High cages of chicken wire surround two large round platforms on either side of an open space, forming a barbell shape from a bird’s eye view. Or might they be the scales of justice? Either interpretation could be plausible, given the main narrative themes of Lope de Vega’s 17th-century drama Peribáñez (co-directed here by my colleague Megan Monaghan Rivas and her husband, Tlaloc Rivas). For the play presents us with a macho world of rooster-ish men jostling over the most-prized hen, and offers reassurance that, in a just world, right will prevail over might.
The play’s full title in Spanish is Peribáñez y el Comendador de Ocaña (Peribáñez and the Commander of Ocaña), and its plot centers on the attempts of the aristocratic Commander (Mike Mihm) to tear the beautiful peasant Casilda (Isabel Pask) by hook or by crook from her beloved husband, the farmer Pedro Ibáñez (Siddiq Saunderson). The play sets up this conflict to demonstrate that high status and wealth do not necessarily go hand in hand with honor. For Lope de Vega’s original audience, this probably felt like a bracing claim for equality in a class-stratified society; in twenty-first century America, we’re more accustomed to rooting for the underdog.
Indeed, in many ways Lope de Vega’s form of tragicomedy anticipates the “happy ending” plot trajectory of a Hollywood action film. As in his more well-known play, Fuenteovejuna, in Peribáñez de Vega creates a dramatic world in which justice sees past the droit de seigneur and validates the rights of the powerless to fight back against the corrupted and arrogant powerful. And as in Fuenteovejuna, here, too, the rights of women are an issue. In Peribáñez, de Vega casts a gimlet eye on the patriarchal objectification and victimization of women and features a strong female character who makes a forceful claim for her social and sexual autonomy. It’s an attitude that feels distinctly contemporary, even where the play’s elevated language and formal configurations of class and status root it in a bygone era.
Quantum has chosen a bucolic outdoor location in Frick Park for the production, which has the advantage of underlining the pastoral setting in which the play’s action takes place, but the disadvantage of challenging the actors to compete with the buzz of cicadas, helicopters, and Beechwood Ave. traffic. It’s probably a good thing that this is a play of big passions, for the acoustics leave little room for emotional nuance. Translator/adaptor Tanya Ronder has rendered the play into an English that feels just formal enough to suggest geographical and temporal distance, but not so stilted as to be unspeakable by a modern tongue. The cast settles rather comfortably into this elevated language; in particular, Ethan Saks, playing the King, and Don DiGiulio and Freddy Miyares, playing servants to the Commander, find a natural ease and connection with the linguistic formality.
Big passions deserve big costumes, and Samantha Pollock’s costume design does much of the heavy lifting in establishing the status and occupation of the play’s many and varied characters, all of them played by just ten actors. The aristocratic costumes, in particular, are impressively lavish. But the costumes and Britton Mauk’s scenery seem to belong to different theatrical worlds; as much as I admired the quality of both designs, it was hard to see how the opulent realism of the clothes belonged to, and in, the metaphorical abstraction of the set. Music – composed and performed by members of the cast – grounds the play’s action in rural Spain, and acoustic instrumentation is used to good effect to demarcate the play’s frequent asides.
The young, multicultural ensemble conveys the play’s warring emotions with clarity and intensity. With its mix of the tragic and the comic, and its focus on a sympathetic, underdog hero fighting against a powerful and wealthy villain, this 16th-century play feels surprisingly modern and almost cinematic in its appeal.