Production of 'La Celestina' is a mystery unveiled

by Christopher Moore | 2/25/02 6:00am

In the fine new production of the classic Spanish tragicomedy, "La Celestina," the hidden recesses behind the curtain become a new space for theater in the round. General admission tickets allow the playgoers to walk past the Moore reserved seats -- for these two weeks transformed into an open harbor -- scramble up some obscure stairs through a strange doorway in a dark niche and into what is now a great hall split longways by a stage about 10 feet wide.

Effective at creating an informal atmosphere -- the opposite half of the audience becomes as much part of the show as the show -- the three-foot high stage acts as a dining table around which we gather to hear the evening entertainments (sundry silvered utensils hang from the ceiling).

Originally a nine-hour story recited in quasi-private settings, this version of "La Celestina" allows the bard -- Fernando de Rojas (David Williams, an adult non-student) -- several moments at the head of the table, not to "set the stage," but to speak directly to the audience. The story told here, and its meaning, Rojas says, "no ten men will agree upon." This in the end may be false, but Rojas' modesty (or his winking words) does encourage one to do just as a night at the long table might recommend -- take comfort, even some wisdom, from this many-charactered tale.

The stage is not just a table from which to present a drama of the young and rich falling in love against taboos, crazy old bawds and grubbing but loyal servants scheming away. The stage is a runway on which one walks to be seen; what one wears and how one wears it matters to the exclusion of the beliefs one carries -- or secretes away. In three sequences, the full cast crosses paths, and though deliberate choreography, the regalia and urbanity, the fashionable smugness of each character, made me giddy.

The stage is most of all a link between two poles, a spectrum holding opposites together. On the west side, Calisto (played in his routinely charming way by Jeffrey Withers '02), a young nobleman and master of at least four servants, is sick unto death with passion. With supreme decadence he moans in his bed throughout the night and the day, probably having little else to do. In alternate scenes, his room becomes the bedroom of his love, Melibea (an admirably tricky Katia Asche '04), the wealthy unwed prize daughter of possessive parents.

On the east side, Celestina (Carolyn Gordon, another adult non-student), an old witch-y sort of woman who arranges "services" for certain men and performs "surgeries" for young women, keeps an ill-reputed house. She grants favors for those in need, though she's especially in need, financially and otherwise. Her house shares stage space with Areusa's (Marina McClure '04) house -- Permeno (Philippe de Richemont '04) shows interest in Areusa.

The highborn and lowborn, separated by a city, share more than either would admit. Their secrets are the same; their human lusts the same; their needs reciprocal; their mutual employment, in Gosford Park vein, more convoluted than appearance suggests.

The play has rich historical context, reflected by a concurrent series of lectures sponsored by the Hop and the Theater Department.

"Converso" Jews survived the Spanish Inquisition by adopting Christianity -- in the marketplace they were equals, but a latent subalternity remained.

Melibea is thus the cipher: incomparable beauty, but necessarily enigmatic -- to be kept veiled always. Not only does Melibea have only one youth, but her lineage could be discovered.

The current production treats Melibea's mystery only elliptically -- obvious mostly through her inconsistent reservation and the last scene. The shameful taboo against Celestina, who helps more than she hurts, is more easily portrayed in its analogy to any portrayal of class and gender relations.

The relations between Calisto and his servants, as well as Melibea and her maid, Lucrecia (Amanda Eubanks '03) are not so clear. Tom Dugdale '03, as Sempronio, the overly dramatic senior manservant, is both ambivalent with regard to Calisto and foreign; Tristan and Sosia (nicely played by Niegel Smith '02 and Brett Quimby '02 respectively), the junior servants, pop in and out without much reason.

The show also includes a keen performance by Eleanor Seigler '01 as Sempronio's object of delight and good acting by Hanna Putnam '03 and Katy Flynn-Meketon '05.

While "La Celestina" still provides relevant social commentary, it neither hits the tragic mode nor the historical analysis perfectly. But as a story, though long, the play is a complete success. It should be enjoyed; its revelation is a great occasion.