LYNN SAXBERG Updated: July 26, 2019
Odyssey Theatre presents: The Bonds of Interest
By Jacinto Benavente
Tuesday to Sunday, July 27 to Aug. 25, Theatre Under the Stars, Strathcona Park
Tickets: $12 to $30, with a half-price special for opening weekend, available at eventbrite.ca
After 34 years directing Ottawa’s annual summertime dose of commedia dell’arte, Odyssey Theatre’s Laurie Steven has a nose for finding a play that suits the classic style of comedy performed by masked characters.
Often, it starts with a trip to the Ottawa Public Library.
“It sounds very random and disorganized, and it is,” she admits, “but I go to the library and start rummaging around. It’s an opportunity to start thinking outside the box about where I can find a piece that will be interesting for mask work, and where I haven’t looked before.”
A decade ago, that’s where she found an English translation of the script that turned into this year’s production of The Bonds of Interest, written in the early 1900s by Spain’s Nobel-winning playwright, Jacinto Benavente. Steven was intrigued by the text but felt the translation was lacking. After all,Benavente was a Nobel winner, and this was considered his masterpiece.
It sat on the backburner until about four years ago, when she stumbled across a short excerpt translated by a masters student at King’s College in London, England. Impressed, Steven tracked down the head of the department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies at the university and had a great chat.
Turned out the professor — Catherine Boyle — was also the head of an organization set up to collaborate with theatre companies on translating Spanish classics. The pair decided to work together, and no, it didn’t involve running the original text through Google Translate.
“I wish,” Steven laments. “The programs aren’t sophisticated enough to handle the nuances. Words come naturally in a different order, and often they’ll have changed their meanings, both in Spanish and English. It’s been over 100 years since it’s been written.”
At the start of the project, Steven spoke enough Spanish to “basically order a cup of coffee,” but her years of experience with commedia dell’arte were invaluable in fleshing out the characters and nailing the rhythm of the comedy. Still, there was a learning curve, largely because she didn’t read Spanish.
“I had to roll up my shirtsleeves and look up almost every single word,” she said, clearly thankful for Boyle’s expertise in the language.
The deeper they dove into the text, the more Steven liked it.
“First of all, I have to admit I like scoundrels,” she says. “This play has a pair of con artists who come to the town, and they’re out to get rich. They suck everyone in town into believing the image they project of themselves being rich, mysterious foreigners.
“So everybody gets involved and everybody lends money thinking they’re going to get rich off these guys.
“It has this kind of Ponzi scheme feel,” she adds. “When Benavente was writing this, there were a lot of investors out there luring people into investing in shady schemes. That still goes on nowadays. I think it touches our great desire to get rich quick somehow.”
What’s more, the central villain is a shady businessman with a “terrible past and a crass attitude” who runs the town, a character sure to remind modern audiences of a certain U.S. president. As a satirist, Benavente not only takes aim at corrupt leadership but also capitalism, consumerism, mob mentality, the treatment of war veterans and other issues that are still relevant a century after he wrote it.
The playwright’s only attempt at commedia dell’arte is a triumph, according to Steven, who ranks it alongside some of the great works of comedy of all time.
“The calibre of writing and thinking and wit and interestingly drawn characters puts it right up there with something like (Oscar Wilde’s) The Importance of Being Earnest. That’s how it should be known,” she declares.
When it was first staged in 1903, the play shook people up. “It was performed on one of the biggest stages in Madrid and it basically resurrected commedia dell’arte in Spain after it was dead for 300 years. Benavente brought a fresh life to Spanish theatre.”
To create the same impact for Ottawa audiences, Steven decided to set the play in a world influenced by the graphic-novel form, with a set designed by Ottawa architect Barry Padolsky, costumes by Vanessa Imeson, masks by designer Clelia Scala, choreography by Montreal dancer Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière and a contemporary hip-hop/fusion soundtrack composed by Vanessa Lachance.
The cast is a big one for Odyssey, numbering about a dozen actors, including Montreal-raised Ross Mullan, who’s best known as a White Walker in the HBO series Game of Thrones.
Due to the recent stretch of hot, humid weather, rehearsals of the open-air production fell behind schedule, resulting in a two-day delay in opening.
The Bonds of Interest opens at 8 p.m. July 27 at Strathcona Park.