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'Fuenteovejuna': A welcome theatrical surprise

<h5>The cast of Fuenteovejuna, by Lope de Vega, performs a dress rehearsal on Feb. 24, 2022 in the Berlind Theatre.&nbsp;</h5>
<h6>Courtesy of Larry Levanti/Lewis Center for the Arts</h6>
The cast of Fuenteovejuna, by Lope de Vega, performs a dress rehearsal on Feb. 24, 2022 in the Berlind Theatre. 
Courtesy of Larry Levanti/Lewis Center for the Arts

This weekend, I planned to attend the Princeton University Orchestra (PUO) spring concert and write a piece describing a rock and roll fan’s perspective on classical music performance. I ended up in an entirely foreign land, much further outside of my comfort zone than I had bargained for — but I still had an incredible night.

I did not make it to the orchestra. I arrived at McCarter Theatre at 7:20 p.m., just as PUO was gearing up for their performance at Richardson Auditorium. Unaware of this fact and generally discombobulated by the onslaught of midterms I had been preparing for all day, I was slightly baffled when the ticket saleswoman told me the show did not start until 8 p.m. But I simply loitered confusedly outside until then and reentered the theater.

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I strolled into the auditorium, sat down, and removed my jacket, preparing myself to see a stage full of instruments waiting anxiously to be played by their respective musicians. Instead, I was greeted by “¡Bienvenidos!” hanging above the stage, a plethora of medieval-looking adornments behind it, and a full rock band set up to its left. What an odd way to set up an orchestra, I thought. Will there be a guitar in it? Is it actually a rock opera? What about all the other instruments?

I looked to my program for guidance. I was far from the orchestra. I had stumbled into Fuenteovejuna, a historically real small peasant town in 15th century Spain caught in the midst of the tumultuous Reconquista under the famed Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. What is this? Should I leave? How was I stupid enough to not see that the orchestra was at Richardson Auditorium? Why is there a drum set? Jeezaloo! I’m supposed to write a story about the orchestra!

Before I had time to decide whether to stay or go, three leather-jacketed students emerged, took their places on the drums, bass, and guitar, and just started shredding. I’m talking about a Led Zeppelin meets Metallica hardcore rock-and-roll riff. Well, I might not have made it to the orchestra, I told myself, but this is the place to be.

As all of my woes of missing the orchestra and completely ruining my first article were washed away by the music, the bassist began to sing… in Spanish. ¡Dios mío! I don’t know Spanish! I figured the “¡Bienvenidos!” sign was just to set the mood! I’ve taken Latin for a couple semesters now, but my knowledge of the fundamentals of romance language was not much help in deciphering the lyrics. Luckily, I noticed that “¡Bienvenidos!” had been replaced by an English translation of the lyrics. There were subtitles!

I’m no weeaboo, but I've watched my fair share of anime, so I was confident that I’d be able to keep up with whatever medieval tale of heroism apparently awaited me by following the translation. I began connecting some of the lyrics to the setting described in my program as I ogled stupidly at them flashing across the screen, still slightly shook by my whereabouts, but excited for the adventure that awaited me. And at that moment, shadowy forms began to dance behind a curtain behind the stage.

I had never imagined such a creative way to introduce a show’s setting. I had planned on writing a piece based on an outsider’s perspective, but the combination of Spanish and shadow dancing left me in utter shock. I had never seen anything like it. Yet as the dancers continued to twirl and gyrate gracefully behind the curtain and I became transfixed by their smooth movements, I almost completely abandoned the subtitles and any lingering confusion. I had become so fascinated by the dancing paired with the heavy rock music that I did not keep up with the words at all, but I gathered that the scene depicted a king and queen anointing a warrior of some kind — granting the horrid Fernán Gómez governance over the town of Fuenteovejuna.

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The music soon faded and the figures moved from behind the curtain, replaced by more characters arriving on the actual stage. I was finally assured that what I was witnessing was a play, and not a rock opera with a silhouetted visual accompaniment. As my eyes bounced from the stage to the English translation and back, the group of young peasants began to speak of love, life, and a dreaded Comendador.

It is immediately evident that the actors and actresses in the performance are wildly talented. Even as someone wholly unable to understand a word they were saying, I gathered more from the actors’ tones and expressions than from the accompanying subtitles. Erica De Lacerda ’22 led the way, reeling the audience in with the kind, genuine eyes that make it impossible not to fall for her character. Mahalia Norton ’24 played a flawless Mengo (a poor servant who served as comic relief), donning goofy expressions and outlandish gesticulations — as any attention-grabbing character should. Dominic Dominguez ’25 beautifully displayed the giddy excitement of a groom-to-be in his portrayal of Frondoso, making him an easy character to root for in his courtship of Laurencia.

Then came the arrival of the long awaited Comendador, Fernán Gómez. The music returned, a destructive and evil riff. The characters wordlessly expressed their dismay. And the Comendador’s servants urged the audience to clap for his appearance, one of the few jokes I could understand. Aaron Ventresca ’24 played the Comendador so perfectly that his bitter smugness hit me like a truck in the fourth row.

As the show progressed, a tale of love, vengeance, and female empowerment unraveled. Yet even more importantly, the show was one of the most fun and creative spectacles I have ever witnessed. Interlacing theater with rock ’n roll and shadow dancing was such an intriguing trifecta of storytelling mediums that I could not look away for a moment. Even as a befuddled English speaker, it was impossible not to enjoy “Fuenteovejuna.”

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I had anticipated being a bit of an outsider at the orchestra, since I am not particularly familiar with classical music. Instead, I found myself transported to an entirely alien production that was probably more fun than I could have hoped for. Though it sounds a bit cliché, the event truly opened my eyes to a new form of art that I had never known existed, and it was only a five minute walk from my dorm! “Fuenteovejuna” allowed me to realize how small-minded I had been in my quest for artistic entertainment, searching only for types of performances I had heard of. There is such a wildly diverse range of artistic expression that happens on campus that I know it would be hard to see it all, but after my experience with “Fuenteovejuna,” I’m sure as hell going to try. 

Eric Fenno is a Contributing Writer for The Prospect and Sports at the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at ef4960@princeton.edu and on Instagram or Twitter at @lil_e_rok.

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