The Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of The Dog in the Manger is so lucid and lusty, so sumptuous, funny and achingly felt, that its sole failure of vision is all the more puzzling.
With consummate skill, director Jonathan Munby explores each nuance and unravels every twisted strand of Lope de Vega's 17th-century tragi-comedy from Spain's Golden Age - with one exception. Michael Hayden is a dexterous performer, but I think he's wrong for the romantic male lead, and the miscasting obscures a major theme.
The show takes its name from one of Aesop's fables: Hungry farm animals locked in a stable discover a bed of straw. The dog is a carnivore, but nonetheless barks viciously to prevent the cow from eating the hay. The moral is that people unable to take advantage of a particular pleasure will often, out of spite, keep others from enjoying it.
In this case, the "dog" is the countess Diana, who falls in love with her secretary, Teodoro, upon learning that he is betrothed to her lady-in-waiting, Marcela. Because it would violate the social order - and Spanish notions of honor - for an aristocrat to wed a servant, the countess struggles to subdue her passion.
To say that Lope's play is about status is another way of saying that it is about power. But there are two ways of obtaining power: The first kind is awarded by the world to those with great wealth or high lineage, while the second is bestowed by our genes. A few so-called "natural aristocrats" are born with an abundance of personal gifts: striking beauty, towering intellect, talent and charm.
Teodoro possesses the second kind of status. It's clear from the script that he's irresistible to women, and it's perhaps no coincidence that his name is pronounced "te adoro" - the Spanish for "I adore you." Teodoro's allure is the only thing that could restore, even partially, the balance of power between mistress and servant.
Hayden delivers his lines with persuasive conviction, but he's not a physical paragon. He's more of an average Joe the Plumber - and as such, he's no match for Michelle Hurd's sizzling Diana.
It would be unfair to ignore this production's many dazzling moments, starting with the witty, accessible translation. I don't know how much of the script is Lope's and how much is the work of adapter David Johnston, but the result is a delight.
Munby's decision to add soprano Julie Craig to the production was inspired. A few melancholy songs are woven throughout the action, giving the evening real emotional heft.
Much of the acting is as translucent as a window pane. For instance, Hurd is so torn by her character's unexpected desire, so buffeted by conflicting impulses, that she makes Diana's cruelty almost understandable. Alexander Dodge has designed a set of highly polished floors and wooden screens intricately carved in the Moorish style. Everything in Diana's world is handsome and hard, and everything is caged - including the three red chandeliers suspended from the ceiling in Plexiglas cubes.
In the play's last scene, when Diana and Teodoro figure out how to subvert the social order without defying it, those transparent squares become filled with red confetti. Love has found a way this time - but the actual boxes remain intact.
if you go
The Dog in the Manger runs through March 29 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, 450 Seventh St. N.W., Washington. Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $35.50-$84.75. Call 202-547-1122 or go to shakespearetheatre.org.