Love and activism with George & Ruth: Songs and Letters of the Spanish Civil War

August 26, 2017 by DANIEL VEINTIMILLA | PERFORMING ARTS, THINGS TO DO
Late night post-show portrait of George & Ruth. Photo by Daniel Veintimilla
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George (Jeff Lukas) and Ruth (Katherine Stenzel)

 

Silver Meteor Gallery provides a musical history lesson with truths that resonate today.

 

An inspiring love story, a slice of history and meditation on the spirit of activism, George & Ruth: Songs and Letters of the Spanish Civil War resonates today with its true story of an activist couple and their fight against the rising tide of fascism in the years leading up to World War II.

Written by the couple’s son, Dan. and his wife, Molly Lynn Watt, in 2003, the musical-drama derives its narrative from excerpts of letters exchanged between George Watt, a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, and his wife of just one year, Ruth Watt, a student activist in New York City.

Between poignant and clever recitations of the couple’s letters, the play’s leads — vocalists Jeff Lukas (a longtime musical theater favorite) and Katherine Stenzel (slated to star in Sunshine City Opera’s sampler: Musical excerpts from living composers) — perform story-enhancing folk ballads, both old and new, in English, French, German, Spanish and Yiddish.

Lukas’ George, who volunteered for the multinational Lincoln Battalion, passionately reignites the anti-fascist fire of an almost forgotten Spanish revolutionary front via ballads selected, arranged and written by Tony Saletan (with newer arragements by Steve Watt).

Articulate and gracious with a side of sass, Stenzel re-creates a fiercely independent intellectual woman with moments of vulnerability and longing. Her letters detail anti-war speeches, a campaign to boycott silk from Japan and tearful admissions about lonely nights.

Director Jo Averill-Snell and costume designer/stage manager Jennifer Longmuir take the audience back in time so efficiently that we can all but hear Franco roll in his grave. To be sure, the performance hits the democratic-ideological jackpot, calling into question issues we’re grappling with today — concerns around dogma, freedom and the power of authority.

Especially with the POTUS recently blaming “many sides” for a neo-Nazi act of terrorism, the ideas discussed in the show become all the more chillingly relevant. But let’s focus instead on Averill-Snell’s nicely constructed dual stage, which on the left looks strikingly similar to a 1930s Manhattan apartment, and on the right, a shelled-out hacienda in Spain, replete with broken decorative tiles. The complex, artistic use of lightning, also by Averill-Snell, adds to the emotion and anticipation. Lending to the atmospherics are scene-setting audio and a dazzling acoustic guitar accompaniment by Music Director Justin Medlen.

A work in progress, the performance is too long at 90 minutes with too little context. It would benefit from fewer tunes and the addition of a narrator to provide historical anecdotes, such as the events that precipitated the Spanish Civil War, its aftermath and what we can learn from it in the 21st century.

Exterior view of Silver Meteor Gallery. Photo by Julie Garisto

The play’s diversity of language evokes a spirit of “freedom for all,” but some of Lukas’ Spanish phrasings could have used the assistance of a dialectical coach. Hiccups aside, Lukas and Stenzel’s performances are on point as they convey the passion and longing of newlyweds separated by war.

The most surprising part of it: A real-life couple can come across more amiably than many of the fictional love interests we encounter; reality can be more surprising than fiction. Credit goes to Stenzel and Lukas for their onstage chemistry in bringing George and Ruth to life.

Founded in 1995 the multi-disciplinary Silver Meteor Gallery presents visual arts exhibitions in one side and performances in its Black Box space.

Final performances are 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Silver Meteor Gallery, 2213 E. Sixth Ave., Ybor City. $15. (813) 300-3585. Julie Garisto contributed to this review.

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