I don’t recall Bernarda Alba ever being referred to as an ”old cunt“ in my New Directions translation of Federico Garcia Lorca‘s play, but it’s a description I‘m willing to accept in the spirit of accessibility. Productions of Lorca, after all, tend to plod along or wallow in their texts’ poetics — which is why Lorca, like Brecht, is a playwright everyone likes to quote but not sit through. Chay Yew‘s adaptation of The House of Bernarda Alba, directed at the Mark Taper Forum by Lisa Peterson, is a vigorous Latin-Pacific fusion that retains the play’s repressive gravity while leavening it with bawdy laughter. This version is nominally still set in Spain in 1936 (the year of that country‘s civil war and Lorca’s execution) but, thanks to an ethnically mixed cast, has been spiritually moved by Yew somewhere between Andalusia and Mindanao, lending a Pacific humidity to the torturous Iberian heat. The house in question is a gulag of women ruled by a tyrant queen who has crippled the lives of her five daughters by forbidding them the pleasures –and torments — of love; the story begins after the burial of Bernarda‘s husband and ends with preparations for the funeral of a daughter. The play works on several levels, not the least of which is political — Spain torn between liberty and authority. Yew spotlights some of the play’s minor characters and stresses each daughter‘s personality, while resisting any urges to thoroughly modernize the period’s language or outlook.
Peterson‘s direction summons a medieval Catholicism of whitewashed stone walls in which women are offered the security of marriage, convent or whorehouse, which is why the addition of the slightest splash of color or pattern on Rachel Hauck’s angular set or Joyce Kim Lee‘s dark costumes brings a head-rush of emotions to the play’s characters. Chita Rivera‘s Bernarda is a steely, cane-wielding figure in black pinstripe who manages, against all odds, to be an appealing, even sympathetic character, while Camille Saviola’s earth madre of a servant, Poncia, all but carries the show away on her broad shoulders.
THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA | By FEDERICO GARCIA LORCA | At the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through September 1