A Whore for the Ages

Centuries-old La Celestina plays like an operetta from US Weekly

Long before Don Quixote, there was another famous literary Spaniard: Celestina, an old whore who used cunning and sorcery to attain power and bring couples together in the 1499 Fernando de Rojas book Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea (Tragicomedy of Calisto and Melibea). Celestina is the Man of La Mancha's opposite: worldly, cynical, a woman imagined by Picasso as a gray-haired wench during his Blue Period and so notorious to Spaniards that the word celestina nowadays means "procuress"—a madam. But after seeing a staged version of Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea at UCI's Claire Trevor Theater, you'll agree this blackened reputation is undeserved.

Directed by Keith Fowler, La Celestina focuses on Calisto, a noble trying to woo the beautiful Melibea with little success. Some friends suggest he enlist the help of Celestina, a former prostitute who now runs a bordello and dabbles in magic on the side. She concocts some magic to win Melibea for Calisto, but it doesn't work. Instead, Celestina resorts to another form of sorcery—lies—to convince Melibea into loving Calisto. It's not happily ever after, however, and the play ends with mucho death—all we'll say is that after watching this play, you'll never climb a ladder without someone spotting you again.

Fowler's La Celestina could've easily been a nightmare—the original play clocked in at about 300 pages, and he adapted his version from a 1631 English translation from the original's archaic Spanish. But the dialogue flows nicely, the acting is sharp and not prone to the histrionics far too common in tragicomedy stagings, and the sordid plot reads like an operetta pulled from the pages of Us Weekly. Most importantly, however, is La Celestina herself. Medieval audiences undoubtedly forced de Rosas to have his most interesting character offed, but just a couple of hours with Celestina shows why she's a whore for the ages—a sharp-tongued, self-assured woman not afraid to use her powers to secure a spot amongst the hypocrites of the world.

LA CELESTINA AT THE CLAIRE TREVOR THEATER, UC IRVINE, 4000 MESA RD., IRVINE; WWW.ARTS.UCI.EDU. THURS.-SAT., NOV. 16-18, 8 P.M.; SAT., 2 P.M. $9-$17; MATINEE, $9-$15.

 
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