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A CurtainUp Review

The House of Bernarda Alba
By Jenny Sandman

"In Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country in the world," said Federico Garcia Lorca, Spain's most famous and revered poet and playwright. When he was murdered by the Nationalists at the start of the Spanish civil war in 1936, he was suddenly catapulted into international fame (though his works were banned in Spain, in some parts until 1971). Lorca has enjoyed a recent resurgence in popularity, perhaps sparked by the centenary of his birth in 1999, perhaps by a flurry of new translations in the past few years.

Bernarda Alba is a tyrannical mother, terrorizing her household of five unmarried daughters and a number of female servants. When their father dies she "sentences" them all to eight years of full mourning The oldest daughter, 40, has inherited some money and is being courted by a local 25-year-old swain, who is conducting a secret affair with the youngest daughter. In such a small household, hungry for any spark of life, such an affair cannot stay hidden long. Tensions rapidly escalate, and the audience is drawn into the cyclone of grief and repression.

Actress TAMIR as Bernarda Alba is a strong and forceful presence. Her performance provides the linchpin around which the production revolves. But, in what can only be an attempt to lighten the subject matter, director Cara Reichel has chosen to include a strange system of doubling. Each actress is shadowed by her childhood self. These silent psyches enact the secret desires and memories of their adult counterparts, usually while their adult counterparts are speaking. It's an interesting idea, but unfortunately, it doesn't work. Bernarda Alba is such a spare play that this doubling feels wrong. There are simply too many people onstage and it distracts from the main action and dialogue.

While the acting is overshadowed by the too-large cast, the production values show off Prospect's virtuosity. A plain white wall, set against a series of lighted panels, serves as the house. It's highlighted by expressionistic lighting in a variety of colors and a horn-heavy score, masterfully manipulated by sound designer Jason Atkinson. Small absurdist touches skillfully lighten the monotony of the all-black wardrobe; for example, a line of black-clad widows all crack open their fans at the same time, accompanied by the sound of a flock of birds taking off.

But by and large, despite the exceptionally large pool of talent involved, this not Prospect's best effort. The gloomy, claustrophobic play which Lorca began writing just before his death, also suffers from an overly formal translation by Michael Dewell and Carmen Zapata. That makes it an odd choice for a company known for its mischievous and creative productions of classics. This House of Bernarda Alba is neither--in fact, it's almost lifeless in comparison with Prospect's last production (The Belle's Strategem which I also reviewed for CurtainUp). Hopefully their next production will return them to their celebrated tradition.

The Belle's Stratagem The House of Bernarda Alba in LAL
The House of Bernarda Alba by NAATCO
Editor's Note: Reader's might want to check out a less well-known Lorca play currently at the Cocteau Repertory Theater -- Dona Rosita the Spinster

Written by Federico Garcia Lorca
Translated by Michael Dewell and Carmen Zapata
Directed by Cara Reichel
With Jennifer Blood, Danielle Melanie Brown, Jennifer Michelle Brown, Anna Bullard, Jennifer Herzog, Betty Hudson, Amy Hutchins, Suzy Kaye, Delores Kenan, Roxann Kraemer, Arlene Love, Susan Maris, Jennifer McGeorge, Juliet O'Brien, Dara Seitzman, Karen Sternberg, TAMIR, Sandy York, Giovanna Zaccaro
Lighting Design by Ji-youn Chang
Costume Design by Sidney J. Shannon
Set Design by Timothy Richard Mackabee
Sound Design by Jason Atkinson
Running time: 1 hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission
Prospect Theatre Company Frederick Loewe Theatre, Hunter College, 68th Street and Lexington Avenue; 212-352-3101
Through February 8
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on January 17th performance

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