LA JOLLA — It's a stern Great World Drama title, Federico Garcia Lorca's "Blood Wedding" ("Bodas de Sangre"). In this case it's also a major regional theater season opener, carrying an implicit reassurance to the timid: Don't worry, you'll get your musical--"Thoroughly Modern Millie"--at the other end of the season.
A new era has begun at the La Jolla Playhouse, now under the artistic directorship of Annie Hamburger, former head of New York's roving En Garde Arts troupe. To launch her first Playhouse season, Hamburger selected "Blood Wedding" and, with it, London-based director Mark Wing-Davey.
The production is very strong, conceptually aggressive and deeply atmospheric, from its stage floor of reddish-brown dirt to a remarkable depiction of Lorca's moon, embodied by an actor (Jonathan Del Arco, painted bone-white) hoisted upside-down high above the increasingly bloody activity below.
With this show, the Playhouse seems to have revisited the best of the Des McAnuff La Jolla Playhouse years. Though imperfect and unevenly acted, the production harkens back to a time when, here and there throughout the American regional theater circuit, before the funding and the nerve started to fade, you'd occasionally encounter the work of directors who were more than hands-off actor-manager types.
Though director Wing-Davey's "Blood Wedding" offers continual musical pleasures, he's not interested in quaint folklore. (Neither was Lorca.) Also, no flamenco trappings here. Many productions of "Blood Wedding" favor the flamenco-charged choreographic interpretation; last fall, in downtown L.A., the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts fared well along flamenco lines.
Instead, Wing-Davey scores this "Blood Wedding" with an international array of folk songs, work songs, love songs from Spain (the play's setting), South Africa, even the Republic of Georgia, sung by the cast.
Written in 1932, the play has been shifted forward to a 1950s setting--and then, forward again, midway through. Lorca took his story from a newspaper account, about a woman who fled with her former lover on the day she was to marry someone else. Here the bride is played by Onahoua Rodriguez. The mama's-boy groom is played by Anthony Diaz-Perez; Leonardo, the bride's simmering ex, is played by Bobby Plasencia. All three are superbly costumed by Marina Draghici.
A long-standing blood feud has led to the murder years earlier of the groom's father. The groom's mother, the force of gravity in any "Blood Wedding," is here given an extraordinary portrayal by Ivonne Coll. You feel the weight, the force of loss in every tight-lipped expression and inflection, thanks to Coll. This woman could take on Mother Courage and Medea and not break a sweat.
At one point, when the woodcutters appear, Wing-Davey throws us forward in time; these woodcutters carry chain saws, and aren't afraid to use them. It's a dubious touch, more ham-handed than the other conceptual flourishes. But the show has an unerring look. Scenic designer Douglas Stein makes wonderful use of huge sheets of clear plastic--a forest of shower curtains. The story takes us from elemental ruddy-looking dirt to a sleek, cold industrial aesthetic, given just the right slashes and blasts of light by lighting designer Michael Chybowski.
The bilingual cast, which will perform two shows in Spanish, dives into this assignment head-first. Some of the acting lacks nuance, and the three central young-lovers performances sometimes strain for effect. Director Wing-Davey's ultimately more interested in depicting the metaphoric forces that bring these lovers down, rather than the forces initially bringing them together.
On the high end, though, the acting crackles. Coll's mother shares an excellent scene with Jeanne Sakata, as a gossip-fueled neighbor. Maricela Ochoa's maid is highly stylized--like a commedia dell'arte maid relocated to rural Spain--and highly effective. Wing-Davey keeps the full ensemble around and about throughout, watching the action unfold.
The opening-night Playhouse audience didn't seem quite ready for the poetic metaphor-sodden Lorca universe, with its obsessive focus on knives and blood and blood-lust and lust, sans the blood. I can only speak for myself. I found the experience almost wholly captivating. The Annie Hamburger years are off to a confident start.
* "Blood Wedding," La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Theatre, UC San Diego, La Jolla Village Drive at Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Spanish-language performances June 21 and June 23. (Pay-what-you-can 2 p.m. June 10.) Ends July 2. $19-$39. (858) 550-1010. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
Ivonne Coll: Mother of the groom
Anthony Diaz-Perez: Bridegroom
Onahoua Rodriguez: Bride
Bobby Plasencia: Leonardo
Maricela Ochoa: Maid to the Bride
Lina Acosta: Wife
Jonathan Del Arco: Moon
Jeanne Sakata: Neighbor
Winston J. Rocha: Father
Written by Federico Garcia Lorca, translated by David Johnston. Directed by Mark Wing-Davey. Scenic design by Douglas Stein. Costumes by Marina Draghici. Lighting by Michael Chybowski. Musical director Jeff Nevin. Movement by Jean Isaacs. Stage manager Grayson Meritt.