All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Everything about Matthew Campbell’s set for Philadelphia Artists’ Collective’s “Blood Wedding” suggests arid languor. Though the stucco arches that stand for houses, plazas, and towns are often lit by Dominic Chacon in burnished gold, they more usually register as a sun-bleached tan that adds to the atmosphere of parched airlessness and stifling morality director Damon Bonetti establishes for Federico García Lorca’s evocative play about repressed passion.
The floor of the Mandell Theater stage remains bare, unadorned by grass or earth, throughout Bonetti’s production, yet one imagines the dry, dusty feel of vast Spanish plains where only people of strength or determination can make trees or vineyards grow, and horses are taxed to exhaustion by every journey.
Bonetti’s “Blood Wedding” is strong on mood, enhanced by frequent dances choreographed by Elba Hevia y Vaca and creatively derivative music by Christopher Colucci, who commented to me that he was inspired by his magnificent lyricist (Lorca). These contributions give the production much texture that sets up and comments on the intense story Lorca tells and Bonetti and his company make so fittingly dramatic.
Although true love is effectively thwarted in Lorca’s play, the Mandell stage is redolent with romance. J. Hernandez, as Leonardo, a man who seems silent and sullen when around his wife, mother-in-law, and infant child, exudes sexuality at all times but especially when he is near a childhood love he gave up because of their class and age differences, she being the older, before he married. News comes to Leonardo and his household that the woman is to marry his wife’s cousin, a man whose father and older brother were killed by relatives of Leonardo. His wife doesn’t know the reason, but Leonardo flies into a rage when he hears of the impending wedding. He hopes his family will receive an invitation from the groom so he can at least see the bride on her special day.
Meanwhile, the bride, played with a melancholy pride by Victoria Rose Bonito, seems content with her fiancé, a man who owns a vineyard and whose mother is among the richest landowners in the region. He may not be her beloved, but the bride considers him a good man for whom she has some genuine affection if no ardor. The groom, in contrast, is delighted that he has won the hand of the most beautiful and stately young woman on the plains. He and his mother envision a combining of property that will give the new couple status as one of the wealthiest in their part of Spain. While the mother is pleased with that, she is wary about her son’s match. In spite of a good report from a neighbor, she doesn’t quite trust the bride or have faith in the love she says she has for her son.
Everything leads to the day of the wedding. You hear the plans and preparations. You see how Leonardo is affected by the prospect of the bride, who Lorca gives no name — Only Leonardo has the benefit of a name. — being the wife of another man. He treats his own wife callously. He totally ignores the child his wife and mother-in-law soothe to sleep. Although the groom’s mother and bride’s father have agreed guests will travel on carts to wedding, Leonardo elects to ride his own horse and leave his wife and her mother to the general transportation.
Foreboding engulfs Bonetti’s production. Lorca’s image-laden poems, set so melodically by Colucci and sung beautifully by Joy Weis and Susan Blair, speak of calamity, and even doom. They foretell of sad events to come. Leonardo is restless and has the look of a man who is compelled to obey his instincts and carry out an intention that violates the stern morality that pervades his and surrounding villages. The bride is sulky and seems more stoic about getting married than excited or happy about it. She barely smiles, even when introducing her fiancé and his mother to her father, a widower who adores his daughter. The dress she chooses for her marriage is black, elegantly handsome and becoming, but black. Only the groom is cheerful and optimistic, but he is blind to a situation to which others hint, the bride’s past affair with Leonardo, and deaf to any warnings that the bride is cold and has no heart she can give to a man.
Existence in Leonardo’s house borders on drudgery. The wealth of the bride and bridegroom has the effect of making their homes and attitudes lighter and freer from everyday care. The groom’s mother is a bit dour, but she likes her future daughter-in-law’s father and takes some joy in seeing her son’s bliss even though she can’t share it. Leonardo’s wife is more beleaguered than sad. She wonders why her husband seems so distracted and so temperamental about her cousin’s marriage, She also has the burdens of parenthood, as Leonardo is never present to help with the child and reluctant to be paternal when he is home. Her mother always seems cross and domineering, except when rocking her grandchild to quiet her cries or to lull her to sleep.
In spite of some spirited dancing, you feel no sense of celebration from the wedding. Guests seem convivial, and the groom is elated, but the bride is not perky or sociable, and Leonardo keeps lurking where she can see him and glean the longing her has for her, a longing Bonito clearly shows her character shares.
