Director Cara Reichel did a most unusual thing in the Prospect Theater Company's production of García Lorca's House of Bernarda Alba -- she made Bernarda, that tyrant, autocrat, and family dictator, into a sympathetic character. This might not have been Reichel's intent, but with the dynamic actress TAMIR in the role, and an unfocused, overcrowded, and poorly blocked play surrounding her, it was hard not to feel sorry for Bernarda, who, try as she may, is losing control of her family and her life.
The stage was overcrowded because Reichel had each of the nine main characters shadowed by a double, who was there, according to the Director's Note, to "express the desires, memories, and images being concealed by the speaking actress." Fair enough as a concept; but in practice it served to dilute the text and confuse the action, because most of what these shadows did was muddled and perplexing. They were often sort of modern-dancing, and in spite of the stated intent, they were either echoing what the actress was doing, or they were doing something inscrutable.
But that was when what they were doing was visible. Certainly a director cannot be held accountable for the physical layout of a theater, but she should be aware before public performance whether, with an audience present, anything happening below waist-level is blocked from the view of anyone beyond the first two rows. So when actors were sitting in chairs, or were on the floor, they could be heard but were out of sight. There was also a small dollhouse downstage, but what use it was put to was unseen.
And most of García Lorca's indictment of political repression, with Bernarda as dictator and her daughters as downtrodden populace, got lost, and what's left was a stylized soap opera of a mother's losing control of her petulant daughters. OK, so a mourning period of eight years is excessive, but Bernarda's reasoning, as acted by TAMIR, seemed to come from a legitimate and logical place. She wields her stick like a scepter because she is a queen; she even rises above the fact that her shadow is a young girl. (And no matter how full the stage was, when TAMIR was not there, it seemed empty. What a Regina in Hellman's Little Foxes she would make.) The only one who neared her in clarity and intensity was Betty Hudson as Poncia, the household's long-serving maid. When Poncia finally tells Bernarda what's what regarding her daughters, there was enough drama on stage that their shadows faded to the background. And only when María Josefa, Bernarda's mother (Giovanna Zaccaro), did a kind of musical number with her shadow -- played by a very young girl (Jennifer Michelle Brown) -- did the concept make sense. But that's also because she's deranged, so there was a completely different sensibility being portrayed.
The physical production was extremely impressive. The set (designed by Timothy Richard Mackabee) was completely, starkly white, which beautifully reflected the colorful, expressive lighting (Ji-youn Chang). Costumes (Sidney J. Shannon) were black but not boring, with color used only for a daughter's attempt at breaking away (green), and an outsider (maroon). Jason Atkinson's score was interestingly mournful, and the sound effects were sharp, clear reminders of life outside. That Bernarda's entrances were accompanied by a thunderclap added a touch of humor.
But when Bernarda shoots at a man who is courting one or more of her daughters, it seemed like the right thing to do. And when one daughter hangs herself, Bernarda's insistence that she died a virgin seemed noble, not denial. What might make for an interesting thesis doesn't always transfer to meaningful theater when staged -- it's fine to turn a classic on its head if there's coherence, but this House was falling down around poor Bernarda Alba for reasons different from García Lorca's.
With Danielle Melanie Brown, Sandy York, Roxann Kraemer, Amy Hutchins, Juliet O'Brien, Anna Bullard, Susan Maris, Karen Sternberg, Jennifer Herzog, Jennifer Blood, Suzy Kaye, Arlene Love, Dara Seitzman, Jennifer McGeorge, and Dolores Kenan.
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Copyright 2004 Seth Bisen-Hersh