The great Spanish dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca is known to American audiences chiefly through his two poetic tragedies, "Blood Wedding" and "The House of Bernarda Alba." Now GALA Hispanic Theatre has given us a production of his entrancing one-act "The Love of Don Perlimplin and Belisa in the Garden." If the GALA company isn't quite up to the play -- which is a small masterpiece -- neither does the ensemble let it down. The director, GALA's producing artistic director Hugo Medrano, clearly loves "Don Perlimplin," and like an old-fashioned lover he has put himself in total service to its lyrical, cynical, sensual charms. The result isn't a perfect evening in the theater, but it's often a magical one.
Anglo-Saxon writers traditionally separate spiritual and physical love. Garcia Lorca's genius in "Don Perlimplin" is to show that they are the same, that fleshly love can in itself inspire the lover to creativity and transcendence. Garcia Lorca takes the old story of an elderly man who weds a young, sexy wife and overloads it with poetry, masque, sex jokes, romanticism, philosophy; I've never seen a more convincing paean to anti-naturalism. With its old lover and young beloved, its adultery, disguises and garden, "Don Perlimplin" resembles nothing so much as the libretto to some lost Mozart opera. It has the same lyric sensuality.
Don Perlimplin is shy of marriage at first: "When I was a child, a wife strangled her husband. ... I've always intended not to get married." As Joe McCain plays him, the poor Don, in his powdered wig and brocade suits, rather resembles a large, timid mouse. But McCain makes the transition from petulant, spoiled child to romantic, destroyed man. His Don Perlimplin is illusionless, all too aware of the trick nature has played on him: bringing him the opportunity for undreamed-of sensual delight when he has grown too old to really grasp it. Still, his young wife sets something in him free -- "I had no idea the world was such a wonderful place!" -- and he acts out a lover's destiny.
The play starts off elegant and cynical and gently whirls upward to high romanticism. At the start, Medrano is perhaps a little crasser than Garcia Lorca intended. Belisa (Campbell Echols) first appears half-nude in pantalets and hoopskirt frame. She's saucily erotic, but Don Perlimplin has no particular reaction. And by showing Belisa's body so early, Medrano steps on one of Garcia Lorca's jokes: Don Perlimplin tells Belisa that he never thought of love until he peeped through the keyhole to watch her dress for the wedding and saw her nude. Garcia Lorca takes this sardonic joke and turns it into the heart of the play -- Don Perlimplin is spiritually awakened through his senses. "What do I want with your soul?" he cries to Belisa. "It's not your soul I want, but your trembling white body!"
Elsewhere, though, Medrano keeps the play twirling smoothly among Naul Ojeda's stylized green, red and black furnishings and through Hal Crawford's malachite-colored set. It's the old dance of man and woman, groom and bride, love and death. "Don Perlimplin" is a play that justifies the cliche "a little jewel." At roughly an hour in length, it wouldn't be financially feasible for a larger-budget theater to risk. Fortunately, Washington has GALA to provide it for us.
The Love of Don Perlimplin and Belisa in the Garden, by Federico Garcia Lorca. Directed by Hugo Madrano; lights and set, Hal Crawford; costumes, Regula Schmid; music design and composition, Mercy O'Bourke; stage furniture, Naul Ojeda. With Joe McCain, Loretto McNally, Campbell Echols, Gere Thompson, Joaquin Foster-Gross, Oskar Moran, Jorge Anaya, Daniel Luna, Giovanni Pellegrini, Astrid Brinck. At GALA Hispanic Theatre, 1625 Park Rd. NW, through March 3.