Theatre Pro Rata’s current production of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy is the kind of big, sloppy, wacked-out mess of a play that you can’t help being seduced by. The “sloppy” and “mess” parts aren’t Pro Rata’s doing, they come courtesy of Mr. Kyd. Pro Rata, as always, fiercely embraces their playwright of choice (this time one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries). As a result, their finely tuned work follows Kyd’s play straight over the top, so far over the top that you’re so high above the top you can’t see it down there anymore. It’s a giddy, blood-soaked amusement park of a story that careens wildly from dark humor to romance to one outrageous killing after the next.
The Spanish Tragedy is credited as one of the major influences for Shakespeare’s Hamlet and one can certainly see the similarities. But while the character of Hamlet is often accused of inaction, the characters in The Spanish Tragedy are all so active, they’re practically spastic by comparison. I must hasten to add that all this is a very good thing.
|the spanish tragedy, playing through march 28 at gremlin theatre. for tickets ($14-$41, sliding scale) and information, see theatreprorata.org.|
The plot of The Spanish Tragedy is all but unsummarizable, since there are sub-subplots revolving around subplots revolving around the main plot at all times, but I’ll give it a go. At first blush, the play seems to be about the human fallout from an armed conflict between Spain and Portugal. At its heart, though, The Spanish Tragedy is about the lengths to which several men will go, some even after they’re dead, for the love of a special woman named Bel-Imperia (Amber Bjork). Bel-Imperia is the kind of lady Ophelia might have been if she’d had the mettle to take down a few of the bastards trying to manipulate her life before she, too, met her fate.
As the lights slowly rise, the first lines of the play are spoken by Bel-Imperia’s first love, Don Andrea (Erik Hoover), who died in battle, and now wanders around watching the living, accompanied by a slinky dark angel called Revenge (Ariana Prusak). Not to worry, Don Andrea’s good friend Horatio (Ryan Henderson) is there to offer comfort to Bel-Imperia in her time of grief, and of course one thing leads to another. But their love is to be short-lived, because the man who killed Don Andrea in battle, Balthazar (Grant Henderson), is determined to win Bel-Imperia’s heart for himself. Balthazar is aided in this quest by the entirely too interested Lorenzo (Clarence Wethern), none other than Bel-Imperia’s own brother. The fact that Lorenzo is not only willing but eager to pimp out his sister to his newfound buddy practically screams, “If I can’t have you, it might as well be my sister.” The plot construction goes way beyond love triangle; it’s almost an octagon.
Lurking around the edges of all this, of course, are the adults who think they’re running things—their countries, as well as their children’s lives. Bel-Imperia and Lorenzo’s father is the Duke of Castile (Aaron Greer) and their uncle is the King of Spain (Andy Chambers). Balthazar’s father is the Viceroy of Portugal (Ben Layne). All these men think the best thing for their countries would be the joining of Bel-Imperia and Balthazar in marriage, a merger of nations as well as families. The fact that Bel-Imperia is less than interested in the notion doesn’t trouble the men a bit.
Then there’s the father who lost his child: Heironimo (Keith Prusak) mourns his fallen son Horatio, and calls in vain for justice. So he decides to go vigilante and make some justice of his own. When his plotline collides with the other one, everything comes unglued mighty fast, and the body count, already fairly impressive, rises.
Director Carin Bratlie gets great work from her voluminous ensemble of actors. Bratlie’s additional contribution of a simple set design and resistance to getting bogged down in too many props serve to keep the production moving at a speedy clip. This is necessary, since the script burns through more plot (and characters) in the first act than a British soap opera does in a week. A central tree is bounded on either side by colorful curtains, which are only opaque when Julia Carlis’ lighting design wants them to be. It provides for multiple levels of action and places to hide—and when those curtains start getting pulled down toward the end of the production, that simple act makes a large impact. There’s also a nifty surprise lurking behind that last curtain, which I won’t spoil, but suffice it to say it’s a delightful little bit of theatricality.
Mandi Johnson’s costumes are pulling a lot of the visual weight in this production, and she makes them count. Blacks, whites and grays always have a healthy splash of red—often very bright red—nearby to punch up the palette. Plus, with numerous actors playing multiple roles, sometimes in both Spain and Portugal (Greer, R. Henderson, Hoover, both Prusaks, plus Anissa Brazill Gooch, Shannon Troy Jones, Valerie Rigsbee and Danielle Siver), the audience can use the visual reinforcement aiding the performances in telling people apart. My personal favorite bit of costuming magic (and that’s exactly what it felt like in the moment) was when Ariana Prusak was peeled out of her Revenge costume in full view of the audience and underneath was the white nightgown of Horatio’s grieving mother Isabella—an instant scene and character change. Brilliant.
The only stumbling block is the script itself. Bratlie and the actors struggle mightily, and often win, in the face of some of Kyd’s clunky rhyming couplets. The experience makes one appreciate anew just how damn easy Shakespeare makes it look, and just how hard these actors are working. There are reams of exposition in spots. It is only the subtle character work of the company that breathes life into this parade of names and faces. Bratlie’s smart decision to cast women in supporting roles which might have traditionally gone to men helps give much-needed variety to the population of palace underlings. Pro Rata’s production almost makes you think Kyd is solely responsible for the layers of meaning and character development going on here, but it’s actually a master class in how a director and a group of actors can make something highly entertaining out of the (sometimes) crudest of raw materials. The final “play within a play” bloodbath has to be seen to be believed. It’s a hoot. Just when you think it can’t get any weirder, weirder it gets.
****1/2: Very highly recommended.