The House of Bernarda Alba
nytheatre.com review by David Hilder
June 2, 2007
It's a deceptive image: Lovely boughs in blossom above a pristine platform of pale wood, surrounded by red petals. It speaks of peace, tranquility—a space for meditation. Only the stiff wooden chairs that flank three sides of the central playing area imply anything unyielding.
What's to come, though, is an intense exploration of one family's entrapment at the hands of a woman who is the very embodiment of Pride. The House of Bernarda Alba, Lorca's tale of repression, wrath, and desire in a hidebound society, packs a powerful emotional punch to this day. Following the death of her second husband, Bernarda Alba declares that her household—herself, her five daughters (the eldest by her wealthy first husband, the rest from the recently deceased), her servants, and her mad mother—will remain in strict mourning for eight years. No one will leave, and only those deemed appropriate by Bernarda will be permitted to visit. The external presence of Pepe el Romano, a villager who is promised to the eldest daughter but also romancing the youngest, creates a simmering sexual tension among all the women in the house. Despite warnings from her peer and servant, Poncia, Bernarda remains convinced that the household is in fine shape, and that there is no trouble ahead. That the story ends in tragedy is both inevitable and devastating.
Chay Yew's adaptation of Lorca's masterwork adds a chorus of women who serve as neighbors in the story and who also provide the sound of rainfall, the clapping and pounding of a flamenco beat, and the crash of horse hooves against the house. It's in the use of the chorus that Yew's version of the play is most successful—one wonders why he didn't take the opportunity of writing this adaptation to do a little judicious trimming, as the text is, particularly to contemporary ears, repetitive (and with no intermission, each word counts). However, he has directed with a fine eye for movement and a keen sense of how to elicit excellent work from his all-female cast. Ching Valdes-Aran is so entirely at home in Bernarda's skin, she seems born to the role—when she issues an order, it's clear why all who hear her obey. Among the five daughters, Carmen M. Herlihy as Martirio and Maile Holck as Magdalena are chief among equals; only Natsuko Ohama's Angustias, the first daughter, sacrifices depth for a whiny petulance that feels too modern for the piece. Particularly impressive is Sophia Skiles as the younger servant, who has better reason to mourn than anyone else in the house.
Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams has adapted an original set design for NAATCO by Sarah Lambert to great effect, and Stephen Petrilli's lighting complements it beautifully. Clint Ramos's costumes—variations on black dresses, with Bernarda's mother dressed in white—are effective and simple. Fabian Obispo's original music adds immeasurably to the proceedings. But the bulk of the credit goes to Yew the director. While he might have held Yew the writer more sternly to task, this production is an excellent showcase of a great play and great actors.