THEATER REVIEW : 'Blacksmith' a Breezy Summer Souffle

TIMES THEATER CRITIC EMERITUS

Death be not proud is hardly the injunction du jour in "Ballad of the Blacksmith" at the Old Globe in Balboa Park. In this delightful opening salvo of the Globe's Festival '93 season in the outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Death is brought to its knees. Or at least twisted into uncomfortable shapes.

Death humbled? And by whom? By a ne'er-do-well blacksmith, a mere gaucho of the Uruguayan plain, who manages to outsmart not only Death but the Lord, St. Peter and a wily "gentleman" in a very red suit.

Based on a hand-me-down medieval morality tale that has seen a variety of incarnations over the centuries, this breezy comedy by Uruguayan playwrights Mercedes Rein and Jorge Curi has been turned here into exquisitely light summer fare. It benefits from a jaunty translation by Old Globe literary associate Raul Moncada and from the inventive playfulness of director Rene Buch.

Buch, who is the artistic director of New York's Reportorio Espanol, has brought with him a small tribe of artists to fulfill the assignment. Among them are the scenic designer, musical director, movement director and some actors, including Miriam Colon, spirited director and founder of New York's Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre.

The result is a healthy multiethnic mix of new faces, non-traditionally cast in roles that refreshingly thumb their nose at correctness--racial, logical or political.

Our protagonist, the gaucho-blacksmith Miseria Peralta, is played by Anglo Rob Neukirch (last seen at the Globe in "The Old Boy") and his whiny sister Pobreza by Colon. "Our Lord" is ice-cream suited, handsome and white Quentin O'Brien, while St. Peter is ice-cream suited, feisty, pugnacious and Latino Daniel Faraldo. This is opportunity at its most equal and its most uninhibited.

About time, too. Only the director knows whether the free-spirited casting influenced the unshackled sense of merriment in the production, or vice versa. Which came first is irrelevant. All that matters is that both are there.

The simplicity of the story is reflected in the simplicity of the approach, from Robert Weber Federico's bleacher-type scaffolding that serves as a stark multipurpose set, to Nicolas Uribe's music, Jeff Ladman's tongue-in-cheek sound and Andrew V. Yelusich's humorous costumes.

In this fable, the Lord and St. Peter, wandering about the Earth, ask the impoverished Miseria and his sister for water and a chance to rest in a little shade. Miseria, a generous sort, insists that only food and wine will do for the strangers, and badgers his reluctant sister Pobreza into drumming some up.

Impressed by such a generous welcome, the Lord identifies himself and offers to reward Miseria by granting him three wishes. This makes Miseria laugh, since he's convinced these guys are putting him on--which makes St. Peter choke with indignation.

In the end, Miseria decides he can't afford to take a chance and asks for three unrelated, seemingly wasteful wishes. For a while everything goes splendidly. Miseria gets rich. Pobreza gets to marry the slick and sleazy local governor (John Vargas), turning into a happily snooty shrew. And when things finally start to unravel, Miseria, who always thinks on his feet, turns adversity to advantage.

Before it's over he has Death (a deliciously mopey Alex Fernandez) up a tree, which makes everyone crazy: Pobreza, the Governor, St. Peter, the Lord and that sly Gentleman Lili (clever Ron Campbell as a devil of a fella), a newcomer on the scene with a few neat tricks of his own.

As one might expect, all's well that ends well. And even though the premise is never more than slender and the one joke never less than extended (with occasionally collegiate repartee), the evening is an airy, unburdened bit of comical gamesmanship that deserves to be taken strictly at face value.

Admittedly, the acting is broad and borders in places on the overdone, but one of "Blacksmith's" real charms is the primitive nature of the material, matched by the unpretentiousness of the production and director Buch's sense of sheer, irrepressible fun.

At the Globe, which is often prone to more literal approaches, such devil-may-care spoofing is, you might say, heaven-sent.

* "Ballad of the Blacksmith," Old Globe Theatre, Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Simon Edison Center for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park, San Diego. Tuesdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Aug. 8. $22-$32; (619) 239-2255. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Rob Neukirch: Miseria Peralta

Miriam Colon: Pobreza Peralta

Daniel Faraldo; St. Peter

Quentin O'Brien: Our Lord

John Vargas: Governor

Alex Fernandez: Death

Ron Campbell: Gentleman Lili

Michelle Breaugh, Amy Beth Cohen, Mauricio Mendoza, Patrick Munoz, Coral Thuet, Courtney Jo Watson, Joanne Zipay, Steven Zubkoff Ensemble

Director Rene Buch. Playwrights Mercedes Rein, Jorge Curi. Translator Raul Moncada. Sets Robert Weber Federico. Lights Robert Peterson. Costumes Andrew V. Yelusich. Sound Jeff Ladman. Musical director Nicolas Uribe. Movement director Adolfo Vazquez. Stage manager Peter Van Dyke. Assistant stage manager Melissa Joy Morris.

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