Productions of plays by the great Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca are often leaden affairs. The sharp points of Lorca’s dramaturgy, a unique and slippery hybrid of classical and modernist styles, usually get blunted either by shrillness and cheap melodrama or by a strained self-consciousness that strives for ethereal poeticism and reaches only boredom. This spare yet unsparing Taper production of “The House of Bernarda Alba” is therefore all the more laudable. The clear-eyed adaptation by Chay Yew; the elegant direction of Lisa Peterson; an engrossing, implosive performance by Chita Rivera as the oppressive matriarch of a brood of five daughters (here cast multi-racially); and, perhaps most of all, a magnificently earthy turn by Camille Saviola as the saucy but smart servant all coalesce successfully to find the right, extremely elusive balance of social realism and stylized theatricality.
Lorca wrote “The House of Bernarda Alba” in 1936, just before he was killed for his liberal views and his homosexuality during a time of massive political upheaval. It’s subtitled “A Drama About Women in the Villages of Spain,” and not a single man appears as a character, itself a striking choice at the time. On the one hand, it is a work of significant realism, depicting a family of women nearly imprisoned by their ultraproper Catholic mother, who lives her life mostly in fear of the slightest disrepute. When a handsome young man begins courting the only daughter who has inherited a decent fortune, the repressed desires of the others emerge with pent-up force, creating a classically dense march toward inevitable tragedy.
Chay Yew, a Los Angeles theater artist who is gradually gaining a national reputation, has been smart in handling Lorca’s text. For the most part, Yew’s work is a loose translation of the play; there aren’t any structural changes to the piece, but the language has been modernized to avoid the stiffness of the “authorized” translations. But he has made a few changes, setting the play outdoors, in Bernarda Alba’s courtyard, and filling in details for some of the smaller characters. Amelia (Lydia Look), for example, one of the less-defined of Bernarda’s daughters in Lorca’s original, here becomes a bookish closet revolutionary. An unnamed servant becomes Blanca (Shaheen Vaaz), a full-bodied character, her affair with Bernarda’s just-deceased husband more than off-handedly mentioned. In a bolder choice, Yew also seeks to give the tyrannical title character a bit of a soul, allowing her a tragic epiphany that undoes Lorca’s intentional depiction of the coldest of characters, who can repress even the most intense of feelings.
What Yew has done most successfully of all is to clarify the thematic elements of the play –this is where he has most “adapted” the work as opposed to translating it. To Yew the play is clearly about how the oppressed can so easily become the oppressor. And yet, despite this crisp focus, the adaptation remains a very faithful one.
The production’s set design comes from Rachel Hauck, who can do with chairs what Picasso did with a bicycle handle bar. Her work is always so simple and yet so stunning. Working in tandem with costume designer Joyce Kim Lee and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, Hauck keeps the palate confined mostly to white, black and red, although there’s enough variety to keep it from being stagnant. The gray chairs are reconfigured frequently to define the main white playing space. Some trees that have the light brown dried-out look of dead foliage are attached to the back wall above the courtyard, a wall that also serves as a place for the chorus of village women to peer in surrealistically — an effective, and creepy, visualization of Bernarda’s social paranoia. Below the main platform on three sides are pits of red gravel, and when characters step into these areas, we know they’re being overwhelmed by their passion.
The character who feels most at home in the blood-red part of the set is Adela, the youngest of the daughters and the object of the desired young man’s lust if not his courtship. Sandra Oh delivers a superb, physically expressive performance: She’s a woman incapable of holding back her sexual passion, and most at risk of becoming like her grandmother Maria Josefa (an outstanding, white-wigged Tsai Chin), an insane elderly woman whom Bernarda keeps locked up.
Peterson has always drawn strong performances from her casts, and this one is no exception. Rivera is the epitome of controlled chilliness. She’s tightly wound and ready to explode at the smallest stimulus, commanding the stage with restrained ease. She also proves to be a very generous performer here. She allows Saviola, in essence, to steal the show as the plain-spoken maid, a character who injects vulgar humor into the proceedings while she’s also the one figure who really knows everything that’s going on.
Of the rest of the ensemble, the most effective is Marissa Chibas, as the eldest and homeliest of the daughters, who manages to look like a bad drag queen and still make us feel sorry for her character. Rita Wolf, as the pivotal figure Martirio, to be a weaker link, all surface and no depth.
Peterson is one of those directors who can be both cerebral and intuitive, and that’s why she turns out to be the perfect match for Lorca, who also had these contradictory qualities. The cerebral element of this adaptation and production involves the multiracial casting, even while the show remains grounded in period Spain. It’s a bit self-conscious but not overly so. It puts forth the idea that this play about the oppression of women remains a universally necessary work without pointing fingers at specific cultures. That said, Lee’s costumes, with the village women covering their heads, certainly brought to mind Muslim customs.
Mostly, this production falls on the intuitive side rather than the cerebral, and that’s just as it should be. It’s a show filled with beautiful images and painfully expressive of the characters’ inner yearnings. In particular, Peterson makes exquisite use of Mark Bennett’s music. She brings guitarist Annas Allaf onstage at periodic points to play the passionate flamenco that defines and supplements the passionate intensity of the drama.