When English renaissance poet John Lyly famously quipped, “All is fair in love and war,” he probably did not want to be taken literally. Unfortunately, the characters in Thomas Kyd’s masterpiece, “The Spanish Tragedy,” did not quite understand the nuances of this expression. If they did, then their story probably would not have devolved into a spectacular orgy of violence.
“The Spanish Tragedy,” being staged at the New College Theatre (NCT) through October 30 and directed by Meryl H. Federman ’11, is the Hyperion Shakespeare Company’s latest offering. It is also the first play they have put on not penned by Shakespeare. However, this work was the ideal piece to expand the company’s artistic horizons. Although Kyd was a rough contemporary of Shakespeare, “The Spanish Tragedy” predates most of the Bard’s classic pieces of theater and utilizes many dramatic devices that were later made famous in plays like “Hamlet,” such as the play-within-a-play structure and the use of ghosts onstage. Although Federman’s adaptation has some flaws, the production is carried by commendable acting from the leads and some ridiculously over-the-top stage fights.
The play is a classic revenge tragedy set in the Spanish court, which is celebrating its most recent victory over the Portuguese and the capture of Portugal’s crown prince Balthazar (Nathan O. Hilgartner ’14). Bel-Imperia (Harleen K. Gambhir ’14), the niece of the King of Spain, falls in love with Balthazar’s captor, Horatio (Peter K. Bestoso ’14). Balthazar, who is in love with Bel-Imperia, is peeved by her lack of interest. To remove his competition for Bel-Imperia’s hand, he decides that the best course of action is to team up with her brother Don Lorenzo (Spencer J. Horne ’14) and kill Horatio. Horatio’s murder, in turn, makes Horatio’s father Hieronimo (Joshua O. Wilson ’13) understandably incensed, and his quest for vengeance dominates the rest of the play.
This production approaches the violence in the play with the type of gusto that is usually found in Quentin Tarantino movies, as the stage is literally drenched with fake blood while the cast members stab, shoot, and hang each other. The various murders and revenge killings are campy and excessive, and the technical aspects match this playful spirit. For example, when Lorenzo kills Horatio, who has been tied to a tree, he shouts and runs him through with his knife. He then stabs him again for good measure, and the audience clearly sees that Horatio’s shirt is soaked with an appropriate amount of fake blood.
However, the play never lets the audience forget the ethical consequences of the characters’ bloody deeds. The ghost of Don Andreas (Nathaniel Koven), Bel-Imperia’s ex-lover who was killed during Spain’s war with Portugal, is on stage for the entire play. His outrage at the actions of the main characters serves as a moral compass that reminds viewers how they should react when witnessing the murders of innocent people. This detail is a smart touch by Federman, who also handled the large set pieces admirably.
However, this meticulous attention was not evident throughout the whole production. Several moments of the play suffer from blocking so awkward that the actors have their backs to the audience. The spotty lighting, particularly in one scene where the entire stage goes dark just as an actress is walking down the stairs to deliver a monologue, detracts from the viewing experience as well.
While the performances are generally respectable, it is Wilson in his role as Hieronimo who steals the show. His portrayal of the character as a pained old man grieving for his son and at points dipping in and out of sanity is very compelling. He especially excels with his monologues during the second act, where he lets his veneer of strength fade to show the audience a glimpse of the emotional torment he is suffering. Horne also distinguishes himself in his interpretation of the brutal and cynical fop Lorenzo, whose over-the-top aristocratic airs are at once hilarious and chilling.
At three hours and 15 minutes, “The Spanish Tragedy” is a lengthy affair not for the faint of heart. Yet for those who thought the excess of blood in the movie “Saw” was tame, it is worth sitting through various awkward blocking mishaps and some mediocre scenes if only for the stellar lead performances and a truly ridiculous ending. This adaptation is a treat for literary purists and violence junkies alike.