The House of Bernarda Alba, written by Federico Garcia Lorca and celebrating its 70th anniversary this Sunday, tells a tragic story of oppression. This weekend, the intense drama comes to the PW in a powerfully unique rendition directed by Sam Keamy-Minor ’16.
Upon entering the Downspace, I was first struck by the beautiful set. Designed by Miranda Friel ’15 and Keamy-Minor, it aptly sets the tone–one of tension and priggishness–soon to permeate the play. Next, my eye focused on the stage; the daughters of Bernarda Alba were already onstage, responding to constantly-sounding church bells like puppets on a string–an ominous choice, as throughout the play they’re quite literally caged in their own home.
Bernarda, offstage, has already been assigned a tyrannical identity by the maids, who feverishly scrub the floors. La Poincia, played by Ana Marx ’18, establishes herself as a relatively unbiased third-party figure with relation to the dysfunctional household, while her assistant, played by Kathy Ng ’17, emulates the matriarch’s terrifying nature. Bernarda is finally introduced. Jaclyn Licht ’16 perfectly captures the widow’s domineering nature as well as her intense obsession with maintaining the Alba family’s social reputation.
As the play devolves into tragedy, the five daughters begin to emerge as distinct personalities. In their own ways, each exhibits her own struggle with the loneliness and brutality of life at home. Angustias (Ali Murray ’18) lives in the fantasy of life outside the walls as Pepe’s wife; Magdalena (Calvin Nickelson ’18) sleeps through the day, isolated from her sisters; Amelia (Sammie Chomsky ’18) passively follows along with her sisters; Martirio (Kate MacMullin ’15), the ugliest of the sisters, broods, lonely and unrecognized by men; finally, Adela (Marcus Sudac ’17), the youngest and prettiest of the sisters, struggles to contain her blossoming sexuality and vivaciousness.
Interestingly, Adela, as well as Maria Josefa and Magdalena, is portrayed by a man in homage to the playwright, Lorca, who struggled to contain his homosexuality in the presence of the bourgeois, early-1900s Spain that mass-consumed his art, as well as that of his unrequited love interest, Salvador Dalí.
With a lack of background knowledge, the casting decision seemed arbitrary and did little to service the story while watching it transpire, especially given that the show is about the ramifications of strict gender roles for women. However, after learning biographical information about Lorca, Keamy-Minor’s message was clarified. By breaking gender norms on his own stage, he was extending the show’s message to people of all genders.
That being said, to help the audience grasp the weight of the casting, a short statement in the program, for example, would have gone a long way.
To round out the family, Maria Josefa (Anthony DeRita ’18), with her quirky yet endearing nature, reminds the viewer of the detrimental nature of Bernarda’s blind oppression and obsession with order. Meanwhile, outside of the immediate family, Prudencia (Nika Salazar ’16), lurks in the background, occasionally entering the spotlight to witness and abet Bernarda’s absurd control.
Despite its lack of music, the show is accentuated with choreography (by Keamy-Minor) as precise and tight as its antagonist. Furthermore, dramatic lighting, designed by Justice Gaines ’16, enhances the overall aesthetic experience.
Because this adaptation does step audaciously outside of a literal reading of the script, there are a couple of aspects that didn’t quite land. For one, in a couple of instances, the play is interjected with modern elements. This is most glaring in the finale, when the principal source of lighting is the flashlight app on a cast member’s phone. The lighting choice detracts from the highly serious and somber nature of the final scene and is more of a distraction than it is a means of illuminating the trapped remaining members of the house.
Additionally, contemporary rock music is used at several points to signify the arrival of love interest Pepe el Romano; while the intended message is clear, the music seems out of context and almost humorous instead of seductive.
All in all, The House of Bernarda Alba is a thoroughly engaging theatre experience. Sending a necessarily uncomfortable message about the horrors of oppression, censorship, and conformity, it begs the viewer to ask if things are so different now.
The House of Bernarda Alba is playing in the PW Downspace tonight, March 6th at 8 p.m., March 7th at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., March 8th at 8 p.m., and March 9th at 8.p.m.