Put 1630s Spain and 1920s America into a cocktail shaker, shake well, and you get WSC Avant Bard’s sparkling update of María de Zayas y Sotomayor’s 1632 play Friendship Betrayed. Translated by Catherine Larson and directed by Kari Ginsburg, the play conveys timeless themes about love and friendship with a wit and energy that feel very modern.
In her director’s notes in the program, Ginsburg wrote that this largely forgotten play “surprised” her by being “smart and funny and sexy,” and she and her excellent cast do their utmost to bring out those qualities. They’ve staged it during the summer of 1920—Rhonda Key’s sumptuous flapper dresses and jewelry are a Jazz Age aficionado’s dream come true—and they keep things moving at a brisk pace, bringing the audience along for an uproarious ride.
It’s true that the language comes across as a bit antiquated and formal now and then, and there were moments on Tuesday night when the audience laughed in the wrong place (as when Daven Ralston’s Laura referred to her honor as a “precious jewel,” something that wouldn’t have been at all funny in 1632). Unlike a Shakespeare update, where the words are so familiar that they’re able to blend seamlessly into nearly any context, these lesser-known words at times threaten to clash with their modernized setting.
That said, there’s a lot of great material in this play—realistic conflicts, emotions, and humor, and the overcoming of stereotypes and stigmas—and the cast tears into it with relish. By turns sarcastic, sly, and sincere, with a touch of slapstick here and there, the actors do a great deal to make their lines feel natural and fresh. A trick of inserting pauses at key places—as when Melissa Marie Hmelnicky’s Fenisa talks of all her lovers being able to fit into her . . . soul—becomes a running gag among several of the actors, met with great audience appreciation every time.
The show centers on the young noblewoman Marcia (Megan Dominy), her group of friends and relatives, and their revolving love interests. As the women are bowled over by various handsome faces in turn, and are tempted to put love before the bonds of friendship, no one is a completely innocent bystander. But the happy endings go to the women who ultimately choose to remain loyal and help their friends find love, instead of thinking only of their own personal happiness.
Still, there are compensations for the “bad girl.” Hmelnicky gives the performance of the night as the reckless and fiery Fenisa; as things increasingly go against her, her rage builds until her expressive face seems to shoot sparks. It’s impossible to look away from her whenever she takes the stage. Yet somehow the other actors manage to hold their own against her compelling presence; Dominy brings a sweetness and steadiness to her character that make her an effective foil, while Ralston as the lovelorn Laura delivers a screwball performance that would have done credit to Carole Lombard.
The men get fewer chances to shine, but they do their part skillfully and there are some standouts: As the suave Don Juan (no mention whether he’s related to the famous libertine of that name), Christian R. Gibbs makes an indelible impression, particularly while dancing a passionate, beautifully executed tango with Alani Kravitz as Belisa. James Finley as the much-argued-over Liseo, isn’t much of a sympathetic figure, but he gets a film noir-style moment to himself, complete with fedora, dim lighting, and a touching monologue, that does a lot to win us over. And Connor J. Hogan as the servant Leon works overtime to deliver a steady stream of laughs. Zach Roberts (Felix), Brendan Edward Kennedy (Gerardo) and Mary Myers (Lucia) round out the funny and talented cast.
Finley’s set, dominated by a couch, a large ottoman, and a well-stocked bar, is simple but effective, and Veronica J. Lancaster has chosen period-appropriate music that suits the action well.
Friendship Betrayed is a unique experience, not just because of its blend of 17th-century substance with 20th-century style, but because of the heartfelt commitment of cast and director that bring it to rollicking life. It makes for an enchanting evening of theater.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Friendship Betrayed plays through October 11, 2015 at WSC Avant Bard performing at Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two – 2700 South Lang Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 418-4808, or purchase them online.
Meet the Cast of Avant Bard’s ‘Friendship Betrayed’: Part 1: Alani Kravitz.
Meet the Cast of Avant Bard’s ‘Friendship Betrayed’: Part 2: Daven Ralston.
Meet the Cast of Avant Bard’s ‘Friendship Betrayed’: Part 3: James Finley.
Meet the Cast of Avant Bard’s ‘Friendship Betrayed’: Part 4: Melissa Marie Hmelnicky.
Meet the Cast of Avant Bard’s ‘Friendship Betrayed’: Part 5: Zach Roberts.
Meet the Cast of Avant Bard’s ‘Friendship Betrayed’ Part 6: Connor J. Hogan.
Meet the Cast of Avant Bard’s ‘Friendship Betrayed’: Part 7: Brendan Edward Kennedy.