Man’s Best Friend


Lope de Vega’s’Dog’ Gets Her Bone and Eats It Too

“The Dog in the Manger,” a visual and intellectual gem staged at the Shakespeare Theatre, is a red-hot cure all for the lingering winter blues. And the fact that the show’s opening almost landed on Valentine’s Day was a timely foreshadowing of this biting look at love and all its unlovable emotions.

It also serves as a bonus for all those who disdain Cupid’s follies, and in its farcical deconstruction of both true and conjured love, the play allows a rare opportunity for comical self-reflection.

Perhaps David Johnston, who translated the script from its original Spanish, summed it up best when he said, “Lope [de Vega] writes beautifully crafted fast-moving theater. His plays burst onto the stage.”

Indeed, the Shakespeare Theatre’s gifted veterans are no doubt rejoicing at the chance to sink their collective teeth into the Spanish playwright’s rich, high-tempo and challenging word play.

A master of Spain’s Golden Age, Lope couches subversive humor at a terrifying speed within a satisfyingly familiar comedic formula: a highly flawed protagonist surrounded by a cast of buffoonish characters. Behind the brilliant innuendos, stunning costumes and scenery, and top-of-the-line acting and directing, this production is nothing more than highly sophisticated, old-fashioned comedy. Think of Diana, the main character, as a feminine aristocratic Jackie Gleason.

In fact, Michelle Hurd — known for her multiple television roles in which she usually plays cops, lawyers or doctors — is a perfect poker-face Diana, a haughty countess who rejects her many aristocratic suitors only to fall in love with her handsome young secretary. Through all the hilarious emotional destruction she causes in her isolated monarchy, she reveals not even a hint of a smile, remaining obtuse till the end. Michael Hayden plays the annoyingly gullible Teodoro, the unfortunate object of Diana’s obsessive, yet wishy-washy desire. The only way for these characters to be believable is to project an unrelenting hold on their own fantasies. They both pull it off superbly.

Diana is the proverbial dog in the manger who doesn’t want to eat, but doesn’t want any other dog to eat either. She desires Teodoro, but not until after she discovers he lusts after another one of her employees. When he concedes to her wishes, she tosses him away, but forbids him from having anyone else. That includes his original love, Marcela, one of Diana’s fiercely loyal but plain ladies-in-waiting. Lope, not one for subtlety, by the end of the play has her servants chanting, “Eat Diana, eat!”

Comedy relies on two human emotions: the desire to laugh at ourselves through identification with the characters, and the desire to feel superior as we laugh at the characters. Lope cashes in on both. After all, who has never felt foolish in matters of the heart? And isn’t it comforting to know that even Lope’s highfalutin protagonist Diana is the guiltiest of them all?

Anyone who delights in period bawdiness can also relate to Lope’s mastery of lewd humor. David Turner, as Teodoro’s assistant and the play’s perennially sarcastic and witty commentator, delivers lines that would make even Shakespeare blush. Like Pavlov’s dogs (the dog metaphors must be contagious), whenever Turner enters the stage, audience members pant and position themselves in their seats so that the extreme convulsive laughter won’t cause them physical harm.

Lope adds eroticism to the mix, despite the full-length dresses with their high collars and long sleeves — which further enthralls the audience even as the threshold of ridiculousness rises off the charts.

The plot, however, is not all folly — nor are the characters without some insight. Both are firmly planted in reality and recognizable human emotion. Lope throws in scholarly lines like: “There is no greater glory than love, nor any greater punishment than jealousy,” and “Love is the God of revenge.” Of course, the audience obediently nods their heads in silent, communal agreement. We’re completely sold.

So too, apparently, was the lead actress. “The character [of Diana] intimidated me,” said Hurd, “so I felt challenged. It made my heart skip when I read it.”

This production also makes the audience’s heart skip a beat — with language that never misses a beat.

About the Author

Lisa Troshinsky is the theater reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.