Deep into the show, a piece of sweet, wistful recorded music begins, a signal that, even in the world of The Bonds of Interest, tenderness and grace may have a foothold.
That’s reassuring — at least a little bit. Because everywhere else in Jacinto Benavente’s 1907 comic play, here newly translated by Catherine Boyle and Laurie Steven, duplicity, cynicism, greed and violence call the shots. Whether that flicker of musical hope — we learn that it’s a song called The Kingdom of Souls, suggesting a community of like-minded goodness — stands a chance of surviving, let alone triumphing, remains an open question.
Odyssey Theatre’s production of The Bonds of Interest in Strathcona Park takes a few minutes to get rolling (on opening night, the first exchanges between two rogues, Crispin, played by Ross Mullan, and Leandro, played by Anurag Choudhury, felt forced and at odds with itself). But as others in the large, 14-member cast start to join in, the pace picks up and evens out, giving Crispin and Leandro the context they need to flourish.
The two are, as Mick Jagger sings in You Can’t Always Get What You Want, “practiced at the art of deception.” What they want is money. New in town, the duo executes a scheme concocted by Crispin to get what others own. In so doing, the two really just mirror back to the townspeople the incipient greed and comfort with deceit that seemingly underpins everyone’s life.
“What is riches without love?” asks a lady’s maid (Colombina, played by Maryse Fernandes) at one point. “The same as love without riches,” she answers herself.
And so it goes. We meet a cavalcade of characters and situations, from Colombina’s employer Doña Sirena (Soo Garay), an insolvent noblewoman with a taste for liquor and manipulation, to an inept poet named Arlequin (the sinuous Mitchel Rose) who’s happy to go along with others’ schemes instead of thinking for himself, and the loud-mouthed, wealthy Señor Polichinela (Scott Maudsley) whose crudeness echoes Donald Trump’s and whose mop of hair recalls Boris Johnson.
How Señor Polichinela managed to father a child like Silvia is a mystery. Played by Erin Eldershaw in a manner that moves enticingly from near-incorporeal to full flesh-and-blood womanhood, she’s a good person. She also stands to inherit her father’s wealth and is therefore the target of the town’s unmarried noblemen.
Instead, she and Leandro become an item, and the ethical backbone that Leandro buries when he’s with the dastardly Crispin finally asserts itself.
All this takes place within the 17th-century Commedia dell’arte frame constructed by Spanish playwright Benavente and updated by Steven, who directs the show, and her team of designers and choreographers.
Clelia Scala’s masks are both handsome and more elaborate than we’ve seen in recent years, when Odyssey pulled back a little from its traditional Commedia approach and experimented with other styles.
Tellingly, Leandro wears no mask and Silvia discards hers, making the two the only characters who have nothing to hide. They become the moral anchor of the play, and we, also unmasked, identify with them (although it would be disingenuous to claim that we don’t also identify with elements of all the unsavoury characters).
Barry Padolsky’s set features an urban, graphic novel theme, with tall, anonymous buildings in the background and an intimate acting area up front. The set accommodates the large cast effortlessly, and Graham Price’s lighting design plays off it smartly, helping shift the mood in keeping with Benavente’s subtle storyline.
Movement on this set and under these lights is highly stylized (again, different from what we’ve seen at Odyssey recently). At times it’s funny, at times it’s disquietingly vicious. Always, it’s clear that we are witnessing a heightened representation of human behaviour and one that both signals and masks the characters’ true intention.
Other designers include Venessa Lachance, whose compositions and sound design underpin Padolsky’s urban theme with a blend of hip-hop, bass-heavy funk and jazz. Her inclusion of the delicate The Kingdom of Souls is a surprise, but you’ll have to decide whether it represents a promise of possibility or a mere hope.
The Bonds of Interest is an Odyssey Theatre production. In Strathcona Park until Aug. 25 (ASL-interpreted performance Aug. 18). It was reviewed Saturday. Tickets and information: odysseytheatre.ca, 613-232-8407