Trinity Play Sees Sheep Turn into Panthers

Review by Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

Sometimes looking backward is a good way to see where you are going. That’s the perspective Trinity Repertory Company has taken with their final production of this season.

The play called Like Sheep to Water, or Fuente Ovejuna, written in 1615 by Lope de Vegas, a Spanish contemporary of Shakespeare, suggests strong parallels to current day issues and present day free-wheeling political machinations, says Trinity. Well, sort of.

The story contains unprincipled, reckless, and ruthless leaders and confused and fearful citizens. It also focuses on the fate of exploited, brutally abused, and repressed women, and kudos to Trinity for presenting the raw, manic fury of their uprising when it finally occurs.

Translated and adapted by Trinity’s Artistic Director Curt Columbus and directed by Mark Valdez, the production runs through June 11 onstage in the Elizabeth and Malcolm Chace Theater upstairs at the Lederer Theater Center, 201 Washington Street, Providence.

Set in turbulent times when the forces of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile are consolidating their power over disputed territory, the story reflects the vagaries of war and disorder.

Near the crossroads of opposing armies is Ovejuna, a community of everyday folk who are sheep-like pawns in the power struggle. To their great misfortune the overseer of their village is a bloodthirsty and vicious commander, Fernan Gomez, who has manipulated the Grand Master of his area to enter the conflict. Without a shred of benevolence, he views the town as his fiefdom.

The townspeople are a humble lot, intent on their concerns, such as tending their flocks and tilling the land. They are apathetic and too trusting when it comes to politics, naively believing that their leaders will do what is in their interest, when, in fact, their leaders are completely absorbed in achieving their selfish goals. As the title of the play suggests, the common folk are like sheep, and their leaders treat them as such.

Totally lacking in compassion and essential humanity, Gomez seems to believe the villagers are there to be used and manipulated for his personal ends, damn the consequences for them.

His lustful appetites take a particularly ugly and depraved form. He likes to beat and rape women. When his prime target turns out to be Laurencia, the daughter of the mayor of Ovejuna, it sets in motion the events that will eventually unite the community in a way that has been hitherto unimaginable.

Tearing Laurencia away from her beloved Frondoso at their wedding and spiriting her away to prison, where she is savagely abused, Gomez sets in motion a reign of terror that ignites a fury in the townspeople. He and his men wantonly assault women, confiscate property they desire, and demand fealty from the frightened citizenry.

Somehow Laurencia escapes her captors, though, and confronts her father and the men of the village, castigating them for their timidity and their failure to face down Gomez. Chastened, the men, take up their cudgels and pitchforks, find their courage and decide that death is better than dishonor. They begin organizing to challenge the commander and his forces.

Laurencia, always outspoken and inherently a leader, is not to be outdone. She rallies the women of Ovejuna to find their weapons and join in the resistance. A ferocious series of reprisals by the villagers ensues which ends only when Gomez’s severed head is paraded around the village on a pike.

A key factor in the success of the revolt is the solidarity that the community achieves when the people stop thinking as individuals and band together as one. By adopting the “all for one and one for all” mindset the people find strength they didn’t know they possessed.

In an “I am Spartacus” moment, the people begin chanting “It is Ovejuna,” meaning it is the entire town that has risen against tyranny and terror, not simply individuals. They continue proclaiming this when they are tortured by the authorities in the aftermath of the rebellion.

In a somewhat shameless but largely effective gimmick at plays’ end, the actors exhort the audience to join them in chanting the slogan, thus guaranteeing a standing ovation, something Trinity almost always gets as a matter of course, anyway.

A good deal of applause is deserved for undertaking and updating this period piece, but it is not without its doubtful moments. Shakespeare presents challenges with its ornate and antique dialogue and complex situations, but is redeemed to our great good fortune by the extraordinary poetry and invention of the language and the insights of the master.

This play is saved, not so much by its writing, with lines like “Two city councilors are awaiting your audience,” and “I will punish this upstart for his excess” but by its vitality and effusiveness. An almost manic vigor pervades most scenes and the direction takes a full throttle approach. The actors certainly spare no intensity or want for energy and commitment to their roles.

Octavia Chavez-Richmond burns with passion and raw emotion as Laurencia. She commands the stage when it is her moment, offering an impressive performance. She is a second-year student in the Brown University/Trinity Rep MFA acting program.

Fred Sullivan, Jr. is immense as the evil Gomez. Rather than the broad, moustache-twirling wickedness he often invokes in similar roles, here his villainy is portrayed with clenched teeth and a coldness that is horrifying. He is closed off and impervious to all appeals for mercy. Inner-directed and immoveable, his character is made all the more shocking for the coiled rage Sullivan projects. It is fine work from a versatile actor.

Timothy Crowe, a treasure for Rhode Island theater-goers, is first-rate as the war and world-weary henchman of Gomez who seems to go along with the depravity more out of habit than by choice. Crowe has been in more than 125 productions at Trinity and we are all the richer for that.

Orlando Hernandez excels as Frondoso, beloved of Laurencia. He brings a teddy-bear like charm and irrepressible ardor to his courtship and later displays his courage convincingly. He is a welcome presence.

Joe Wilson, Jr. does yeoman’s work as Laurencia’s father and mayor of Ovejuna. Janice Duclos is aunt to Laurencia and, as often, is the character who represents stability and reason. As always, she is fine.

Stephen Berenson is masterful in the role of Mengo, a sad clown of a villager who has endured torture and humiliation. Mengo persists in his determination to find justice despite the intimidating obstacles.

Daniel Duque-Estrada as King Ferdinand and Rachel Warren as Queen Isabella are suitably imperious as royals. Trinity veteran Angela Brazil adds her talent in support of Laurencia, as does Brown/Trinity MFA student Anita Castillo-Halvorssen, who portrays Pascula, Laurencia’s friend who is also victimized by the oppressors.

Marcel Mascaro is the Grand Master of Calatrava, the leader who Gomez compromises to further his assumption of power and authority. A foppish dandy who Gomez used to gain his domination of the village, he is putty in the commander’s hands. Mascaro does well in the role.

Benjamin Grills and Jonathan Olivera also have sizable roles and do well.

The music offered by a four person group seated onstage is an important component in the mix, and they add much to the ultimate impact of the production.

The serviceable set by Michael McGarty, even in the large upstairs theater, hardly seems big enough to contain the spectacle that is Like Sheep to Water, or Fuente Ovejuna. The spillover must find its space in the minds of the viewers.