At the end of each scene of Bijan Sheibani’s production of “The House of Bernarda Alba” there’s a loud sting of sound and a stab of light snapping to blackout. Unfortunately, those added dramatic flashpoints only point up the drama that’s almost entirely absent from the scenes between them.
Sheibani’s bold governing idea is to relocate Lorca’s classic drama of five aging sisters held almost hostage in their own home by their imperious mother. Instead of occurring in 1930s Spain, the (in)action is now set in contemporary Iran.
Intellectually that idea makes sense, not least for the audience’s understanding of female repression. And it allows Sheibani to stage an opening with dozens of extras filing patiently into the house in silent mourning for the death which happens just before the beginning of the play. But aside from the predominant hijab costuming, Bunny Christie’s solid house set and the sounds of outdoor prayer, the relocation ends there.
There’s authenticity at hand via the casting of Iranian-born, now U.S.-based actress Shohreh Aghdashloo as a heavily accented Bernarda. Oddly, however, she elects to play Bernarda as dessicated rather than despotic. And if she’s not invincible, why do the women not overthrow her?
More problematically, her mother and her daughters all sound dislocatingly English. So much so, that, fatally, the girls act as if they’re on an over-extended visit rather than having been immured in a lifetime of verbal and physical torture. Pandora Colin brings practicality and clear-sightedness to the plainest, oldest daughter and Amanda Hale gives life to her overlooked middle sister, but collectively the women simply don’t read as a family.
This is a play in which temperatures and passions run high. Mention of the extreme heat brings on a comic moment where all the women suddenly produce fans, but because of the way the actors behave physically with themselves and each other, they never look as if they are either sticky or even particularly hot.
Clearly the decision has been to avoid the melodrama that can derail an unfocused production. Seething jealousies, anger and lust are downplayed. But the play ends in a suicide, so for that risky approach to pay off, we have to be able to read the incremental shifts of emotion. Sheibani, however, keeps Jon Clark’s lighting at such a low level of intensity that it’s hard to read the actors expressions or to become engaged in the unfolding tragedy.
Matters aren’t helped by Emily Mann’s self-conscious translation that hands out overripe phrases even when the stakes are at their lowest. When housekeeper Darya (an ideally direct, earthbound Jane Bertish) tells the maid (Mia Soteriou) that there’s a spot on some glass that needs cleaning, Soteriou is forced to intone the overly ornate, “Neither soap nor rags will clean that.”
Sheibani sets a slow, laborious rhythm which is obeyed almost throughout. That is probably intended to convey the household’s deadening routine, but it’s too thuddingly literal a response to a text that needs to gather fire as events spiral out of control. “What is going on?” asks Bernarda at one point. “Nothing is going on,” comes the reply. Indeed.