Chay Yew’s percussive staging of Federico Garcia Lorca’s classic drama “The House of Bernarda Alba” is a reminder of the stark simplicity at the heart of true theater. Opening with a rhythmic ululation that comes from the very marrow of the 22-woman cast, the production closes with a wordless spasm of grief that seems to possess thesp Ching Valdes-Aran body and soul. Indeed, Chay Yew’s taut reimagining of the erotic intrigues and longings in a house of cloistered daughters and their maternal jailer is indelible in its intensity.
Lorca’s poetic drama is frequently revived but hardly ever done well. There’s something about its dense imagery and hydra-headed feminine claustrophobia that seems to bring out the histrionic in directors and actresses. In contrast, Yew’s production is taut and controlled, and his superbly disciplined cast features the earthy dynamite of Kati Kuroda as the maid La Poncia, set against the mountainous will of Valdes-Aran as matriarch Bernarda Alba.
To his credit, Yew’s direction is a clean and elemental chiaroscuro, rich with shadows and suppressed emotion. There is nothing superfluous here. The choral arrangement of Yew’s large cast gives the play a feeling of classical symmetry; ringing the tiny, bare wood stage is a human frame of seated, impassive women in black. These woman become the sea, the wind, the humming voice of mourning itself — yet they watch the poisoned struggles and sly seditions of Bernarda’s five daughters with a grand impassivity. In this Asian-American transposition of Lorca’s milieu, a hint of ancestral faiths hovers over the clean wooden stage without becoming explicit: the observances of watchful ancestors; the touch of a florid and passionate Catholicism in the Philippines; the inscribed parchment messages posted at Shinto village shrines to supplicate the dead and request small rearrangements of fate.
And a rearrangement of fate is precisely what the daughters need. With their natural passions held at bay by the suspended mourning of the house — a prison sentence of eight years of seclusion that Bernarda has imposed upon her youthful, unmarried and variously embittered daughters — the outside world is pushed far away. Bernarda ensures that love and lust will remain distant beacons rather than tangible temptations for her daughters.
But each girl cultivates her own avenue of escape. Amelia buries herself in her dead father’s dusty books. Magdalena embroiders and grows into a rigid replica of her mother. Martirio, who outwardly embraces resignation, squirrels away a picture of her secret favorite between her bedsheets. And Angustias — the eldest and plainest of the women, and the heiress to the family fortune — makes plans to wed the same man her sisters adore, Pepe.
A virile opportunist whose true interest is in Adela, the youngest and loveliest of the daughters, Pepe manages to create a wave of havoc and desire among the cloistered daughters without ever appearing onstage in Lorca’s text.
And fanning their rebellion at the same time that she is locked in a potentially explosive struggle with her implacable mistress, Kuroda’s La Poncia is a formidable creation. As squat and square-shouldered as a carved Buddha, with a plain visage full of peasant cunning and good humor, Kuroda watches and comprehends all that goes on in the stifling house. She sees and observes, and at times lets loose, telling randy tales of her own marriage and courtship to the emotionally starved girls. At one point in the play, she even sings, her huge bass of a voice thrilling through the small house in an old English pastoral tune.
The song sends a pulse of beauty into the air, one of many such moments in this remarkably plangent production. Chay Yew and the talented cast have done right by each of the women in this convulsive family; the poet Lorca himself might be proud to see such a fine production growing in the theatrical soil of his beloved New York City.