The opening show of Gamm Theatre's 24th season is "Don Carlos" written by Friedrich Schiller in 1787 with a new adaptation by Gamm's artistic director, Tony Estrella. It is based on real events in Inquisition-era Spain. Espionage, intrigue and a royal family devouring itself against the brutal backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition. Set in 16th Century and inspired by Shakespeare. German playwright Schiller's seldom-staged political thriller with excellent acting from the entire ensemble can be considered a masterpiece. With gorgeous 16th century costumes by David T. Howard and a stunning dungeon-like set and chessboard flooring by Sara Ossana (which can be changed to the king's chamber or various other locations with set props and lighting changes by Matthew Terry) Young Don Carlos (wonderfully played by resident actor Steve Kidd) is passionately in love with his former fiancee, Elizabeth, ( Georgia Cohen with an excellent French accent) whom his tyrannical father, King Philip ll, (Richard Donelly in a spell-binding performance) has forcibly married. Fueled by jealously and provoked by his childhood friend Rodrigo (wonderfully played by Alexander Pratt in his debut performance at the Gamm), the fearless and idealistic Marquis of Posa, the distraught crown prince is unwittingly drawn into a full-scale rebellion against his father's oppressive and bloody regime. It is at once a heartbreaking tale of a personal passion and a timely cry for democracy against oppressive regimes like the current one in America. Not only did Tony Estrella write this new adaptation which he worked on for 8 months, he also directs the show with an excellent eye for detail and blocking while creating perfect picture postcard dramatic scenes while doing so. Passion and politics magnificently intersect in this version of this play, making it a must see show this fall season.
Estrella makes the point in his press release about why he chose the more than 200 year old play as the season opener for its "uncanny parallels to the state of our country today. We are coming upon a federal election of unprecedented importance with the real prospect of a regime change. Through the lens of 16th century Spain, "Don Carlos" sheds light on where we are right now. It's also a family drama and love story whose great theme is the conflict between private needs and public responsibility." The spellbound audience and loud cheers bear testament not only to the grip of this great romantic tragedy: they pay tribute to the brilliance of Estrella's production. He makes the story accessible to the audience by showing how Don Carlos is the last hope of the freedom-fighting Marquis of Posa, who champions Spain's oppressed peoples. But Carlos is a helpless dreamer, fatally smitten by love for his stepmother and brutally neglected by his cold-hearted father. So, at every stage, the conflict between absolutism and liberty is intertwined with a drama about flawed personal relationships. What makes it a great play is that Schiller and Estrella epouses freedom while understanding power. And if any one performance dominates the evening it is Richard Donelly's superb Philip II. The key to his performance lies in it emotional solitude. This is a man who has tragically sacrificed love to power; and the famous scene in which the king mistakenly thinks he has found a surrogate son in Posa becomes the most haunting of the evening as Donelly looks into the Marquis's eyes as if searching into his soul. Estrella has carefully orchestrated every aspect of the tragedy. Carlos is least equipped to play the power game, and Steve Kidd invests him with the right neurotic frenzy. But there is equally good work from Georgia Cohen, who lends Queen Elizabeth a furious innocence, and from Alexander Platt, who is wonderful as the idealistic Posa. Christopher Byrnes as the devious priest, Domingo and Norman Beauregard as the power hungry Duke of Alba appear to great effect as a pair of infamous plotters, (loved the sword fighting scenes created by Norman in this show) and Sam Babbitt makes a starling late entrance (clad in the red outfit of a Cardinal and bathed in red light while entering through a crucifix cut out in the back wall of the set) as a Grand Inquisitor resembling a scarlet stick insect. (His blue contact lens also add to the horrifying effect) (Kyle Blanchette, a recent URI graduate, whom I have reviewed many times in the past, makes a beautiful debut at Gamm as the nephew of the King.) Also stunning is the closing montage as Carlos seems to be thrust into molten lava in the pit of the dungeon. The evening is a triumph that at last puts Schiller center stage. So for a look at a timely and excellent performed play be sure to catch "Don Carlos" before time runs out.