… prismatic perfection … 

La Strada shines like a gem.  The writing, acting, music, movement, mis en scene are perfect.  Based on Fellini’s great film of 1954, and now set in Spain, it tells the story of Gelsomina, one of the world’s extra persons, a slightly feeble-minded, dreamy young woman “with a cauliflower head”  who, in a poor family of too many women, is sold by her mother to Zampano, an itinerant “strong man” entertainer and together they set off on a bleak, Goyaesque road.

He bursts chains with his muscle and lung power;  she in her sad but appealing striped, droopy costume, passes the hat.  A few coins trickle

Luis Carlos de la Lombana as the strong man. Photo: Martin Fernandez Lombana

Luis Carlos de la Lombana as the strong man. Photo: Martin Fernandez Lombana

in.  They work comic bits in which she’s the butt of the joke.  The strong man is brutal in this way and others, and when things take that turn, he’s unfaithful to her.  She’s deeply attached to him in ways we don’t thoroughly understand.

Joining up with a circus, they meet an absolutely wondrous clown, light footed and charming in his movements, profound in his understanding.  Attracted to Gelsomina, he’s gentle, respectful, and filled with insight — everything Zampano is not.  The clown — with tender patience — teaches Gelsomina a beautiful song.  Two dwellers on the edges of society finding an end to loneliness, a purpose in each other — there’s the possibility of an idyllic ending, of heaven on earth.

But — oh, eternal triangle — what about Zampano?

The clown and the somewhat dimwitted girl, two poor and easily overlooked human beings, make as great a sacrifice on the altar of honor and love as exists in literature or life.  He gives her a remarkable and most self-sacrificing gift: he tells her that she alone, and nobody else, would stay with Zampano (Who is really the strong man?).  His gift is to let her understand she is needed.  The waif for whom life seemed meaningless, now has a purpose.  Existence is unified and so everything matters, even a tiny pebble.  Even Gelsomina.  Even Zampano. She and the clown reach — poetically and not fully verbalized — a noble and tragic understanding that she will stay with Zampano.  In time, as the tragedy works unsparingly through these three lives, the melody the clown taught Gelsomina hangs on the wind of someone else’s memory.

It’s a play with a narrow focus and a vast, truly universal, meaning.  It looks at three figures who are unimportant by societal reckoning, on the margins, and finds in their “small lives” the full range of human experience from from selfishness to self-sacrifice and from brutality to love.

This powerful and moving play is performed in Spanish with English super titles so available on the monitor you hardly notice you’re reading them.  Nanda Abella is touching and passionate as the soft, uncertain girl who discovers a tough center within herself.  Luis Carlos de La Lombana conveys the circus strong man’s all-out brutality with only a hint of vulnerability.  Israel Ruiz brings an unforgettable sense of depth to the role of the clown — one feels the clown knows all there is to know, conveyed with a dancer’s flexibility and irony of a great actor.

The set with swooping rhythms in the brownish tones of a landscape by Goya, makes the small stage seem big as the world and the road continuing, in harmony with the largeness of these “small” characters.

The music, songs by Luis Carlos de La Lombana and Caridad Martos, arranged by Jorge Merced, is poignant, enveloping, and beautifully played by Stephanie David on the violin and Jennifer Harder on the trumpet.

This spare, fast tragic tale — like Cavelleria Rusticana — fires the imagination.

La Strada plays at TBG Theater on West 32nd Street in Manhattan through December 4th.

Teatrostagefest & La Strada Company Special Event November 5th at 3 PM, Adapting Fellini to the Stage.  TalkBack immediately following the 3 pm performance Saturday, November 5th.  Q & A with La Strada Company performers, directors, and special guest Marlo Fratti, playwright of the musical Nine, an adaptation of Fellini’s film 8 1/2, followed by reception/refreshments  with participants to which the audience is invited.