

Spain was home to "Caballero" playwright Lope de Vega, the 17th-century writer who imbued every line with that passion -- and the love, jealousy and duplicity that it inspires.

To elicit authentic emotion from the actors who would star in "Caballero," there was only one thing to do: jet the actors to Spain itself.

In Madrid, the cast participated in workshops to learn the art of creating classical Spanish theater, but there was a more ambitious reason for the trip.

"The most important point of the workshops was that the actors try to smell the energy . . . to smell the reality of the country," says Arellano García. "What is going on with this passion, with these people?"

It's no accident that GALA is launching its season in such dramatic fashion: It is the Spanish-language theater's 35th anniversary, and "Caballero" is an old favorite -- the company last performed it in 1985, in English. This time, to ensure that the production will live up to the momentous occasion, it is a project of two countries. It will be performed in Spanish, with actors performing songs from Spain's baroque era, on a set designed in Spain. The Spanish Embassy pulled a few strings to make it possible.

"The whole project of producing and collaborating on the whole production with actors, designers, producers . . . the whole idea of people from two countries working together -- it's exceptional," says Hugo Medrano, GALA's artistic director.

As part of the workshops, the actors went to the Prado in Madrid to see the 16th- and 17th-century paintings of Velázquez and El Greco.

But to experience Spain as one might have in Lope's time, all they had to do was observe the architecture and landmarks of Spain's capital city. "We're still living in the baroque," Arellano García says of Madrid.

"Caballero" follows a blossoming love between a knight and a king's daughter that quickly devolves into a violent turf battle between two towns. It is frequently compared to "Romeo and Juliet," perhaps because Lope shared Shakespeare's love for damning twists of fate and for exposing the flaws in human nature. But the play is unusual in that Lope deftly balanced the comic and the tragic.

"Everybody loves Lope's plays when they see them," says producer David Peralto. "It's tragedy. It's comedy. They say it's our Shakespeare."

Adds Arellano García: "I don't think we're going to bring something new. We're going to bring something very, very old: the passion. Classic authors, they speak about something that's very deep in our souls."

El Caballero de Olmedo/The Knight From Olmedo In Spanish with English supertitles. Thursday-Oct. 17. GALA Theatre-Tivoli, 3333 14th St. NW. 202-234-7174. $20-$36.

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