PROVIDENCE — Even though it’s set centuries ago in Spain, “Like Sheep to Water” is a storyline that’s practically ripped from today’s headlines, where people who feel overrun and abused by a political leader band together in resistance.
Now on stage at Trinity Repertory Company, the laying of the groundwork for the actual resistance in the play is more dramatic and compelling than the actual manifestation of the grass roots uprising. Still, this is a prescient piece about people who dig deep within themselves for the strength to fight back.
“Like Sheep to Water,” which is subtitled “Fuente Ovejuna” and is the actual name of a small agrarian town in 15th-century Spain, takes place in a time when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella are attempting to unite their country under Catholicism against threats from native insurgents and neighboring Portugal.
Director Mark Valdez modernizes the story by Lope de Vega with touches grand and subtle. Clothing reflects trends of both centuries, and a live band infuses a neat backdrop of music that pulses lively Latin-based tunes for celebrations in the Fuente Ovejuna town square and provides mood tones from the upright bass for other more tense moments.
The story focuses on the tyrannical rule of military commander Fernan Gomez, who has been put in charge of the town by the king and queen. With his pair of henchmen, he takes everything from the townfolk — their pride, their freedom, their chastity, and imprisons or beats them mercilessly when they dare to challenge his power.
When he breaks up the joyous wedding of Laurencia and Frondoso, imprisoning both and raping Laurencia, she returns to the town angry at the men whom she claims allowed him to hurt her. Calling the men sheep, she rallies the other women together to overtake the commander’s rule. This is the part that I’d hoped would be more of the focal point of the show — the actual coordination of revolution versus the stories of oppression — and such would have made the story even more powerful than it is.
Valdez does a brilliant job of bridging the span of time between then and now, and making the story resonate for today’s audience. He is boosted, of course, by several fresh faces on the Trinity stage. Octavia Chavez-Richmond bites fiercely into the role of Laurencia and is at the center of the show’s most powerful moments — as well as some of the sweetest as she flirts with Frondoso, played nicely by Orlando Hernandez.
The cast also features several Trinity veterans — Timothy Crowe perfectly plays a self-effacing Flores, one of the commander’s men, Stephen Berenson gives a sweetness to the dim-witted Mengo, and Rachael Warren is delightfully regal and imposing as the tyrannical Isabella. Fred Sullivan Jr. is a despicably lascivious Commander Gomez, although his tendency to scream the lines gets a little overwhelming at times.
“Like Sheep to Water” is a difficult show to experience — there is rape and beheadings — but absolutely necessary for today’s citizens. It reminds us that we have the power to stand up to evil, even when we seemingly have little with which to fight.