Flowers and thorns – the tragedy of Blood Wedding

Federico Garcia Lorca’s compelling tale of dark passions, Blood Wedding, is playing at the U of Alberta Studio Theatre.  The director is Kathleen Weiss and the cast is the 2014 BFA Acting class, in their final large-cast show together.

As in all shows in the Studio Theatre series, the costumes, sets, lighting, and music combine to create a coherent world, in this case a parched and dangerous one.   Before the show starts, we see a few chairs painted with appealing folkloric motifs and a tumble of fancy linens on a table, along with a few set pieces and drapes to create the impression of a harsh landscape against a bloody sun.

The staging starts with a woman in black (Mariann Kirby as Mother) beginning to fold the linens, as a chorus of younger women mimes some physical task while sitting downstage and a chorus of men (Neil Kuefler, Adam Klassen, Oscar Derkx) tumbles, fights, and works with scythes in the background.  When her son (Kristian Stec as Groom) comes to tell his mother that he is heading to the vineyard, we begin to learn of her preoccupations, especially about knives, weapons, and her dead husband and elder son.  When her son tells her he wishes to marry, she is reluctant.  I couldn’t tell whether she already knew who her son was courting and had reservations about that specific young woman’s history and family, or whether her reluctance was all about the prospect of being abandoned.  When she questions him about “your fiancée”, I couldn’t tell whether she wasn’t naming the young woman just because that was the author’s style choice to make them more archetypal, or whether she was pretending not to know her or actually didn’t know who she was.  Eventually Mother gives in and says that she’ll participate in the customs of taking gifts to the bride’s family.   We also learn in that scene that the Bride was previously engaged to Leonardo, who is part of a family that the Mother holds a grudge against, probably due to whatever bloodshed led to her family’s deaths.

Everything is elliptical and not-quite-explained.  The story only makes as much sense as it does because of Zoe Glassman’s character Neighbour, a chatty woman friendly with all the families.  When Mother and Groom arrive at Bride’s family home, we meet the Maid (Cristina Patalas), the bride’s Father (Graham Mothersill), and then the Bride (Merran Carr-Wiggin).   Throughout the story, the Bride seems ambivalent about the Groom and the wedding, fond of him but sometimes flinching from his touch or from more direct mentions of affection to come.  The parents of the young people, both scarred from sad pasts and cautious of each other, gradually come to be allies, talking about prospects for land purchases and cultivation and their wishes for grandchildren.  The Maid ramps up the erotic intensity of the preparations a bit while she helps the Bride dress and do her hair.  And then we see all the characters swept up in wedding celebrations, dancing and singing and playing music.   Several times I was reminded of Svadba, last year’s opera production about a group of friends preparing a young woman for her wedding.

The third family in the story is seen earlier on, first in a sweet domestic scene where a young mother (Andrea Rankin) and her own mother (Georgia Irwin) sing to a baby, and then the baby’s father (Braydon Dowler-Coltman) appears equally devoted to his son.   At some point in there, someone calls Dowler-Coltman’s character Leonardo, so that part begins to fit together.  Leonardo is the former fiancé of Bride, the one who then married Bride’s cousin, and he’s also part of the family who was involved in Groom’s father and brother’s deaths.  The young mother seems worried about her husband taking off on his horse all the time and maybe lying about it.  She doesn’t like the idea of him going to the wedding – especially going on his horse by himself although he protests that he’s not the kind of man to ride passively in a carriage.

The whirling dancing, increasingly frenetic Spanish-guitar-type music, and Bride’s growing distress cue us to an upcoming crisis.  The Bride goes to take a rest, fending off the Groom’s suggestion that they might go to bed together.  While the party continues we see the Maid begin to rush frantically from one side of the stage to the other, eventually crying out that the Bride is missing and so is Leonardo.

A search begins, with ominous music and lighting and threatening scythe-waving.  By this point there was lots of evidence that Leonardo was obsessed with the Bride, but it wasn’t at all clear that the Bride was still stuck on him, so I began wondering how much choice and power she had in the situation.  When they were seen in their flight through the woods, though, she was clearly as drawn to Leonardo as he to her.  As the pursuers approach, I was impressed by Carr-Wiggin’s stage tumbling in a wedding gown, at the same time as being frightened about the outcome.

And the pursuit didn’t end quite as badly as I’d expected in that the Bride didn’t end up dead.  But the show didn’t end with the fight and the other deaths either – then we got to see the Bride abandoned by her new husband’s mother and cast off by her own father, “a fallen woman and a virgin”.  This reminded me of Tess of the D’Urbervilles – well, okay, of the movie Tess because I’ve never actually read the book; the movie was depressing enough in showing a woman trapped in an unfair situation because of the expectations on women in that society.  In Blood Wedding, the deaths themselves aren’t the end of the story. But the Mother comments that she is more at peace now that everyone she loved is dead and no longer at risk, which is a disturbing commentary on the nature of revenge, grudges, and blood-feud.

Nice design touches:  the chenille rivers of blood, the beggar/oracle’s raven’s wings, the Maypole effect dressing the Bride in bright coloured sashes.   I loved the very active staging especially the woodcutters tumbling and scythe work.  And I noticed the repeated metaphor of comparing men and boys to various flowers and to thorns.

Blood Wedding continues at the Timms Centre until April 5th, including a Monday-evening performance and a midweek matinée.  Tickets are at Tix on the Square as well as at the door.

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