The House of Bernarda Alba
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 13, 2005
I remember that I had to read The House of Bernarda Alba for a class in college, and getting through it was like torture. I've read and seen it a few times since and never really been affected by it. So I'm grateful to director Shepard Sobel, translator Caridad Svich, and their colleagues at Pearl Theatre Company for their new production of this famous play, which at long last, thanks to them, I have found a way into. Their Bernarda moved me intellectually and emotionally; it entertained as well, for this is a raw and earthy rendition of this play. I recommend it highly.
The House of Bernarda Alba is a study of dictatorship. Bernarda, proud, hard, and immoveable, decrees that her five grown daughters will observe eight years of mourning following the death of her husband. "Mourning" is something like a prison sentence—the women must remain in the house, away from the windows (to maintain their "respectability"), sewing trousseaus for weddings that seem unlikely to ever occur.
Angustias, the eldest at 39, is from Bernarda's first marriage and has an income of her own from her father; because she's so eligible, the handsome and much younger Pepe el Romano asks to marry her, despite her plainness and apparent lack of any other good qualities. Bernarda is quick to agree to the match, and so the rules for Angustias are bent a little, to allow for her courtship.
But the other four—Amelia, Magdalena, Adela, and Martirio—lacking the almost-independence that a dowry can bring them, remain at their mother's mercy. Magdalena, the most pragmatic, takes it as her due; Amelia, the most good-natured, takes it in stride. But the younger girls bristle, partly (or perhaps mostly) because they've both fallen under the spell of Pepe el Romano themselves. Adela, the beautiful and willful one, acts on her desire and starts to meet Pepe in secret. This leads, eventually, to confrontation and then, inevitably to dire consequences. The play is a tragedy, and not just because someone winds up dead at the end.
Director Sobel notes in the program that The House of Bernarda Alba is generally viewed as an allegory about the coming of fascism to Spain in the 1930s, when it was written. This production certainly trades in that idea, but not in the way I expected it to. Sobel's Bernarda is about complicity more than oppression; Bernarda and her five daughters together construct the tyrannical reign of terror—it's not simply that the one imposes it on the others.
For at the center of this production, and providing it with a very earthbound kind of grounding, are Bernarda's two servants. The senior one, Poncia, in particular serves as our guide into the world of the play; she watches the ugly story play out, sees what is happening, but does not finally stop it—whether because she can not or because she will not, each of us must decide for ourselves. So the play takes on a classist angle: the Haves locked in an eternal, internal power struggle; the Have Nots, too poor and impotent to be affected by the outcome. Or to put it another, more contemporized way: Bernarda is the President, her daughters are the Cabinet; and the staff are the Rest of Us.
At least that's what I thought; this production feels sufficiently potent and enlarging to allow for other interpretations, I am sure. Svich's translation is sort of deliberately anti-poetic, but it's very accessible. Sobel's staging is naturalistic throughout, so that we get caught up in the sweep of events (which really picks up in the show's final two acts), leaving us to ponder what it all means later. I like that he's respected the play's three-act structure, providing two intermissions despite the show's shorter-than-two-hour running time so that we can start digesting the meaty messages of the piece before it's all over with.
The production design is simplicity itself; Stephen Petrilli's lighting is especially noteworthy, directing us to specific areas of the stage with canny exactitude, and building striking effects and images throughout. Jane Shaw's sound design is also impressive; there's a place where she creates the illusion of a group of men passing outside the house that feels remarkably realistic.
Twelve actresses comprise the ensemble. The formidable Carmen de Lavallade plays Bernarda's mother with a kind of gentle ferocity that's very effective; her dancer's grace informs her every movement and she's a treat to watch. Pearl stalwarts Carol Schultz, Robin Leslie Brown, and Joanne Camp play Bernarda, Angustias, and Poncia, respectively; they're all fine, especially the latter two—Brown fearlessly making Bernarda's eldest daughter at once a figure of fun and thoroughly unlikable, Camp anchoring the play with warmth and wit that is necessarily lacking from the other characterizations. Fulvia Vergel delivers a very strong performance as the younger servant, and Melissa Maxwell does a noteworthy job as the realist, Magdalena.