October 7, 2008

A Tragedy of Old Made Funny and New

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Are you in grave danger? The characters in Hernani are, especially the title character and his lover, Doña Sol. Hernani — given a gender-reversing spin by Bridget Saracino ’11 — is a bandit chased by the authorities, while Doña Sol (Sharisse Taylor) is engaged to marry her uncle, the Duke (Marc Hem Lee ’10). The couple must overcome these obstacles in order to be together in this entertaining and over-the-top melodrama, directed by Katherine Karaus ’10.
The play caused controversy when it was first performed in 1828. The French had not yet accepted melodrama as a proper form of theater, and the playwright, Victor Hugo, was the victim of criticism from all sides. Today, we have the opposite problem — too many directors choose melodrama as an easier alternative to portraying authentic emotion. So, in adapting this play, Karaus faced a challenge in staying true to the original melodrama and Hugo’s intent without turning Hernani into a daytime soap.
The cast succeeds because they exaggerate the drama so it becomes funny without losing its original sentiment — or if you prefer a more theatrical expression, they “ham it up.” Don Carlos, played with dashing bravado by Timothy Fasano ’10, uses physical gestures to give his character impact. When he lifts a knife to Hernani’s throat, the audience breathes a collective sigh of suspense. His gestures also convey a sense of humor that the play is altogether brimming with. The ensemble, for example, which usually is relegated, to the back of the room, plays humans and objects with the same lively spirit, so that even closets and doors come alive.
These “props” provide the only backdrop to the play. Hernani was staged in the Black Box Theatre, where there is no furniture other than a jumble of crates and boxes. So the ensemble, dressed in black leotards, provides an appropriate setting for the melodrama that unfolds. The costumes, designed by Vlada Kaganovskaya, also evoke the Romantic tradition while paying heed to today’s current trends. Doña Sol pairs an old-fashioned dress layered with pink ruffles and a pink zip-up hoodie. Hernani’s cloak, meanwhile, fits over skinny jeans and black Converse All Stars. Even the Duke’s outfit incorporates plenty of bling.
The Duke himself is probably the creepiest character in the play — Fasano is not afraid to explore all the evil potential surrounding the story’s villain. When we first see him pulling Doña Sol, his niece, onto his lap and asking what troubles her, he initially seems like a kind and generous old man. But when he mentions their upcoming marriage, we see that he values Doña Sol only as an object, just like Don Carlos. Only Hernani, the bandit outlaw, loves Doña Sol for who she really is. We don’t really get to see inside her character, but it is the script that limits us and not the acting. Taylor’s little smiles, winks, and flirtatious leaning towards Hernani, the object of her affections, convey all that is necessary for the audience to understand. She convinces the viewer of her love for Hernani and her distaste for the other men, and even achieves a few laughs in between.
If she ends up having no real depth in the viewer’s eyes, it is not because of Taylor’s impeccable acting but because of Hugo’s old-fashioned perspective. Hernani himself remains somewhat elusive as well. While Saracino adequately conveys the desperate adoration that the part requires, I couldn’t help but be distracted by her gender. The play didn’t seem to provide a rationale for the cross-dressing. During the performance, I actually kept wondering if the cross-dressing would eventually be addressed and her true gender revealed in a dramatic denouement à la Shakespeare. Without spoiling the plot, it suffices to say that no such revelation exists.
In the end, the enthusiasm of the cast provided a rousingly entertaining show with a bittersweet twist. Although Hugo and his romantic contemporaries displayed no sense of humor in their tragic works, maybe they would have shared a chuckle at the Schwartz Center’s production.