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Blood Thirsty

The Rep brings experimentation to Kansas City.

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A shrine holding lighted candles and framed photographs much too small to identify hangs at the back of the set of Federico Garcia Lorca's Blood Wedding at Missouri Repertory Theatre. No one refers to it, but it very well could memorialize any of the premature deaths in and around the play: The father and son who are gone before the play opens, the characters whose blood encircles the stage as the production ends or the playwright himself, murdered in 1936 at the age of 38 by the pro-Franco Black Squad at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.

Taken less literally, the flickering altar may signal a desperate plea to end certain rituals and traditions -- of machismo, honor and betrayal, for starters -- that never fail to come up short of ideal. Or it could be a small reference to monogamy, into which people enter with the illusion that eyes and allegiances will never stray. Every wedding party in every culture wears blinders to the realities of the human heart, and toasts to the bride and groom are as much about the celebration at hand as they are the hope that the couple lasts through the new year.

That a small, stationary set piece could be this fraught with meaning is a testament to the proficient designers and director of Blood Wedding, one of the more experimental and stylish shows ever to land on the Rep stage. Kansas City hasn't seen a lot of productions this far removed from the kitchen-sink dramas and drawing-room comedies of years past, and many audience members may not know what to make of it. "It's a stupid play," said a well-read acquaintance at intermission, "but a wonderfully designed one." One member of the audience was swept up "in the poetry," while another said it best with, "It's all so subjective."

Lorca obviously was intrigued by Romeo and Juliet, the play in the classical canon perhaps structured most closely to Blood Wedding. In the latter, a newly married bride and groom soon are mocked by passions that a ceremony and vows can't ablate. Costume designer Paul Tazewell's bridal gown, shown in the closing seconds of the first act, tips off the audience: It's a white, floor-length dress completely shrouded in black lace -- the negative image of the virginal white that normally hides any dark clouds.

To get to the stunning second act that the dress foreshadows, though, takes patience. One must trudge through some performances (specifically, the strident Carolyn Goetzer as the groom's mother) that are broad and melodramatic without being at all moving. In fact, other than the half-dozen dancers who vigorously communicate the prewedding moods of both houses, everything is rather lifeless. There is talk of violence and dissatisfaction, but that's all it is -- stilted dialogue much less captivating than Christine Jones' atmospheric set.

But to watch the set come alive in the second act -- in turn shocking the company and much of the audience awake -- is like having a circus burst through a television. The catalyst is the bride's betrayal, and each cast member plays a part in flooding the stage with a crazy, chaotic surrealism. Twenty-foot-high curtains that are delicately draped about the set are grabbed at their hem and violently twisted in knots. (Near the play's climax, Michael Klaers' brilliant lighting and Marcela Lorca's graceful direction transform one of the curtains into a river of blood). The ropes that hang calmly at the back of the set are pushed and pulled to become the swishing cables of a monumental bridge about to collapse. And the youngest cast member (one of two Kansas Citians in the cast, Annmarie DesLauriers) walks through the tumult holding a two-headed, Daliesque balloon; one is filled with helium and is quite normally erect while the other looks inflated but weighted to point down, straight to hell.

The show is an import from Minneapolis' Guthrie Theatre, and most of the cast members are re-creating their roles here. On opening night, it took a good hour for some of them to find their stride. Maria Elena Ramirez, for example, plays a maid at the sitcom pitch of Shelly Morrison's Rosario on Will and Grace, a role that has not found much favor with certain Hispanic groups. But after intermission, Ramirez is given another dimension with a haunting melody that makes her more a character and less a chess piece.

Perhaps Lorca meant all along for the players to be representational; to make them too real was to turn the play into a newspaper account of a similarly bloody incident that actually happened in another Spanish village. Lorca's output after Blood Wedding -- a volume of poetry and more plays that riled the right-wing -- confirms that he was neither a journalist nor a documentarian. He was an artist who found an expressive outlet in the symbiosis of tradition and confrontation.

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