TDPS' "Heart of Spain" Honors the 80th Anniversary of the Spanish Civil War
Bold, daring, and enthralling, the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies’ production of Heart of Spain tells the tale of the international volunteer brigades who participated in the Spanish Civil War beginning in 1936. But playwrights Peter Glazer and Eric Bain Peltoniemi decided to teach history with a twist: in the form of a musical.
Set in 1936 at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, the production follows people from all walks of life: nurses, immigrants, unemployed, and more who want to fight the fascism rampant overseas. Against the desires of their peers, the cast decides to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigades and volunteer to fight in the war in Spain. Once there, they trek through mountains and fight in trenches alongside the Spanish and others from all over the world in the hopes to take down Hitler and Mussolini’s fascism usurping Spain’s government.
With completely new compositions created by Grammy-winning producer, Eric Bain Peltoniemi, the musical is one of a kind. However, while the musical aspect worked to enhance the action, suspense, and emotion in some scenes, it failed to capture the gravity of the war in others. Unfortunately, this wasn’t helped by the cast’s lack of vocal strength. Together the harmonies of the cast flourished beautifully, but the cast is definitely better together, not apart.
But what the play lacked in execution, it made up for in passion. The musical, albeit not completely efficient, still worked because of the emotion that playwright and director Peter Glazer put into it. “In 1944, my father, folksinger Tom Glazer, recorded an album entitled ‘Songs of the Lincoln Battalion’ with Pete Seeger, Butch Hawes and Bess Lomax Hawes. These inspiring songs came to the US when members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade returned from fighting in Spain in the late 1930s, and became beloved anthems for liberals and progressives around the US. When I was growing up in the 1960s, my father sang these songs at gatherings of friends and family in our living room, and they were gorgeous and haunting. Years later, when I had become a playwright, I remembered these songs, and began to explore the idea of building a piece of musical theater around the story that inspired them. Part of my motivation was to bring these songs, and that history, forward to new generations of listeners,” Glazer says about his motivation for the play.
This dedication, passion, and fervor that Glazer expresses can also be found in the cast’s performances. An absolutely phenomenal group of performers, Glazer’s cast carries the production with an elegance that shakes the audience to their core. While moments with trench warfare transport audiences to the frontlines of violence, creating action, dissonance, and entertainment, the production thrives on moments of human vulnerability. When the nurses write letters to their families and friends and when they sing “Don’t You See” in an attempt to explain why they have to go to Spain are some of the most poignant, graceful, and powerfully emotional scenes that truly capture the essence of the play’s thematics. When Harry Fahn, who plays Arthur, reads aloud a letter to his infant daughter about his role in the war is the moment the production hits its peak: explaining the emotional and political turmoil, the human experience, and the interventionist platform that the play observes becomes clear and emotional.
"Heart of Spain brings to life the ideologies that predated World War II. In a time when the U.S. and the world seems in a state of particular turmoil it's important to look at the decisions, outcomes, and implications of a subsequent era with similar stakes," Veronica Maynez, who plays a Cuban exile who moves to New York and joins the Brigades, explains about the critical messages the production provokes. International interventionism, race, gender, and social justice are just a few of the subjects Glazer sheds light on in Heart of Spain on the 80th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War, and it does the war justice. "When I began the rehearsal process on Heart of Spain, a number of my students were shocked that they knew nothing about [the war]. I also think that the questions raised by the Spanish Civil War remain pressing today: is it ever appropriate for the United States to offer military support to other nations, and if so, under what circumstances? What is the responsibility of democratic governments to protect and defend democracy worldwide, and in what ways? Given the news today, it is also essential to recognize the passions for social justice, and gender and racial equality that were so prevalent in the 1930s. Those who believed passionately in supporting the democratically elected Spanish Republican government in the 1930s were advocating against isolationism, an issue echoed in today's headlines," Glazer comments about the themes, messages, and questions he wanted to inspire in his production.
Despite its faults, Heart of Spain presses critical issues of the past through the Spanish Civil War and provokes audiences to think about them in light of the presence. Poignant, emotional, and provocative, Heart of Spain takes risks. While it may not always succeed, the passion with which the cast and crew carry it is enough to create an engaging, moving, and dynamic performance that combines art from all different disciplines into teaching and remembering the past.
Images: Alessandra Mello
Catch TDPS' "Heart of Spain" at Zellerbach Playhouse on October 28th and 29th at 8:00pm or October 30th at 2:00pm.