Viva Garcia Lorca!

In 1929, the Spanish writer Federico Garca Lorca wrote that to save his country's theater, it faced a terrible dilemma: either it "changes radically or it dies away forever. There is no other solution." Ironically, Garca Lorca believed that radical change would come from looking to the past, rejecting conventional realism in all its mediocre guises and returning to the origins of theater: tragedy and myth, poetry and music. In short, a return to imagination and mystery, guiding principles rarely encountered in the commercial theater of Garca Lorca's time-or anyone else's.

Blood Wedding, Garca Lorca's 1932 tragedy of passion and frustration, is the best example of his theatrical vision. It blends traditional melodrama and classical tragedy with poetic verse, surreal imagery and music. It's a landmark play, perhaps the greatest poetic drama written since Shakespeare. Unfortunately, like Shakespeare, it rarely works onstage. It takes a director willing to absorb its rich, trippy consistency, someone with the intelligence to understand Garca Lorca's fertile imagination and the skill to make it work onstage. Most important, it takes a director willing to take a very big risk: the chance that she-and her cast-will look like a bunch of artsy-fartsy drama geeks.

There are traces of geek pretension in the current production of Blood Weddingat Cal State Fullerton, but not nearly enough to spoil director Mnica Leite's ambitious, often mesmerizing effort, which is conceptual enough to stand on its own merits yet faithful enough to demonstrate the validity and power of Garca Lorca's vision.

The fact that this is a college production with actors ranging from experienced to not-so-experienced makes its success all the more auspicious for Leite, a third-year master's student.

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Roughly based on a newspaper account of a murder in rural Spain, Blood Wedding-like so much of classic tragedy-is a very simple story with all the necessary prerequisites: betrayal, lust and revenge.

Two families seek to increase their wealth by marrying. But the union between the Bridegroom (Alessandro Trinca) and the Bride (Laura Hart) is derailed by the still-raging affair between the Bride and a former lover, Leonardo (Scott Manuel Johnson), who is now married and has a child. Mere moments after tying the proverbial knot, the Bride is discovered missing. It's not bad enough that she has run off with Leonardo; to make matters worse, Leonardo is a part of the Felix family, members of which murdered the Bridegroom's brother and father years ago-something Mother (W. Lee Daily) cannot forget. The instant she hears that her son's new wife has run off, Mother demands instant, brutal retaliation. So the Bridegroom starts off "like a raging star," Garca Lorca writes. "His face, the color of ashes, [reveals] the fate of his whole family."

The hunt continues through a creepy forest scene, where the Moon (Dionne Nicole) takes on human form and delivers a powerfully sexual, blood-hungry monologue that's punctuated by the entrance of an old Beggar Woman (an eerily effective Diana Corral), who eagerly awaits the "lacerated screams" of the soon-to-be killed and asks the Moon to shine brightly on both men's vests so "the daggers will know their way." With these two supernatural apparitions hanging about like Dr. Kevorkian, it's only a matter of time before fate runs its terrible course and bodies fall.

There are ideas at work in Blood Wedding-the struggle of the individual against society, the hold that history and memory have on the present-but they are subordinated to presentation. Garca Lorca's rich, poetic language and surreal touches suggest that he wasn't as interested in making his audiences think as he was in making them feel that there are ways of knowing other than the pedestrian methods usually offered in drama. For example, instead of naming his characters in Blood Wedding, he gives them generic names, suggesting that the people onstage aren't real people so much as eternal representations of types of people.

Leite picks up on Garca Lorca's cue and brandishes it throughout her heavily stylized production. She utilizes choreography by Shannon Mahoney and musical orchestration from Bobby Nafarrete to heighten Garca Lorca's already lyrical script. She opts to deliver the long verse passages written by Garca Lorca in song-which is how he intended them in the first place. But most gratifying is that the words are sung in Spanish. In the throats of the more gifted singers-most notably Vanessa Villalovos-these moments are sublime.

Mention must also be made of Ann Sheffield's superb set, which features twisting, gnarled branches, ripped curtains, and a looming whitewashed wall with a very cool Dali-esque white chair suspended at its top. It's a fitting complement for a play that deals so heavily in poetic imagery.

Leite's decision to cast a man in the pivotal role of Mother works not because Daily is a man, but because he's a good actor who understands the stylized undercurrent at work. And there are other excellent performances, particularly Elissa Goldstein's Maid and Hart's Bride.

But the key relationship between Leonardo and the Bride doesn't have the fire or passion needed to set this tragedy in motion. Another mark against this production-and the only time where pretension pokes its annoying head into the mix-is the overly long prelude, where the cast solemnly enters with lighted candles and stages a West Side Story-like ballet foreshadowing the tension to come. Leite's decision to begin and end the play with the same movement works well in showing that the circle of history remains unbroken, but it just takes too long to get going-minor criticism for a play that illuminates a wonderful piece of writing.

It's tempting to think that this production works so well merely because Leite is a very talented director. Undoubtedly, that's true. But the fact that the program lists her as an "international student from Lisbon, Portugal," suggests another reason: she probably knows Garca Lorca far more intimately than most American-born theater students. If that's the case, then this production of Blood Wedding shouldn't be missed by anyone who values the work of Garca Lorca, one of this century's genuinely inspired writers.

Blood Wedding at Cal State Fullerton's Recital Hall, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 278-3371. Thurs.-Fri., Dec. 10-11, 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. $6-$8.

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