As anyone who has ever spent any time teaching the “great books” of Western civilization will gladly tell you, it’s a messy job. Even armed with every skeptical tool in the critical repertoire — from feminism to deconstruction to new historicism — the texts tend to offer disruptive challenges that refuse to line up neatly behind any particular cause, including that of the capitalist patriarchy they are so often assumed to underwrite. In Staging the Daffy Dame, which is running at UCSB now in a fully staged Launch Pad preview production, playwright Anne García-Romero goes where no tenured radical has dared go before. The play stars L.A. actress Cristina Frias as Lupe, a Latina theater professor in her thirties who has chosen to direct a production of the 1613 Spanish Golden Age comedy La dama boba by Lope de Vega. The Daffy Dame, as the play is known in English translation, follows a marriage plot that pits sisters against one another and puts parents, as usual, in the way of true love. Staging the Daffy Dame, on the other hand, shows what happens when Lupe engages a group of students in the process of actually presenting this 405-year-old work.
Against a background of budget cuts, diversity protests, and faculty opposition, and while in thrall to an arrogant department chair (played by Westmont professor Mitchell Thomas), Lupe takes an unexpected approach to the play through nontraditional casting and powerful, open-ended direction. The play shows how The Daffy Dame first unnerves and then empowers the young actors who must confront their own preconceptions as they work on their roles.
For Risa Brainin, the creator of the Launch Pad program and the director of Staging the Daffy Dame, one of the biggest challenges in bringing this work to the stage has been getting the essence of the Lope de Vega work across through the medium of rehearsal scenes, which are necessarily partial and riven with other dynamics. That said, Brainin enthuses about what she calls the show’s “meta-moments,” which she describes as appealing in different ways to different sectors of the audience. “The behind-the-scenes stuff will certainly resonate with theater people,” she said, “and others I hope will appreciate the peek into a different world.”
In describing the show’s conflict, Brainin emphasizes the fact that the Lope de Vega text is not the only or even the first aspect of the production with which the theater students have to struggle. At first, what throws them is Lupe’s casting, which, says Brainin, “is not politically correct.” And then, after that, the play kicks in, and “that’s not PC either,” according to the director. Looking at the politics of a 17th-century text through the reactions of 21st-century theater students who have to perform it allows for a multilayered experience that it’s hard to imagine accessing any other way. Brainin feels that it’s “cool that the play can take some of these discussions on” because it provides “such an intimate perspective on these issues.”
And what are these issues? Well, you’ll have to see it for the complete answer, but I can give you a big hint by pointing back at the title, because it’s the “daffy” sister Finea whose experience offers the insight that love can overcome differences that might otherwise seem insurmountable. There’s no question that the UCSB BFA students will soar in roles that draw so directly on who they are and what they do, and I expect fireworks from Thomas and Frias, whose characters, I hear, have a “history.”
Staging the Daffy Dame shows Thursday-Friday, March 8-9, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, March 10, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, March 11, at 2 p.m. at UCSB’s Studio Theater. For tickets and information, call (805) 893-2064 or see theaterdance.ucsb.edu.