You cannot fault the Henley Street Theatre Company for its ambition. For the second production in its inaugural season, the fledgling company chose "The Spanish Tragedy" by Thomas Kyd, a 16th-century revenge play with a large cast, a long running time and a lot of dead bodies. It would be a challenge for an experienced company to bring a contemporary vitality to this play, so you have to give a newbie points for trying.
But ambition can take you only so far. While Henley Street's "Tragedy" has a few sparkling scenes and several solid performances, and builds a respectable bit of momentum near the end, for much of its two-and-a-half-hour length it is mired in mere adequacy, the scenes playing out in workmanlike fashion.
Much of this is because of the text. The plot concerns the vengeance of Spanish nobleman Don Andrea (Stephen Ryan), who is killed in battle by Portuguese prince Don Balthazar (Anthony Santiago). As a ghost, Andrea enjoins the assistance of Revenge himself (Michael Sater), who manipulates Andrea's widow, Bel-Imperia (Kerry McGee), and a Spanish judge, Hieronimo (Frank Creasy), to exact a devastating toll on the royal houses of both Spain and Portugal. While Shakespearean in its scope (elements of "Hamlet" and "Richard III" were borrowed from "Tragedy"), Kyd's play has little of the Bard's leavening humor and even less of his eloquent poetry.
Director John-Michael MacDonald and his troupe hamper the production further with some of their choices. Most jarring is costume designer Alia Radabaugh's formal dinner party wardrobe that makes the actors look like players in "The Great Gatsby" rather than Spanish and Portuguese royalty. While the show's many death scenes involve a surprising variety of implements (a noose, a gun, knives, etc.), only a jarring self-mutilation near the end is staged with an inconsistent splash of crimson. There are several female characters in mourning thanks to these deaths, but only Rebekah Spence as Hieronimo's wife convincingly raises her level of emotion above petulance.
Even so, there are several magnificent moments here. The trial of Bel-Imperia's servant Pedringano (Alison Haracznak), who has been betrayed by Bel-Imperia's brother Lorenzo (Patrick Bromley), is a darkly comic delight, buoyed by Haracznak's confident swagger and the sly impishness of Dean Knight (as Lorenzo's page). Bromley, with his deep velvet voice, makes for a wonderfully despicable bad guy, and Sater's Revenge eerily haunts the entire production with an effective otherworldly diffidence.
In the second act, Creasy's Hieronimo steps out from the background and propels the action. A few wide-eyed gesticulations aside, Creasy effectively captures the grief and incipient madness of his character while managing a hilarious bit of pantomime of the final "play within a play." After all of the build-up, the denouement concludes with remarkable speed, but the poignancy of Creasy's performance lingers.
Whether it's worth waiting for Creasy's performance and the few other gems to be found in "Tragedy" is a tough judgment call. But it's worth keeping an eye on Henley Street for the day when its ambition is matched by its results. S
Henley Street Theatre Company's "The Spanish Tragedy" is appearing at the Pine Camp Arts and Community Center, 4901 Old Brook Road, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Feb. 2. Tickets are $15-$20. Call 340-0115 or visit www.henleystreettheatre.org.