The Manhattan Theater Source’s production of The House of Bernarda Alba does what its characters cannot. Deep and boiling with intensity, it breaks down the walls and soars beyond them.
In The Manhattan Theater Source’s new, slightly abridged production of Gabriel Garcia Lorca’s most famous work, Bernarda Alba’s domineering presence looms even before the show begins. Shortly after the house opens, the Maid character emerges and begins to obsessively clean the courtyard of the large Spanish house that makes up the set. She sweeps up detritus from the floor, sets up tables, glasses, and chairs and straightens them all, making sure they’re exactly right. What at first seems to be nothing but a cute bit of pre-show business later becomes an important piece of characterization, and the audience wonders what this poor Maid must worry will happen to her at the hands of the house’s matriarch if her work is anything less than perfect.
And she's quite the matriarch. The House of Bernarda Alba tells the tale of a home under the thumb of repressive tyranny. After the death of her husband, Bernarda Alba announces an eight-year period of mourning, during which no one in the family shall leave the house. Her five daughters, already straining under the yoke of their mother’s religious fervor and iron-fisted, fascist rule – patterned after the emerging ideologies that led to the Spanish Civil War and the regime of Francisco Franco – are horrified. None of them are yet married, as their mother has rejected all suitors, and none of them are getting any younger – the eldest, Angustias, is 39. This all changes, however, when Pepe el Romano, the best looking man in the town, proposes to marry Angustias – for her money – while clandestinely carrying on an affair with the youngest daughter, Adela. What follows is a harrowing descent as the women--caught up in sexual tension and repression, condemning others while quietly envying them, yearning to break free but pent up together, struggling against the infantilizing presence of their cruel and violent mother--find their only outlet is to be at each others’ throats.
The cast of the production is excellent, and holds the promise of getting even better. Bernarda Alba is a play whose beauty is what’s between the lines. It’s about secrets, lies, hypocrisy, jealousy, insecurity and hidden truths, and the actresses populating the Theater Source’s playing space are spot on. The daughters, who are sometimes hard to distinguish when merely reading the play, each come alive, deep, well rounded, and fully realized. Joy Franz, as the titular mother, is absolutely perfect in the role from the moment she thunders on stage to her final cry of “Silencio!” The strength of the cast is that they manage to imbue every moment with layers upon layers of subtext; each line, each action, each furtive gaze is silently boiling with hidden meanings and agendas. No one can trust anyone else, and no one really likes anyone else, and each one’s reasons are more complicated than even they themselves know. It’s a credit to the cast and to Kathleen O’Neill’s wonderful direction that this production is able to maintain – without an intermission – a constant state of underlying tension and foreboding that manages to be subtle even while balancing at the breaking point. Nowhere is this clearer than in a scene where Bernarda, her daughters, and a friend of the family sit together at a table for a snack. In this production, the scene begins, not with the friend’s line, but with a long, sustained period of silence. The women merely eat, drink, and sit there, but rather than get bored the audience remains rapt, holding its breath, wishing someone would say anything to break the awful quiet brought on by the characters’ unspoken disdain for one another. It’s a beautiful piece of theater.
The Manhattan Theater Source has put together a great rendition of this classic play. It’s a must-see, if only for Franz’s excellent performance. The production seems larger than the Theater Source’s tiny space, but there’s something alluring about doing this play in such an intimate setting. The audience is right there within Bernarda’s house (represented with a beautiful set) and we are forced to live with her, face to face, and witness the drama as if the next one the daughters will turn on might be any of us.
The House of Bernarda Alba
Manhattan Theater Source (Until June 30th)
Wed. through Sat. – 8:00 PM
Sat. Matinee – 3:00 PM
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