Commedia with commentary in Odyssey Theatre’s latest production

From the left: Mitchel Rose (Arlequín), Ross Mullan (Crispín) and Bruce Spinney (Capitán) in a scene from Odyssey Theatre's The Bonds of Interest. Photo: Andrew Alexander Photography

UPDATE: The opening night of The Bonds of Interest has been delayed to July 27 at 8 p.m. in Strathcona Park. Recent heat and humidity delayed the rehearsal process. Ticketholders for July 25 and 26 have been asked to contact Odyssey Theatre at (613) 232-8407 or email the box office at to pick a new date.

At first blush, you’d swear that Odyssey Theatre’s upcoming production, The Bonds of Interest by Spanish playwright Jacinto Benavente, was cherry-picked as a commentary on Donald Trump and his version of America.

Charlatans, crooked business people, lies and bottomless greed swirl around the comedy about two swindlers, Crispin and Leander, who scam an entire town. The major villain in the piece is Señor Polichinela, a “vile, rough-spoken businessman with a kind of shady past,” says Laurie Steven, Odyssey’s artistic director and director/co-translator of the show. “He’s the kingpin in the city. The way he speaks is rough, crude, crass. He has everyone in town scared because he owns everything and runs everything.”

Sound familiar?

Thing is, Steven discovered the 1907 play by Nobel Prize laureate Benavente a decade ago and has been poking away at staging it ever since.

Its pointed contemporary relevance is “a very fortuitous connection,” says Steven, with a laugh.

The play is set in the 17th century in a Commedia dell’arte style, the only such play that Benavente wrote and the style which has been one of Odyssey’s trademarks over its 34 seasons.

Steven says the playwright was re-inventing the style — distinguished by colourful stock characters, frequent use of masks and conventional plots — in Spain, where it had died out three centuries earlier.

She says he wanted to put Commedia back on the stage as a way of startling audiences to attention with his commentary on the scams that riddled his homeland, a place where bankruptcy was rampant and “the countryside was being torn up by industrialization” after the Spanish-American War of 1898.

The play, she says, is a comic intrigue but also sad and at times very touching. “In some ways, it gets more Commedia as it goes along … It’s Commedia but something else, too; (Benavente) is very philosophical in this piece.”

Steven wanted to stage the play because of its exploration of mob mentality and people’s readiness to be duped in the hope of becoming wealthy, both of which have a notably present-day ring.

“I wanted to tackle this because of the very interesting use of satire and the way he’s woven Commedia with a very cynical, acerbic satirical vein in which he voices his opinion. I thought that was fun.”

Those ingredients caught her attention when she first read the play ten years ago. But, she could only ever find two translations of the original Spanish, neither of which she felt was very good. Her hunt for someone to collaborate with on a new translation eventually led to Catherine Boyle, a professor at King’s College London, England, who has done considerable work in cultural studies, theatre and translation.

The result is the upcoming production, whose cast includes Ross Mullan as Crispin. The Montreal-raised actor, best known for having played a White Walker in the HBO series Game of Thrones, acted with Odyssey Theatre years ago before moving to England to work in theatre and television.

“I’ve always kept in touch with Laurie (Steven) and we always discussed maybe coming back for the summer,” he says. He has family here, an inducement when the chance came to play Crispin. “Also, I’m an actor, and actors say ‘Yes’ to everything. So I thought, ‘Let’s do this!’”

The recent intense heat has delayed opening night until July 27, and Mullan says the extra time was needed to make up for rehearsals that had been disrupted by the weather.

He says his character, Crispin, is a schemer and that playing someone who pulls the wool over everyone’s eyes is always fun. “Also, there’s a bit of depth to him, he has a dark past. He has a mysterious charm to him … He’s a bit of a Trump, maybe a bit of a Boris Johnson, who’s my new prime minister. He’s also incredibly lovable.”

If playwright Benavente looked backward to an old style to tell his contemporary-themed story, Steven and her designers have placed the work in a very 21st-century context with a design inspired by graphic novels and music that’s a hip hop/jazz fusion.

If playwright Benavente looked backward to an old style to tell his contemporary-themed story, Steven and her designers have placed the work in a very 21st-century context with a design inspired by graphic novels and music that’s a hip hop/jazz fusion.

She says that if she had done straight Commedia, it wouldn’t have startled her audiences — who are well-versed in the style — in the way that Benavente’s original show surprised his viewers. Instead, she and her team worked on the graphic novel approach to give “a different lens” for viewing proceedings. She adds that the music by Ottawa’s Venessa Lachance has an edgy, funky feel that works with the graphic novel setting.

As always, the production features masks. This time around, says Steven, the masks are a little more pronounced than we’re used to seeing.

“I wanted to go just slightly bigger. They have a slight puppet-like quality … There’s a graphic novel feel but also just a tiny touch of puppet.”

The Bonds of Interest runs July 27-Aug. 25 in Strathcona Park. Tickets and information:, 613-232-8407

Share Post
Written by

Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.