The West and Islam clash in a half-forgotten play. | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The West and Islam clash in a half-forgotten play.

Lately, it's tempting to view a wide range of fictional narratives through the lens of a globeful of invasions, occupations, insurgencies and suicide bombers. So you'd imagine that a play explicitly about a struggle between the West and Islam, written by one of his era's most celebrated playwrights, would get some attention.

But among the more notable things about Pedro Calderón de la Barca's The Constant Prince is how little it's been produced. In recent years, the 1629 work set during Portugal's attempt to advance Christian control in North Africa seems to have been staged only by British-based Etha Theatre Co., which toured the show in Egypt and England. There seems to have been no recent American production at all.

Yet perhaps this isn't so surprising. Even Rick Davis, who's directing his new adaptation of the play for Pittsburgh's Unseam'd Shakespeare Co., admits The Constant Prince is a "deeply obscure" work by Calderón, the Spanish playwright better known for Life Is a Dream.

The Constant Prince takes place in 1437, as a Portuguese force led by Fernando, the work's title character, attempts to wrest Tangiers from Moorish control. When Fernando is captured in battle, the King of Fez demands as his ransom Ceuta, an African city held by the Portuguese. But though Portugal's king accepts the terms, Fernando would rather become a Catholic martyr than lose a city to Islam.

Davis is artistic director of Fairfax, Va.'s Theater of the First Amendment; his Pittsburgh ties go back to the early '80s, when he co-founded the American Ibsen Theater here. (He later directed Carnegie Mellon's Showcase of New Plays). He says that the biggest hindrance to a new production of The Constant Prince is that there hadn't been a new translation in a century.

Davis himself remedied that, but obstacles remained. For instance, as a play written by a European Catholic, The Constant Prince strikes some as partisan, a kind of eulogy for the Crusades.

But Davis doesn't think Calderón meant it that way. His adaptation focuses on the relationship between Fernando and Mulay, the Moorish general whom Fernando captures then frees after coming to sympathize with Mulay's personal travails. And Mulay repays this stunning generosity, even after Fernando has become the stubborn prisoner of Mulay's own king.

Despite its obscurity, notes Davis, The Constant Prince is the subject of a rare poster-worthy blurb by Goethe: "If poetry were to be lost from the world, this play alone could resurrect it." In 1969, moreover, it was the first play produced in America by Jerzy Grotowski's seminal Polish Laboratory Theater.

The Unseam'd production, which opens June 14, stars Joe Domencic as Fernando, Nate Jedrzejewski as Mulay and Doug Pona as the King of Fez. Davis considers remarkable Calderón's efforts to make both sides of the conflict equally honorable and articulate -- even if, ultimately, an eminently "rational" proposed solution to the political struggle can't overcome religious absolutism.

"Those gestures [by the play's characters] strike me as just huge, given that those cultures were in a fight to the death," says Davis. "I thought that was an important story to tell in the 21st-century in the U.S. of A."

Calderón's point? "I think he was suggesting that humanity is humanity," says Davis.

Unseam'd Shakespeare Co. presents The Constant Prince June 14-30. Open Stage Theatre, 2835 Smallman St., Strip District. $22 ($15 artists/students). 412-394-3353 or

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