Classical Entertainment Society stages bloody good play

The hillbilly bluegrass opera, featuring a live band, overalls, and rad Flynning, is the CES’s first show of the year.

By Will Dart

It’s a classic tale of star-crossed lovers and feuding families as UChicago’s Classical Entertainment Society takes the stage in its inaugural production. Or is it? The play is classical, the production entertaining. But in most other regards, Blood Weddin’ is quite unlike anything the CES has done before and unlike anything you’re likely to see onstage this year.

Adapted and translated by show director Eric Shoemaker from the 1933 play by Spain’s Federico García Lorca, Blood Weddin’ transplant’s  García Lorca’s Bodas de Sangre from rural Spain to rural Kentucky. I know: I didn’t think it would work, either. But Shoemaker somehow stages a production that’s at once reverent to the original work and completely original in itself, equal parts classical drama, modern surrealism, and old-timey Southern Gothic.

“Lorca is still not widely known in the U.S., but this adaptation should be more relatable to an American audience. You can’t help but think of Deliverance,” says Shoemaker, who drew from his own background for the play’s postbellum setting, if not exactly on personal experience.  “I have relatives who live dangerously close to eastern Kentucky, so I have an unfortunate knowledge of the area.” Shoemaker also worked with his actors on the play’s development, particularly with regard to the pagan Saturnalia of the second act. “Everyone becomes a more extreme version of themselves in Act II; in a way, the play becomes a more extreme version of itself.”

It is in this more extreme segment that the aforementioned blood really flows. Blows connect with satisfying percussion as the actors hurl themselves about the stage in a climactic backwoods battle; this is Flynning at its very best.  Leading heel Jared Simon (“Russ”) is a particularly fierce presence throughout the proceedings, though it is a bit of a stretch to believe that he could last more than a minute against Alen Makhmudov’s Billy, half again his size and with arms like sleeping serpents poised to strike. Special mention must be made of Simon’s abdominals, which should be credited on the program as a lead player.

The production team has had quite the job of turning Ida Noyes’s library into backcountry Appalachia. Haybales stand in for bleachers; a picket fence gate with a crooked “private property” sign hangs outside. Still, the majority of the show’s ambiance is courtesy of the cast, all donning Southern drawls and overalls, mostly to great success. I could have done with fewer teeth on the leads, but major dental work is a lot to ask of student actors in a short-run production. The accents, at least, are well done and geographically accurate, although Shoemaker doesn’t let Southern vernacular get in the way of Lorca’s better lines. I don’t care if a hillbilly bride wouldn’t really say, “Take me like a lustful meat!” It’s just a great line.

Live musical backing, in the form of traditional bluegrass tunes done in exceedingly creepy fashion, is provided with gusto by the Cam Cunningham Five. “Some of the play’s verses can sound kind of weird without music, so we thought it would be cool to incorporate them into Kentucky’s native musical culture,” Shoemaker says. The pairing works well; when characters break into “song” at the titular wedding, it seems less like staged poetry and more like a folksy tradition that Kentuckians might actually do. Another of Lorca’s songs is rendered as a “creepy-ass lullaby” to great effect. The musicians also provide the necessary string-plucking ambiance throughout. I particularly enjoyed faux-washtub bassist Isabel Gold’s stellar Theremin impression during some of the production’s moodier passages.

I am hesitant to say anything more about the play—especially about the second act—for fear of spoiling some of the wilder facets of Shoemaker and company’s artistic vision. Lorca, as we all know, was a surrealist, and Weddin’ takes his already-weird project in some spectacularly strange directions. Hilariously what-the-fuck moments abound. “It’s just a really unique experience,” Shoemaker says, “With Blood Weddin’ we’ve been able to do something that students probably won’t be used to seeing from a play like this.” I advise you to leave your expectations at Ida Noyes’s double doors and that you be prepared to have them exceeded anyway.

Blood Weddin’ is playing in the Ida Noyes Library, November 15 at 8 p.m., November 16 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.