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The Dog in the Manger
by Lope De Vega, translated by David Johnston

Directed by Jonathan Munby
450 7th St. NW, Washington DC


Review by Grace Cavalieri

I was a week late play going because of family matters of illness and health, and when I finally walked into a matinee, every seat was filled. This must be good, I thought. Little did I imagine that I was about to witness the best performance/play/production of 2009 (I realize it is but February, so I will make that 2008 too.) Once in awhile the language, direction, acting and spectacle come together to provide an event so exquisite you cannot believe your good luck.

Let me say that I yearn for language that can be spoken and heard without flaw, language written with high locution and raw hilarity. A playwright largely unknown to me, except in books, I knew to be “the Shakespeare” of Spain. This can be daunting if you cannot speak Spanish so you never expect to fall in love with him. The translation has brought this playwright shoulder to shoulder to an evening with Shakespeare. The adaptation is so witty, so well calibrated, so surprising--well, one moment a speech is delivered in perfect quatrains, and the next a character tells another, “You’re such a Dick!”

The dog in the manger is an Aesop fable about animals. Although the dog guarding the hay is not hungry he will not allow the cow to eat. So the equivalent is a story about a Noble Woman whose station in life prevents her ability to feel, to love, until she sees the hunger of others about to be satisfied. Lope de Vega (1562-1634) was a major literary figure during The Spanish Golden Age. This play was performed in Madrid in 1613. Lope de Vega wrote 1500 plays for Courtyard Theater which were attended by all populations and classes of people. 331 plays have survived the centuries and 200 others are identified with his canon. His genius is compared to Shakespeare but his productivity is unequalled. It is said he once wrote a full-length play in one day, and the record says he created one play a month throughout his life.

“The Dog in the Manger:” It is 17th century Naples. The Countess of Belfor, Diana, is an ice queen, arrogant and unyielding, with no ability or wish to love. She is, however, gorgeous, has one of the best stage voices I’ve heard, and is played wonderfully by the famed Michelle Hurd. When Diana discovers her secretary, Teodoro (Michael Hayden) is in love with her lady-in-waiting, Marcela, (Miriam Silverman,) she DOES believe she feels a thaw; and finds that she now loves Teodoro and must have him. ”Love made from envy” is the play’s theme. But how can she feel such a thing? He is a commoner, lowly born and she will never abandon her honor. Also he loves that snit Marcela. This is not a problem, for Marcela can be locked in her room for awhile and the Countess can dictate letters to Teodoro that reveal, in cloaked manner, her passion. The letters become a convention for action through Act 1, and have not served the stage, or my memory, as well since Cyrano de Bergerac. In the meantime Diana is courted by two noble suitors who run from fop to foppish, (Jonathan Hammond and John Livingston Rolle) but who both hold out hope. The minute Diana has Teodora reeling with the possibility of her love (and the minute he rejects Marcela) well Diana frosts over again. What was she thinking? A commoner? And so it goes back and forth but with much more ravenous and brilliant turnabouts that can be imagined, made all the better by Tedora’s friend/lackey, Tristan (David Turner.) I think it is safe to say Turner has made the part his, forever more. We do not know who to thank, probably the director who squeezed such juiciness from the lines, but when was the last time you did not want an actor to leave the stage?

Poor Marcela. Every time Diana remembers Teodoro is not noble enough to love, Teodoro tries to reignite his original love affair, but of course that only triggers the mercurial Countess to let loose her emotions once more, with vengeance.

Act 2 is a plot by Diana’s suitors to abduct and kill Teodoro. Servant Tristan saves the day and furthermore manages to fabricate a lineage for Teodoro of noble origin. Finally Diana and Teodora are able to come together, with the pretense of nobility believed to be true. Diana is able to live with a false honor as long as it is an honor. And Marcela is promised to another; and even Tristan finds a match. It is not so much this set of motives for manners that makes this play an epoch event, for ruse and intrigue is written in most plays of the era, it is the play and this production. That a major work of dramatic literature is launched by such literate theatrical minds to produce this excellent occasion for stage…, well the audience showed its gratitude, and so do I. Staging, music, costumes, all work together , something to dream about all the rest of the year. Singer, Julie Craig; Lighting, Matthew Richards; composer and sound, Richard Martinez; choreography, Daniel Pelzig; voice and text coach, Ellen O'Brien; fight director, Brad Waller. With Leigh Wade, Joel David Santner, Wesley Broulik, Stacey Cabaj, Amanda Thickpenny, Leo Erickson, Nathan Bennett, Billy Finn, Dan Lawrence.

Through March 29. Visit http://www.shakespearetheatre.org or call 202-547-1122.

Grace Cavalieri is a playwright and a poet. She produces/hosts "The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress" for public radio.

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