The Manhattan Theatre Source succeeds yet again with a meticulous production of The House of Bernarda Alba, Federico Garcia Lorca's classic play about matriarchal tyranny preceding the Spanish Civil War. Although the scene changes are choppy and the cast of 16 sometimes dwarfs the stage, the beautiful set design, firm direction and catty dialogue effects an enthralling experience. Joy Seligsohn, Stephanie Schmiderer and Joy Franz
Reviewed by Cindy Pierre
Renowned actress Joy Franz (Into the Woods) strikes terror into the hearts of her oppressed daughters in the title role in Federico Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba. Her will as a dictator with a demand for cleanliness and virtue is imposed upon us well before she graces us with her stately presence. The Maid (Maitely Weismann), a dispensable character due to underuse, sweeps and preps the stage fastidiously not only for the action that ensues, but most importantly for the perfectionist that she must please.
For all the anticipation, The House of Bernarda Alba begins quietly under Kia Roger's belated light cue. Apart from scene changes that should be shrouded in more darkness, the remainder of Roger's lighting design is punctual and wonderfully somber.
As an autono-mother raising automatons, Joy Franz is a force to be reckoned with, particularly since the recent death of her husband makes her the sole disciplinarian. However, the scenes that she shares with Olivia Lawrence as Poncia, her subordinate but flippant challenger, are volleys in the craft of acting. Lawrence, channeling Rita Moreno, is marvelous as the second warden of honor in the house, but luckily for Bernarda's daughters, her rule is more forgiving. Poncia maintains her dignity even in the midst of Bernarda's social affronts, and as a confidante, she is trustworthy.
Drew Bellware's sound effects are haunting, with Gregorian chants to match Ed McNamee's cathedral doors and authentic vines snaked around poles. And it is the sound of a horse repeatedly striking the stable walls in demand of freedom that supersedes the power of all exposition or performance to cater to its acquisition.
Religious zeal abounds in this drama, as exhibited by prayers that are helmed by a six-member chorus. Clad in black and chanting in unison with the key players, the chorus seems larger than life for the MTS stage, and perhaps should be scaled down to accommodate the space.
Chaos runs amok where there purports to be order. The spinsters and would-be spinsters, all unmarried because they outranked their past suitors, are in an uproar when Pepe El Romano, the most eligible bachelor in town, pursues Angustias (Stephanie Schmiderer), the oldest, sickliest and most homely of the siblings. Of course, this 39-year old has the largest "carat" to dangle on a stick, and her ne'er be subtle half-sisters (Angustias has a different father) kindly prick her with that fact. Unbeknownst to Angustias, her more appealing younger sister Adela (a delightful Benita Robledo) burns in a passionate affair with her betrothed. Suffering from ennui and suppressed passions, and worse yet, an 8-year mourning period inflicted upon them by Bernarda where they are confined to the house, these women are all powder kegs waiting for the slightest flicker of fire. Their tongues, spiked with jealousy and bitterness, spew biting remarks that separate station, wealth, youth and beauty. The possibility of escape looms near, and everybody wants it, particularly since doom incarnate resides in the house as their delirious grandmother, Maria Josefa (Joy Seligsohn). Yet, like crabs in a barrel, no one is allowed to crawl out.
The sisters are all lively performers, but only Robledo commits to the Spanish accent with the trill of each r. The cast thrives under the strong direction of Kathleen O'Neill, fluctuating from order to relaxed movement in sometimes a single swoop. This 90-minute production evokes Laura Esquivel's Mexican drama Like Water for Chocolate in style and theme. Joy Franz even looks like Regina Torne, the matriarch in the film, with the severe blond coiffure and steely manner.
With indecency being curbed right outside her door and her self-proclaimed clairvoyance, it is ironic that Bernarda cannot see what is brewing right inside her home. Yet, it is this very flaw in her perfect order that makes her absolute rule fallible. And the manner in which this great production handles the consequences is the substance of compelling theater.
Through June 30th. Manhattan Theatre Source, 177 MacDougal Street, NY NY. $18 Tickets: http://www.theatermania.com/ or 212-352-3101
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