Lope de Vega, whose "Fuente Ovejuna" opened Sunday night at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger, was a contemporary of Shakespeare, and it's tempting for an English-language audience to try to fit him into some Shakespearean niche -- history play, tragedy etc. But "Fuente Ovejuna" has no real relationship to Shakespeare's psychological dramas. This play, with its story of a village (Fuente Ovejuna) that overthrows an evil military tyrant, is one of those rich Spanish concoctions in which theatrical styles switch with dizzying suddenness and the playwright throws in everything he can: comedy, history, tragedy, dance, lecture, song. It's a remarkable play, but at the Folger, Rene Buch has directed a flat, morose production of it.
Buch puts his actors in severe black, white and gray, a sign of how he intends to treat the play's colorful complexity. He reduces it to a modern-day political fable by looking at it through Marxist glasses, reading it as a tale of solidarity against the oppressor.
From a 400-year distance, it's hard to say how appropriate this is to the text. The villagers end by swearing their allegiance to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, whom they regard with awe. On the other hand, de Vega was writing under a monarchy that was presumably, as monarchies are wont to be, touchy about criticism. In those circumstances, a flattering happy ending may have been a necessity if de Vega's career was to continue, and his suggestion that people have a right to overthrow unjust rulers can be seen as both brave and subversive.
Still, "Fuente Ovejuna" isn't very sophisticated politically: Its message about sticking together in order to oppose tyranny is commonplace. What it resembles more than a serious political play is a folk tale -- specifically one of those, like the "Pied Piper" or "The Devil's Bridge," in which the whole town is the protagonist. In both of those stories, the villages are dishonest. Fuente Ovejuna, however, is heroic: When the tyrant is killed and the villagers are asked who did it, their only reply, even under torture, is "Fuente Ovejuna."
The characters are types -- the young lovers, the wise old mayor, the village clown/coward, the student. There's really no room for the Anglo-American tradition of "character development" in a play where the author is throwing in jokes, asides, satire and philosophical musings whenever he feels like it.
Mengo, the clown, delivers a comic monologue comparing poets to potato fryers. The student, Leonelo, has a sardonic speech about the invention of printing resulting in nothing but the spread of useless information. Frondoso, the lover, has a social satire to deliver -- bullies, he notes, are euphemized as "strong-willed" and the mad as "so original." His beloved, Laurencia, responds that the genteel fall to the opposite folly: The polite are called flatterers and the generous ostentatious. This exchange of wit is rather like something out of Shakespeare, as is a debate between Mengo and Laurencia as to whether altruistic love exists (the message of the play is that it does). But these diversions don't move the play or deepen characterization as they would in Shakespeare. They're supposed to interrupt -- as if the train the audience was on pulled off on a siding so we could enjoy a juggler's performance.
There's no English-language acting tradition for this kind of artificial, multifaceted play with its variety of theatrical forms and explosive spirit. Buch opts for ponderous formality, as if he were directing a Greek tragedy. Robert Weber Federico gives him a grimly handsome setting for the action -- iron rods and a mesh grid surrounding the warm wood of the Folger stage pillars, and stark dramatic lighting. But Buch can't get his actors to bring the play to life. With a few exceptions -- Emery Battis as Esteban, Laurencia's father, who is also one of the mayors, and Ed Gero as the sullen, vain, bullying tyrant Don Gomez -- the actors seem lost in their roles. They don't have any psychological complexity to play and they're faced with stylized speeches: The result is that they pump a lot of generalized energy into their acting that fades all the emotional hues of the play to one dull shade. Vocally, almost all of them are out of their depth -- there's a lot of that hoarse, breathy ranting you get in bad Shakespeare (and that was so noticeably absent from the Folger's "Richard III" and "Othello" earlier this season).
Buch has taken de Vega's vital masterwork and made it play like a dead classic.
Fuente Ovejuna by Lope de Vega, translated by Adrian Mitchell. Directed by Rene Buch; production designed by Robert Weber Federico; music composed by Peter Golub. With Rebecca Thompson, Ted van Griethuysen, David Walker, Edward Gero, Michael Gaston, Richard Pelzman, Emery Battis, Curtis Shumaker, James Slaughter, Josie de Guzman, Diana Volpe, Gayle Finer, Carlos Juan Gonzalez, Quentin O'Brien, Edward Morgan, Bill Leone, Jose Luzarraga, Rafael Padron, Stephen DeRosa, George Altman, Robin Edwards, Heidi Guthrie, Ronnie Jenkins, Jemal McNeil, Kevin D. Roach. At the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger, through April 7.