Trans. Carmen Zapata and Michael Dewell. University of Massachusetts Department of Theater, performing in the Curtain Theater. Directed by Toby Bercovici. Scenic design, Miguel Romero. Student actors except for a professional actor, Jeannine Haas, as Bernarda Alba, and Troy Pepicelli cross-dressed as the grandmother, Maria Josefa. 1 hour 40 minutes, without intermission.
Lorca’s grim tale of oppression in a Spanish village was very well mounted in this production by the UMass Theater Department. An all-female (except for one instance of cross-dressing — see above), mostly undergraduate, cast is very ably directed by Toby Bercovici. My guess is that Bercovici is a graduate student. Working with students without a great deal of acting experience and faced with the formidable emotional requirements of Lorca’s demanding script, he presented a clear, articulate course of action on a minimalist stage on which a very well rehearsed corps of actors moved with purpose and discipline.
The Curtain Theater is a so-called “black box,” which in this production was set up “in the round” — that is, audience on four sides of a rectangular playing space. The playing area consisted of a large rectangular platform and a second, smaller platform on top of it, the both painted white, creating a steps-up situation all around. On the second platform were a series of very tall chairs, constructivist in style, consisting of welded square rods, making up chairs with open backs and simple seats, made entirely of metal except for the seat itself, and capable of surviving very rough treatment. In the course of the play the actors not only moved the chairs from a supine or prone position to an upright one, but threw the chairs down forcibly onto the platform, which was hollow underneath, and which consequently gave up a loud, banging sound, often startling in its intensity. The actors used these chairs in many more ways than simply to sit on; they were used to punctuate action and emotion, to represent windows, ladders, or barricades, and even used as weapons: a formidable array of uses that presented palpable extensions of the arm, the hand, the head, and the heart. They could take on beautiful, spare artistic formations, sometimes precisely symmetrical; at other times they could represent the chaos characteristic of the ongoing dramatic action. It must have taken many hours of extra rehearsal to get this right, but get it right they did. It was a brilliant conception on the part of the designer, Miguel Romero.
The result was an added richness, an extra dimension of material, physical articulation of this increasingly intensifying action. The mother, Bernarda, ably performed by Jeannine Haas, who played the part with a noticeable limp (I don’t know if Lorca calls for this in his stage directions), is a woman terribly repressed and determined to pass this repression on to her daughters. A woman with an iron will, but marked as handicapped in some way (as her limp symbolizes), she uses the great force of her position as a widower and the extra force of her own personal power to rein in her daughters — a difficult job in view of the highly eroticized social situation, in which a mother tries her best to suppress her daughters’ intense yearning for male connection, but despite her concerted efforts fails. We see midnight and later clandestine connections with men who never appear on stage but who appear to be lurking just outside at all hours, at all corners of the house, in the stable and everywhere else, waiting for the mere chance to speak with, or perhaps even to touch, one or another of these desperate women.
It is the day of the funeral of the father. Bells are ringing to call mourners to church. All the daughters are in black, in the stifling heat of this Spanish summer, and the occasion, despite its focus on death, turns out to be an opportunity for burgeoning new life — or, alternatively, for potential tragedy. One of the daughters, the eldest, some thirty-nine years old, who has a legacy from her dead father, is engaged to be married, and the mother is doing her best to hurry up the ceremony. But another daughter, the youngest, who is truly in love with Pepe, the fiancé (who is merely after the elder sister’s money), and who she reports loves her as well, has a midnight liaison with him. Bernarda discovers it, goes to the stable, and attempts to shoot him. A shot rings out, but he gets away. Instead, the youngest daughter, discovered in her liaison with Pepe, hangs herself. Back in the house, Bernarda calls for someone to go and cut the girl down.
This play begins slowly, with a scene between a lowly scrub woman and Bernarda’s servant woman. The servant is a combination of expository character, a connection with the outside world, and a contentious force who appears to have more power than anyone except Bernarda herself. The play soon begins to gather momentum, however, and builds and builds, until the bad end appears to be inevitable. This is a well disciplined cast, with a week’s performances behind them, very clear about what is required of them and able to fulfill that demand with skill and proper emphasis. They work exceptionally well as a team, their timing well nigh perfect.
The translation employed in this production is functional enough, but it does not capture the poetic and formal qualities of what one thinks must be the hallmarks of Lorca’s poetry. Perhaps it is just as well: these inexperienced actors might not be up to the challenge of a more formal, cadenced text. And so there is a slight sense of discontinuity between the language spoken by the actors and the fictive surround of an early twentieth-century Spanish village. One would have hoped for more of a sense of remoteness, of provinciality, of “otherness.”
There is an additional dimension important to note. Lorca is writing his play at the time when the fascist forces of Franco are in the process of gaining ascendancy at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. It is 1936. According to comments by the dramaturg of the production, Jason Lites, Lorca completed this play, the third in a trilogy of “rural dramas,” only a few months before his death at the hands of the Nationalist militia. And so there is an added poignancy and broader significance that comes through in this play about the suppressive, authoritarian rule of a strong, determined person over a seemingly helpless cohort of lesser persons. In this light, the play can perhaps be read as a lesson in the futility of such strong-armed attempts to repress natural human longings and the tragic results that may ensue. Yet, regardless of how much significance we find in this play, the explicit subject itself carries sufficient weight, moment, to make for an engrossing evening, all the more memorable for its comparative brevity.