I’ll be harangued if I describe this play like a Disney movie. But that’s so much what it is! A lovely Disney movie! A callback to the heyday of Disney movies! An Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast. A whimsical love-story set in an archaic time, ruffled by the quixotically evil throes of a powerful madman and peppered with strange, eccentric comic characters to boot. There is a musical element that showcases the endearing romanticism of Spanish peasants with folks songs, harmony and guitar. And though it is of another place (rural Spain) and another time (early 17th Century), the accents and ethnicities of the actors are disloyal and therefore not obnoxiously trite in their attempts to homage the era fully. The tale is playful. It is Americanized. And it is truly a lovely show.
The chemistry between Siddiq Saunderson’s titular Peribáñez and Isabel Pank’s Casilda was palpable. Their love is a ridiculous exultation in every breath, but their touches are comfortable and linger with the romantic gravity which new love exposes despite discretion. There is an air between them which helps captivate the major theme of the play. Though because it’s outside, much of these intimate moments are literally yelled. The shouting makes a puppetry of the acting; an instant camp. But to battle the cicadas sonic tide coming in as the sun sets down, it’s a worthwhile sacrifice.
The set was impossibly constructed in its little niche in the rose garden of Mellon Park. A floating system of planks which can be mounted from all sides, directly touching the audience in thrust and on a hillside, because why not! Quantum’s use of space is unparalleled, because they construct the impossible and then unleash a childlike imagination to give verve to this imaginary landscape.
Megan Monaghan Rivas and Tlaloc Rivas’ direction was absolutely impeccable. The timing of this play has a boiling quickness, connecting primary plotlines through secondary and tertiary characters’ rapid change of costume and demeanor. Despite the limited space, there is so much utilization of movement. The floating stages are tapped on by constant feet, a nonstop parade of character action as the comedic plots intertwine.
And I must give credit to all the secondary characters, handling a small handful of personalities and still giving each of them a notable signature. When Freddy Miyares’ Leonardo’s name is called. He looks around first, creating a world that extends far beyond the small space it’s portrayed. It’s with little details that the flesh of his character is purported. When Sol M. Crespo’s Inéz watches a character speak, it’s Inéz whose eyes bulge in scandal, flirtation and intrigue. Her eyes deserve a reward as they emote more than her words are given chance. I should also compliment David Bielewicz’s Benito, whose quick rise to temper has such a cartoonish virulence. Anger that can so easily be treated as comedy is a force. And Don DiGiulio’s Lujan was such a roiling comedic treat. He had the tempo and charisma of a true storybook secondhand man, the comic foil from Disney’s golden age—an Iago or Sebastian. His comedic timing is a true talent.
And opposed to these well-handed comic archetypes, Mike Mihm’s villainous Commander has a good face for madness. The stern brutal autocrat looks at peasants the way a callous and distracted poultry farmer might look at chickens: with chilling, crystal eyes. His desire for pleasure overtakes his humanity; his objectification of women as surmountable, and peasant as purchasable, casts a true disparity with 2016’s ostensibly equalized society. The meaning this play attempts to invoke is carried strongly by his justification of his villainous acts. What is a villain if not a man so steeped in entitlement, he understandably loses his all sense of empathy.
Peribáñez is an adapted story from an early 17th century play by Lope de Vega. The play centers around the titular character and his new bride, Casilda. It is a humorous enchanting take on true love, new love and the rights of nobles versus the rights of peasants. Truly, the strongest theme in the play is that of love shaking the foundations of monetary value, as Peribáñez and Casilda are each tempted with the possibilities of being enriched in return for their sacrificing their love to a small peck of wealth.
The plight of Peribáñez is the paradox of gaining the wealth he covets to secure himself with his new bride, Casilda; but doing so, must give her up to a nobleman who lusts for her in a purely objectifying fashion.
I would argue that this play was anti-feminist if it wasn’t for the corralling insubordination of Isabel Pask’s Casilda. Her fraught utopia becomes caught in a Helen-of-Troy ambush. The objectifying Commander is rapt with a lust that he constantly improperly defines as a burning. He finds her attractiveness beguiling because it has made him vulnerable. This narcissistic take on the ownership of personhood is echoed throughout in his justification: “He’s a peasant. He should be proud I want his wife.”
What bothered me is that Peribáñez himself is also guilty of sexism. When Casilda asks him, “teach me how to be a good wife…”, his directive is, “…a good wife must adore her husband.” In his anguish after he believes Casilda might be complicit in infidelity, he describes an allegory meant to infer the commander as a rooster surrounded by thirty chickens as opposed to his one. “There he is asleep with his entire fortune around him…”
And that’s the rub.
In conclusion, this play is remarkable in direction and comedy; but has an irksome lack of delivery on a theme. Casilda is a redemptive character in her affronting the sultry Commander, but Peribáñez’ inner plight is not fully resolved by the end of the play. And if his inability to reconcile the distinction between Casilda’s individualism and the crass defining of woman as property is supposed to represent a dilemma within the character, the ultimate deliverance with his final actions does not compel him as a hero but rather as a different kind of villain. And perhaps that is a worthwhile story too: the Disney movie that doesn’t really explain to you in the end that you are following the whim of a lost man.
And perhaps the redemption should come from realizing that if Peribanez acknowledged Casilda as an equal, a person; then perhaps his love would not be so questioning. Perhaps the whole conflict of this play would have been easily resolved and it would have ended before the first act did.
But then, no comedy of errors. No luxurious ensemble. No clenching climax and just desserts.
Though, I did leave this play with a feeling of ambivalence. The acting was superb. The set was impossibly constructed in its little niche in the rose garden of Mellon Park. The direction of this play is really top notch, utilizing the space and timing to its full potential.
Special thanks to Quantum Theatre for complimentary press tickets. Peribáñez runs at Mellon Park through August 28th. For tickets and more information click here.
Photos courtesy of Quantum’s Facebook page.