Bonetti and his company are excellent in creating tension and making what you know for sure will happen into a dramatic event that doesn’t surprise as much as moves you in two possible directions, either in satisfaction for an outcome that promises love may triumph over propriety or in revulsion from the course Lorca chooses for his characters to take.
Bonetti’s is a rich and rewarding telling of Lorca’s story. It makes you feel uncomfortable in the satisfying way of being sure drama and chaos will ensue from the wedding but being willing and eager to see the inevitable storm take hold and add to the bleakness with which the Spanish countryside seems rife. You become deeply interested in the fate of Lorca’s characters and further engrossed by the dance and music that accompany this production that blends storytelling, mood, and culture so well.
J.Hernandez is a commanding Leonardo whose presence fills the stage. Dressed by Katherine Fritz in soft browns, Hernandez could blend into the scenery. He doesn’t. From the moment he makes his first entrance, he conveys a broody sensuality.
This is a man with something on his mind. You can see his discontent with marriage and family life and that he has almost a formal relationship with his wife and little affection for his child.
Not wealthy like the bride or bridegroom, Leonardo spends his days on his horse. No one knows where he goes, but both his wife and mother complain about the horse being sweating profusely and looking spent. Leonardo brooks all of this with silence. You can tell he is another place, one he prefers to be even if his time there is fleeting or imagined. His indifference to matters at home ends when his wife tells him about the bride’s impending marriage. Hernandez springs to attention and reveals a lot in his emotional reaction. It is recalled that he once was close to the bride and that she spurned his love. But from Hernandez’s expression, you know reminiscence is not on Leonardo’s mind. Action is. He is determining what course he should take in regard to the bride and her wedding.
Hernandez is a study in intensity as he arrives at the reception preceding the bride’s vows. He has arrived before the other guests, and his single-minded search for the bride is apparent. When he sees her, his gaze is laserlike, and his posture and the look on his face show he is more determined than ever to have his chance at true love. Leonardo is a man of passion, and he will cause trouble if that is the only way he can gain private time with the bride who could not help but grasp the magnitude of Leonardo’s longing and ardor, Hernandez so obviously expressing the fire in Leonardo’s soul.
Victoria Rose Bonito is a resigned bride at best. She has regard for her intended, but you can see her love is not deep. Even at joyful times, when the groom comes with his mother to meet the bride’s father, or at the moment when the wedding couple pledges their union before the priest, Bonito’s bride displays no happiness or sense of a occasion.
In general, the bride is pensive and sullen. She walks with the indolence and slowness of the Spanish plain. Rarely does she smile, and her conservation often expresses boredom with life and little hope from relief from it.
Bonito conveys the bride’s world-weariness without being wearisome to the audience. She impresses as a woman of great depth who perceives an emptiness and an unsatisfying routine to be her lot. Her ennui is born of too much interest, too much intellect, too much of a yen for passion and adventure that will never be realized on the labor-intensive vineyards she and her husband will share.
The bride is also a woman with a memory of a bygone romance, one that has been rekindled by her former lover appearing suddenly in her midst. Not just on the wedding day. It is clear that Leonardo’s horse has been exhausted by hours of riding he’s done to leave his village to get a glimpse, any glimpse, of the bride. You are aware Leonardo is on her mind even as she becomes betrothed and married.
On the wedding day, the bride’s maid mentions that Leonardo is among the guests and wonders why he is until she realizes Leonard married the bride’s cousin. Hearing of Leonardo’s presence makes the bride wary. She wants to avoid encountering him as much as she yearns to see him. While Bonito shrewdly expresses no excitement at knowing Leonardo is near, she shows a thrill of interest and curiosity, a wish of sorts that something miraculous might happen.
Interestingly, Bonetti and Fritz choose to dress the bride in black, as if she is a Chekhov character in mourning for her life. When you first see her on her wedding day, she is wearing a bridelike white slip. The black wedding dress is a great, if appropriately symbolic, surprise. With it, Bonetti has matched Lorca in providing telling imagery.
Eric Scotolati is sweetly optimistic as the bridegroom. Inveighed by his mother to reconsider his plan to marry the bride and treated with no visible warmth by the bride herself, he is enthusiastic about the marriage and pleased that he has won the affection of such an accomplished woman.
