The House of Bernarda Alba was the last play Federico Garcia Lorca wrote before his untimely death in 1936. The Spanish Civil War was just breaking out. Like many artists, Garcia Lorca supported the left and spoke out against the rising fascist dictator, Francisco Franco, and his Nationalist party. Lest we forget, words do have power. The Nationalists assassinated Garcia Lorca and buried him in an unmarked grave. He never saw The House of Bernarda Alba performed or Spain quiver for decades under Franco until his death in 1975.
The House of Bernarda Alba is not an explicitly political play. Yet, under Monica Payne’s careful direction, Point Park University’s production at the Pittsburgh Playhouse taps into the political overtones of the domestic sphere. Title character and matriarch Bernarda Alba rules with an iron fist that befits Franco. Her second husband has just died, prompting her to decree her five single daughters (ages 20 to 39) will enter a mandatory 8-year mourning period during which dating and marriage is prohibited. One does not need a crystal ball to discern that plan might implode. Despite her confidence, or overconfidence, in her ability to control her daughters, she is ever watchful. While her daughters outwardly accept the forced regime, they all undermine it in different ways. In this way, Garcia Lorca foreshadows Spain’s citizens under Franco’s looming four-decade tyranny.
Bernarda Alba is played by Alex Williams. Her height and the height of her headdress, magnificently complete with long black lace veil thanks to costume designer Cathleen Crocker-Perry, make her visually imposing. Crocker-Perry anoints Bernarda Alba with a white stripe down the middle of her carefully coiffed black updo that lends an essence of Cruella de Vil. Payne’s direction of Williams could have been stronger as she struggles in fully committing to Bernarda Alba. At times, she stamps her foot for emphasis, but it comes off as a bit impish. There’s an almost comedic Rumpelstiltskin quality to it that is out of sync with her iron-willed character. Williams ends up settling on resting bitch face to convey the matriarch, which is not ill-suited to Bernarda Alba’s demeanor.
The play is set entirely within Bernarda Alba’s house. Stephanie Mayer-Staley’s set design of corrugated metal walls is memorably imposing. However, the high walls fail to convey the cloying, prison-like nature of the home. The expansive gunmetal grey walls exude a coolness that is at odds with the constant verbal reminders of the suffocating heat levels, particularly when lighting designer Cat Wilson triggers the white neon outlining the doorways and baseboards. While the neon provides the element of surprise and is an impactful visual punch, it enhances the set’s coolness and dulls the play’s dual oppressions of heat and home.
With Bernarda Alba’s five daughters all played by college-aged actresses, it’s initially challenging to discern the differences, but they each find their persona in the course of the play. Payne memorably introduces them at the funeral, lined up in a row at the front of the stage. Wordlessly, they sensually rub their hands up their sides and over their hips, skirts nudging skyward. They fluidly bring their hands up and over their breasts before crossing their arms across their chests. The sequence ends with them wrapping their hands around their necks in a mock hanging. It’s eroticism eternally forestalled. When their mother enters, the air changes, and there’s an audibly sharp intake of breath. All five hurriedly move their hands from neck to prayer, but we know the pose of prayer and penance is feigned. Payne makes it clear from the play’s start that there’s a schism between the outwardly acted role and the inner life.
This schism extends beyond the daughters to Bernarda Alba’s two housemaids. It’s not just the departed who rests in peace. The funeral provides a welcome break from Bernarda Alba’s watchful eye for the two maids. Poncia (Saige Smith) has served Bernarda Alba for 30 years and enjoys the rare liberated moment of being able to vocalize how much she despises her overbearing mistress. Poncia stashes a jar of sausages in her skirts. The gesture is small, but there’s joy in the comeuppance. Smith provides a breezy comedic relief as she shares her dream of spending a year spitting on her mistress. When the women return from the funeral, both housemaids shift effortlessly from gossiping to keening as they wail for the husband’s death. It may be Bernarda Alba’s house, but we are in on the secrets.
Youngest daughter Adela (Aenya Ulke) is the memorably free spirited dreamer of the sisterly quintet. Familial and societal expectations cannot contain her as the household rivalries shift to Pepe el Romano, a 25-year old hottie who proposes to the oldest sister. The 39-year old Angustias (Elena Lazaro) has a different father than her four younger sisters and an inheritance from his passing that enhances her appeal. Adela is the boldest, refusing to conform with the black dress wardrobe her mother has commanded. Without restraint, Garcia Lorca shows us a world tipping to self-destruction, but it’s hard to define where the boundary lies.
When I visited Spain, I specifically sought out Garcia Lorca’s statue in Madrid’s Plaza de Santa Ana. It is a memorial of sorts given his execution and unmarked grave. Standing there to get my picture taken, I expected to feel a sort of sadness, but with the flurrying bustle of tourists and locals in the fading daylight, it was more life affirming than tragic. History hovers to educate, but it need not define us.
Point Park University’s production of The House of Bernarda Alba continues through March 11th at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. Visit them online for more information and to purchase tickets.
Photos by John Altdorfer
Categories: Archived Reviews