Facism, oppression of women, and sexual repression are the themes underlying the Pangea World Theater and Teatro del Pueblo co-production of The House of Bernarda Alba. The play opened last weekend at SteppingStone Theatre in St. Paul and is the last work by Federico Garcia Lorca, a Spanish playwright murdered by Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War. It is an ambitious production that seeks to add avant-garde movement techniques to Lorca’s ritualism, but the execution of the idea unfortunately falls short.
The play concerns the events occurring after the death of Bernarda Alba’s second husband. Bernarda (Tinne Rosenmeier) imposes on her five adult daughters (ages 20-39) a period of mourning to last for eight years during which time the daughters are to be confined to the house. Angustias (Adlyn Carreras), the oldest daughter, was fathered by Bernarda’s first husband and, as her father’s sole heir, she has a sizable inheritance that makes her much wealthier than her four younger sisters. As a result of her wealth, despite her age, she has attracted a young suitor known as Pepe el Romano (who is never seen on stage). The remaining daughters are Magdalena (Indira Addington), Amelia (Katie Ka Vang), Martirio (Suzie Cheng), and Adela (Laura Garcia). Both Martiorio and Adela are in love with Pepe and Adela is carrying on an affair with Pepe while he courts Angustias. Also living in the household is Bernarda’s mad mother Maria Josefa (Sara Broude), and the family housekeeper Poncia (Paulino Brener). Maria Josefa repeatedly interjects herself into the action with Cassandra-like prophesies of doom for her granddaughters. Poncia is a Pontius Pilate character: she repeatedly warns both Bernarda and Adela about the ultimate consequences of their misguided actions and then, when her advice goes unheeded, states she is “washing her hands” of the whole matter. One of the most chilling pieces of advice she gives to Adela is her belief that Angustias is frail and will likely die in childbirth, so Adelia should wait until Angustias’s death to be with Pepe.
|the house of bernardo alba, presented through april 25 at steppingstone theatre. for tickets ($12-$15) and information, see pangeaworldtheater.org|
The daughters are clearly suffering in the stifling confines that their mother imposes upon them. However, their efforts to break free expose them to a society that will not tolerate independence and defiance by women. The most compelling and frightening scene in the play occurs as the cast looks on while a young woman of the village is beaten to death by the townspeople. The young woman had a baby out of wedlock and, to hide her shame, killed the baby. It is obvious that the murderous outrage is not prompted by her act of infanticide, but by her daring to defy society by having sex before marriage. Bernarda and most of those on stage almost gleefully urge on this brutal beating with only the defiant Adela desperately praying for the young woman while she ominously rubs her own stomach.
Laurie Carlos, an Obie-Award-winning actress and one of the original artists of the New York avant-garde performance scene, directed this multiracial and gender-blind production. Carlos adds certain avant-garde elements such as bebop music and ritualistic clapping, but many of these techniques serve as distractions and interfered with my ability to follow the play and its rich poetry of language. For example: the background music in the second scene is not only inconsistent with the action of the scene, it becomes so loud that I found myself not paying attention to the actors on the stage. Near the end of the play, the ritualistic clapping gives way to everyone shouting out their lines at the same time and I became thoroughly confused as to what was happening on stage. There were references to the townspeople descending on the house, but it was unclear as to why they were doing so. Only at the end, when I saw Adela’s body with a scarf wrapped around her neck could I conclude she had died, but I was uncertain if it was a suicide or an execution.
Another distraction is the inconsistent use of dialects by the actors. Some actors speak with heavy Spanish accents, others with slight Spanish accents, and others with American accents. I was not certain if this was just a failure by certain actors to stay in character or if the multi-lingual accents was an intended effect. This problem is compounded when the actors shift to delivering their lines as speeches to the audience rather than as dialogue among characters.
Paulio Brener gives a standout performance as the housekeeper Poncia. Initially I was distracted by the gender-blind casting for this role, but Brener’s steadfast acting ultimately convinced me that he was perfect for the role. Tinne Rosemeie, as Bernarda, portrays the domineering matriarch appropriately, but there were times when I was longing for her to show just a bit of love and humanity towards her daughters, since I sense that Bernarda’s repressive methods were in part meant to shield her daughters from the brutality of the world.
Dipankar Mukherjee’s stage design of a long banquet table to one side is just enough to give the illusion of a home of a slightly well-to-do family in Spain and was perfectly complemented by the lighting design of Mike Wangen. However, this play would have been more effective had it been performed on a more intimate stage than the large proscenium stage at SteppingStone. Costuming is inconsistent. Bernardo and Maria Josefa wear what appear to be appropriate period pieces, but the clothing of the other characters does not necessarily seem to be from a particular time period. Again, this may have been by design, but to me it was another distraction.
Although it is a flawed production, Bernardo Alba is a worthwhile viewing experience for those unfamiliar with the work of Lorca. For those attending, I would strongly recommend staying for the after-performance discussion, which I found to be very informative regarding the director’s vision of the play. I especially enjoyed Carlos’s insight regarding the techniques of the avant-garde movement and her comment that they are no longer “avant-garde” since the movement occurred in the previous century.