Thursday, September 13, 2007

Hail to thee, blithe bullfight

Forcados line up to taunt a bull in Newman

ONE LIKES ONE'S RECREATION out of doors and varied, and so it was that we took in a performance of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit Sunday night at the Theatricum Botanicum and then, next evening, Monday, visited the small but autentico bullring in (or near) Newman for an evening of Portuguese-style (which is to say, bloodless) bullfighting.

What you do not see in the photo here is the bull, of course. Well, it wasn't easy to photograph: it was dusk; we were looking toward the sunset; excuses; excuses. The bull is out of the frame to the left, and he's pretty tired, having been stalked and faught for twenty minutes or so.

What you do see here is the beginning of the end: a file of men in traditional costume approach the bull, who's at the ready facing them. The lead man taunts the bull, posing, throwing out his chest, calling him. Ultimately the bull can stand it no longer and charges, whereupon the fellow leaps over the bull's head, between his daunting horns, and grasps him around the neck. The rest of the men immediately pile on as well, wrestling the bull to a standstill.

Then comes the even more dangerous moment: they all dismount, surrounding the bull. If he's well and truly subdued he'll simply stand there, whereupon two cowherds bring in a platoon of younger steers, each wearing a sonorous bell on a collar; they surround the bull, who after a moment's confusion and regret joins the herd, and they're all ushered out of the ring, which is then readied for the next act.

We saw two cavalleros, as I think they're called, and one torero. The former faught from horseback, and their horsemanship seemed excellent: they urged their elegant prancers in tightening spirals around the bulls, who charged with lowered horns. This flirtation continued for several minutes, at first challenging and taunting, later earnest. The bulls wear a Velcro-like pad across their shoulders, and their horns are sheathed in leather, the tips perhaps padded; the picadors do not have sharpened darts, but spears ending in detachable markers which, when correctly placed, leave tinselly-colored streamers on the bull's shoulders.

The torero faught similarly, but on foot, concentrating on cape-work, drawing nearer and nearer, sometimes turning his back on the bull. The lack of swords, pikes, and, consequently, spilled blood, might make you think there's little drama or excitement: but that's not the case. We watched all this as if mesmerized; there's a great deal of immediacy and, in fact, of danger: one horse was limping a bit after a bull's horn grazed its flank, and we saw at least two of the forcados tossed.

Forcados? They're the men you see in the photo, lining up for the finale. I can't do them justice: read a better description of all this here.

AND WHAT ABOUT Blithe Spirit? Well, the Theatricum turned out to be a pretty little outdoors theater with a good-sized stage, decent lighting, and well-raked audience seating (hard benches, though; bring cushions); and this was a well-directed and reasonably well-cast production of a play I've always enjoyed. Mark Bramhall, who we've seen in professional productions at A Noise Within in Glendale, was a marvelous Charles Condomine, his physical acting beautifully scaled and his voice very expressive without going overboard.

Ellen Geer (daughter of the TV actor Will Geer, who conceived this Theatricum) was a wonderful Madame Arcati, the dotty medium whose seance precipitates Coward's predictable-only-in-hindsight plot. To me, the rest of the cast dropped away in quality, the victims of too loose a directorial rein perhaps; but ultimately it didn't matter. The spirit of the play, all of it, was the thing, and we had a good time.

Blithe Spirit continues in repertory with The Tempest, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and an adaptation of Dracula through the rest of September, and the town of Topanga's an entertaining slice of frozen time with an okay Mexican restaurant. It's a pleasant way to spend a Sunday.


Daniel Wolf said...

Charles --

The description of the bullfight is wonderful. There is a fresco from Knossos in the Heraklion museum with bull leaping, perhaps even sommersaulting. It's strange how there could be two so very different parallel traditions of bull rituals -- one ending with sacrifice and the other essentially playful.

Also -- it's too bad that Will Geer will probably be best known as a TV Grandfather. He was a leading man with Welles' Mercury Theatre for which created the role of Mister Mister in Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock.

Charles Shere said...

I'd guess it's not parallel traditions, but one continuous one that's devolved a bit (the invention of Velcro a major contribution to the devolution). I'd forgotten about that Cretan mosaic. The leaping forcado did, however, believe it or not, bring leaping dolphins to mind--exactly that graceful arc, though immeasurably faster.

A further note: the
cavaleiros were Francisco Palha and Tomas Pinto, from Portugal; the matador was Victor Manuel Blázquez, from Spain.

John Whiting said...

There's a long, involved and no doubt apocryphal story about the serving of the bull's testicles to the victorious matador. An American tourist purchases the right to be served them the following night. When he asks why they are so much smaller, he's told, "The bull does not always lose." I find this tale to be more in the tradition of the Portugese bullfight, or indeed as it is practiced in the Camargue.