Thursday, June 19, 2014

Raucous “The Hunchback of Seville” fits the WET audience taste to a “V”

Maria Knox and Samie Detzer (photo by Cassandra Bell)
The Hunchback of Seville
By Charise Castro Smith
Directed by Jen Wineman
Starring Samie Detzer, Libby Barnard, Rose Cano, Maria Knox
Through June 30, 2014

Washington Ensemble Theatre doesn’t do plays most other companies would do very often. Their tastes run to bizarre, outlandish, boundary-stretching, unconventional, fantastical, and other such adjectives that denote unusual theater choices. Their world-premiere presentation of The Hunchback of Seville by Charise Castro Smith fits them very well (the “V” in the header).

Castro Smith and director Jen Wineman brought their baby to WET via the outreach that former Ensemble member and Yale graduate Michael Place enabled. They brought their project as a team and agreed that they would both come and be resident during a development process that resulted in Castro Smith being present for a month of rehearsals. Devin Bannon, an Ensemble member, says that is “unprecedented” in their history of developing scripts.

The Hunchback of Seville is anything but directly historical, even though set in Spain in 1504. There are historically accurate references to the “bloodbath” that was part of the reign of Isabella I of Spain, who instituted the “Spanish Inquisition” and threw all Muslims and Jews out of the country, allowing them to take virtually no possessions with them. Subsequently, her daughter Juana, considered to be mad, ascended to the throne after Isabella’s death. Isabella and Juana are in this play, though beyond those facts, there is not much more history infused.

Basically, the script focuses on a fictional sister to Isabella, Maxima Terrible Segunda (Samie Detzer), who is a humpback, but also brilliant, reclusive, educated and atheistic. She hides away in her room, filled with maps, books and cats. Her faithful servant, Espanta (Rose Cano), announces that Isabella is here for an unexpected visit.

Isabella (Maria Knox), who gets sicker and sicker through the play, wants Segunda to help Juana reign over the kingdom, since it’s clear that Juana is incapable of managing. Juana (Libby Barnard) is so crazy, in fact, that she throws a huge tantrum that she can manage all by herself. This is an epic tantrum and is the funniest part of the show.

Barnard throws herself all over the small room in an exhaustive display of “if this won’t work, I’ll try something else.” Any parent can recognize that kind of tantrum, which goes on far longer than you’d think it would. Juana’s later apology caps that same kind of childlike behavior. While it has no historical resonance, its desperation is recognizable. Some have labeled it a joke that goes on too far, but the roots are more clearly age-related and tenacious children who can’t manage their emotions routinely do this kind of thing.

The small stage is intricately tricked out with a versatile set (those who sit in the front rows end up missing out on the bathroom behind the bed) chock full of sleeping cats, designed by Antoinette Bianco and Cameron Irwin. Segunda’s appearance is enhanced by a nose prosthetic that changes how she speaks, as well.

There is so much zaniness that you might end up losing track of the substance of the play. Whether it serves the script or not, apparently Castro Smith felt comfortable with the choices Weinman made. If there is a real statement behind what Castro Smith wrote, and an intention to help us understand something about how history impacted our present, it’s pretty much lost in translation.

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