The groom is not deluded that the bride loves him. She says she does, and as Bonito plays the bride, she is not one who would dissemble. She does love her intended, but as one loves a companion or friend, not as one should love a husband. She respects the groom and expects a peaceful, cordial orderliness with him. As portrayed by Scotolati, the groom is one of the few characters in “Blood Wedding” that finds pleasure in life. Scotolati expresses happiness and contentment that seems to elude his family and neighbors. The only one who seems to match his open, convivial spirit is the bride’s father, played with easy grace and refinement by Mort Paterson.
Scotolati scoffs at his mother’s misgivings. She is obviously a woman who is easily upset. Even before she reacts to her son’s impending marriage, she worries unduly about the groom carrying a knife. She is afraid he is going to stab someone or be stabbed, as her husband and other son were. She is not appeased when the groom informs her he is not taking the knife as a weapon but as a utensil with which he intends to eat his lunch.
The spring in Scotolati’s step and the sunniness of his attitude is refreshing. It relieves the stark moodiness Leonardo, the bride, and most of the elders exude. It expresses hope. You even picture that the groom’s ebullient nature might affect the bride and make the marriage a happy one.
Judith Lightfoot Clarke has substance as the groom’s mother. Dressed in black, with even a black lace shawl covering her head and shoulders, she suspects the worst in every situation. Though she is the wealthiest woman in the region, a widow who has inherited and who continues to run her husband’s thriving vineyards, she has endured a lot of unhappiness and loss, and it shows in her apprehensions and endless concerns.
Clarke’s character is the archetypical Spanish mother. She reminds one of Bernarda Alba, another Lorca character who prevents her daughters from communing with society while mourning eternally for their father. There’s a sense of doom about her, an aura of tragedy.
Clarke plays the mother as being strong and straightforward. For all of her worries, she is not as fretful as she is cautious and unimpressed by much. Her son is the last of her family, and she clings to him and tries to control him. She would domineer if she could, but the groom thinks independently, so the mother is left to express doubt and foreboding.
Clarke shows the iron will of the mother as well as her sense of tradition. Behind her hauteur, you also see her nervousness and regret.
Joy Weir is affecting as Leonardo’s wife. Her face and bearing show the burden she has of keeping her home intact while her Leonardo makes little money and shows no interest in his domestic life. Weir is concerned with being a mother. She is forever coddling her child, soothing it, kissing it, and singing to it in a lovely voice.
This wife is at wit’s end to figure out how to engage her husband, how to bring him closer to her and to their home. She has the expression of a disappointed woman, resigned to a loveless marriage she would like to salvage.
Susan Blair stands for order as Leonardo’s mother-in-law, one who is not afraid to ask questions or to complain about Leonardo’s absences and neglect. Blair, like Weir, sings beautifully, and is a devoted grandmother, helping Leonardo’s wife care for the child.
Laura Allen arrests the room with the gorgeousness of her voice and makes one pay attention to the poignant words of Lorca and haunting music of Colucci as she comments on all that is happening while playing an abstract character, the moon.
Always reliable Virginia Barrie has an effective small scene as a neighbor the bridegroom’s mother consults about the bride’s character. Stephen Lyons is mysterious as a beggar who says little but who shows up, almost like a mirage, at intense moments of the play. Nancy Ellis provides salient commentary as the bride’s maid.
Music is more integral to this production than to most. Lorca’s poems, set by Colucci, more than comment on “Blood Wedding’s” story. They express a point of view about life. Colucci’s score is redolent with tones and rhythms immediately associated with Spain, yet it is too robust and evocative to be cliché. It is a full partner to the story being told on stage, and it is played wonderfully by Guy West, Mari Ma, Adam Bailey, Sophie Hirsch, and Ben Webster, who doubles as a dancer and member of the ensemble. Elba Hevia y Vaca’s dances are also integral to the mise en scene Bonetti so completely creates. They provide brio while adding the cultural nature of the production. Featured dancers are Belina Delope, Madelyn Dubrow, and Coralie Francois. They are joined by the ensemble that includes Dean Bloomingdale, Alex Cummiskey, Corey Fedorowich, George Manera, Sophie Hirsch, and Ben Webster.
“Blood Wedding,” produced by Philadelphia Artists’ Collective in cooperation with Drexel University, runs through Sunday, November 23, at the Mandell Theater, 32nd and Chestnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Monday and Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 with various discounts and can be obtained by visiting www.philartistscollective.org.