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|A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The House of Bernarda Alba
by Laura Hitchcock
Federico Garcia Lorca's 1938 classic about cultural repression, particularly of women of one generation by those of another generation, is enhanced and expanded in an adaptation by Chinese playwright Chay Yew. Director Lisa Peterson stylizes the production, underlining the traditions Bernarda cleaves to for safety and dignity. But Chay Yew's emphasis delves beyond this to explore the universalities that move this play past the conflicts between the ultra-Catholic forces who executed 38-year-old liberal Lorca and beyond the Red Guard in China whose youthful regimen led to the distruction of older liberals.
His Bernarda, matriarch of a family of five daughters who is determined they observe eight years of mourning for the death of their father, becomes a believable figure in the interplay of Chita Rivera's performance with that of Poncia, her long-time maid. The two gossip together and laugh about sexual high jinks but Bernarda never lets Poncia forget who is the mistress here, whose social status is higher, and why she wants her daughters to marry into socially inflated ranks. The exuberant madwoman Prudencia, Bernarda's mother, who breaks out of her room in an ancient wedding dress like Miss Haversham in Great Expectations, gives a clue to what Bernarda is rebelling against and clinging to: respectability, the importance of its safety in a macho society, the power only wealth and dignity could give a woman. She is why she makes short shrift of the handsomest man in town who courts Angustias, the heiress who is Bernarda's oldest daughter by her first marriage, but makes passionate love to Adela, Bernarda's high-spirited youngest.
Chay Yew and Peterson emphasize Bernarda, as person, not Bernarda, as the tyrant usually personified as ultra-conservative Spain. Although the text and its impetus are unchanged, the interchanges between Bernarda and Poncia illustrate the individual beneath the dictatorial mask. Poncia is the reverse side of Bernarda when she begs young Adela to be patient, to let her lover marry Angustias who is so narrow hipped she'll die in childbirth, I've seen it before. The stark reality is that Adela is ready to agree with her. Not everyone else is, particularly her sister Martirio, who upsets the whole social negotiation with an insurmountable passion.
Peterson illustrates the rigid strictures of society through stylized staging which is highly dramatic. The women sit in straight rows of chairs. Their gestures, pointed fingers, swiveled heads, are uniform and fiercely specific. Even the trees which line the balcony behind the stage are precisely defined.
The only male presence on the stage is guitarist Annas Allaf, whose virile brooding presence and softly seductive music hang like a mesmerizing cloud over the Albas' bleak courtyard. Strong percussion music comes from the individual instruments of the village women who stand throughout the audience. The cast is headed by Chita Rivera as Bernarda, whose intense beauty and consuming eyes define her as hopelessly iconic role model and controlling mother. Camille Saviola finds lusty humor and sly servility in her long-time servant Poncia. Shaheen Vaaz makes the servant girl Bianca, former mistress of Signor Alba, a life-affirming presence, in vivid contrast to the five repressed daughters. The sisters, though individually good actresses, seem somewhat unevenly cast. There's no sense of family.
Notable exceptions are Sandra Oh, slim and lithe as a willow wand, who brings determination and a sensuous joyous rapture to Adela and Marissa Chibas who plays Angustias in lip make-up that's almost white leaving a mask-like face accented only by burning eyes, her tall frame hunched supplicatingly to Bernarda as she fantasizes about her fiancé Pedro. When she confides in Bernarda that he seems absent-minded, her mother pragmatically counsels her to ignore it.
Overall, this production has done justice to its classic roots and branched beyond them with burning beautiful precision.
Another Part of the House --Migdalia Cruz's reinterpretation of Lorca
The House of Bernarda -- not just adapted by directed by Chay Yew a
THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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