After being gored to death in August 1934, the glamorous bullfighter Ignacio Sánchez Mejias was memorialized in a haunting elegy that repeats the refrain “at five in the afternoon.” Its poet, Federico García Lorca, would himself die almost exactly two years later, murdered by fascist soldiers and dumped into an unmarked grave.
When, during his riveting impersonation of García Lorca, José Rubén De León recites the lament, it becomes a premonition of his own death (In the Spanish fashion, Lorca was the name of the poet’s mother, García his father’s name, but it is a common mistake among Americans to refer to him as Lorca rather than García Lorca or simply García). It is four o’clock in the afternoon of August 16, 1936, and De León’s García Lorca announces to the audience at the outset that within an hour he will be arrested and killed. He will pass the minutes until five o’clock in the afternoon sharing memories, desires, and dread. “Nobody shoots poets,” he proclaims, in full knowledge that it is merely wishful thinking.
“I am a genius,” he announces, but pride in his talents cannot mask the agony of being the butt of contempt in a society hostile toward artists and homosexuals. He is both. “No son of mine is going to be a poet,” he recalls his father insisting. He also remembers the pain of unrequited love for several young men, including Salvador Dalí.
To hold the stage alone for an hour while impersonating a famous figure requires two ingredients: a famous figure of arresting complexity and an actor of extraordinary ability. Like Mark Twain, Harry Truman, and Will Rogers, Federico García Lorca was a person of pungent thoughts. Poet, playwright, musician, traveler, he was a fascinating compound of bravura and vulnerability. Dreading his impending death but confident in the immortality of his art, he declares that: “In Spain, a dead man is more alive as a dead man than anywhere else in the world.”
De León, who has also starred in one-handers about Agustín Lara and Nat King Cole, inhabits the Andalusian poet’s personality as comfortably as he does the dandy’s bow tie and suit. Crafting his script from books by and about García Lorca, he works in several of the more famous poems as well as a scene from the play Blood Wedding, though sometimes a bit awkwardly. But Lorca is not an hour of poetry readings. It is a dramatic piece whose intensity is magnified by its preoccupation with extinction. García Lorca, who worked closely with composer Manuel de Falla, studied to be a musician, and the production makes effective use of flamenco accompaniment. A high point of the production comes when De León sings, in Spanish, as well as when he duplicates the childhood puppet shows García Lorca mounted.
Essential to art, and life, according to García Lorca, is duende, a passionate spark compounded of anguish, mystery, and death. De León’s performance as the dying Spanish poet offers a dramatic demonstration.