Midway through the Wilma Theater’s new staging of Blood Wedding, a put-upon wife vocalizes her discontent: “I’ve turned into an afterthought.” In many productions, this would barely register; it’s a throwaway line, spoken by a character who’s not terribly important. But it practically defines Csaba Horváth’s visually arresting but unfocused production. Here, Federico García Lorca is the afterthought.
Granted, Lorca’s plays present unique challenges. The poetry of his dialogue can easily be lost in translation; even when rendered well, as in Langston Hughes’s legendary adaptation, the lines seem arch and artificial. (The Wilma’s production uses a workaday translation by Nahuel Telleria).
Lorca wrote melodramas in the most honest-to-God sense of the word, with passions pitched so high they emerge almost as music. Anglo-American actors tend to find this style forbidding, resulting in performances that either incorrectly favor understatement or confuse magnitude for meaning.
Blood Wedding’s symbolic, elliptical nature invites directors to play with presentation. The plot barely matters: on the day of her wedding, a young bride (Campbell O’Hare) abandons her groom (Jered McLenigan) for her former lover, Leonardo (Lindsay Smiling). Members of Leonardo’s family killed the groom’s father and brother, leaving his mother (Jaylene Clark Owens) to stoke an ever-burning fire of vengeance. Anyone who’s ever read a romance novel can see where this story will end.
I’d hoped Horváth — the Budapest-based founder of dance/theater hybrid Forte Company — would use the distinctive rhythms of Spanish dance to draw out the recurrent themes piercing Lorca’s narrative: love, sex, death, fate, and the destructive power of holding a grudge. The highly choreographed company numbers arrive on cue. Before the play starts, the actors stomp onto Thom Weaver’s vortex of a set and perform an athletic flamenco that lasts five full minutes. I admired the 10-person cast’s physicality, and couldn’t help thinking that any Center City gym might turn this into the next SoulCycle.
But as the play bears on, the extreme choreography becomes more labored, often interrupting and depleting the dramatic tension. These repeated intrusions seem only to suggest Horváth did his research: a little bolero here, some seguidilla there, a touch of bulería thrown in for good measure. Dance certainly has a place in telling this story, as anyone who’s seen Carlos Saura’s astonishing 1981 film adaptation can attest. But it should support Lorca’s poetry, not usurp it. Perhaps Horváth’s choices wouldn’t feel so intrusive if his ensemble performed them effortlessly, as Saura’s dancers did, but they often resemble well-trained schoolchildren — they nail all the steps, but look disconnected from their bodies doing it.
The ensemble, culled largely from members of the Wilma’s resident company, the HotHouse, also struggle to turn Lorca’s archetypes into three-dimensional people. The best work comes from supporting performers such as Sarah Gliko (as Leonardo’s dissatisfied wife) and Taysha Marie Canales (doubling as the bride’s maid and Leonardo’s forceful mother-in-law), who show an understanding of the idiom. Gliko also deserves praise for her atmospheric musical interludes — she plays the saxophone and especially the flute with great verve. Brett Robinson, also distinguishes herself across several small roles.
The principal quartet fares less well. An ace at naturalism, O’Hare feels miscast here; her attempts at fervency burst out like temper tantrums. McLenigan comes across far too sleazy for the good-natured but simple groom. Matters aren’t helped by the scarlet-hued garments they both wear (costumes by Oana Botez), which project an almost offensive lack of subtlety.
Smiling’s Leonardo is far too tentative — I never believed he had the nerve to snatch O’Hare from her bridal bower — and Owens, so memorable in An Octoroon and WHITE, fails to imbue her character with a necessary sense of moral indignation.
The Wilma has a longstanding reputation as an auteur’s theater. The will of the play often finds itself subjugated to the whim of the director. Horváth’s Blood Wedding may be the most dire recent example of this phenomenon. Instead of grieving the play's tragedy, I left with a lump in my throat for Lorca.