A Case of Violent Repression

alba.jpgEarly in the Spanish Civil War, Federico Garcia Lorca was executed by the Fascists. He was only 38 years old. A great poet was lost. The Lincoln Center production of Bernarda Alba is a reinterpretation of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, written in 1936 and initially performed shortly after his death. Lorca’s play presents a tyrannical Spanish mother and her five sex-starved daughters in the context of backward village values in traditional Spanish culture. As a boy, Lorca had spent summers in such a village, watching the chaperoned and cloistered local females from a distance. While he was working on the play, it was described in a newspaper as a “drama of Andalusian sexuality,” and Lorca noted, at the front of his manuscript copy, that the work should resemble “a photographic document.” Lorca sought to reveal the desperate reality of women caught in an antiquated social system in which they had no power. That they are controlled by their cold, vindictive, widowed mother makes them no less pawns of patriarchy than if it were their father. The daughters range in age from twenty to thirty-nine and all live within the thick, stifling walls of the house and its courtyard, aching to break free into fuller, richer lives. The Lincoln Center production is “based on the play,” with words and music by Michael John LaChiusa—a somewhat problematic mix. What is truly Lorca? What is LaChiusa, and what is the direction of Graciela Daniele? The scene, the themes, the characters, and some of the language belong to Lorca. But his play has been converted into some version of opera, where much of the dialogue is sung, and the overall mood is so melodramatic as to be almost laughable at times. The emphasis is all on the sexual starvation of these women, who regularly grope at their bodies, striking poses of sensual need and despair. What is the message that Daniele is going for? To a contemporary urban American audience such a work is mildly grotesque. Women still have many problems in our culture, but being locked in the house by one’s tyrannical parent when one reaches one’s twenties and thirties is not a major issue. If anything, we are surfeited with sexual messages and freedom. No one guards us. Perhaps the imprisoned women in this production are meant to speak to the situation of women behinds walls and veils in other places—Muslim culture in certain middle eastern countries, for instance. We may be getting an oblique comment about the Moorish past of Spain. The plight of women world-wide is worth considering. But is that the point in the present production? The cast, headed by Phylicia Rashad as Bernarda Alba, is uneven. It is difficult to care for any of them. Hysteria tends to be a turn-off. The servants are livelier and more entertaining; but then, they have been allowed to experience sex—coming from a lower, less restricted social milieu. The classic macho comment in response to a high-strung woman, “all she needs is a good f---,” might indeed be true, but it is demoralizing to think so. What works are certain theatrical touches around the edges of the production: stomping feet to keep a beat; an actress as a stallion; the flat fenced space (rather like a bull ring) of the set; the evocative lighting; and the wonderful musical accompaniment—dark and brooding and passionate—by a small, above-stage orchestra. We know of course that this story will end badly; someone will surely suffer for the widow’s shortness of vision and fear of scandal. She cannot be as tightly in control of her libidinous daughters as she imagines. But in its relentless single-mindedness, this production fails to provoke the satisfactions of tragedy: the catharsis, the purging through pity and fear. As Aristotle pointed out, we need to respect the protagonist; he or she must be worthy. Bernarda Alba is a self-deluded dictator, and her daughters are cranky victims. Only Pepe el Romano, the object of all their desires, gets away, and we never even see him. He rides off into the night, escaping the estrogen frenzy of these too-long caged women, while Bernarda declares of her youngest daughter, “She died a virgin.” Really? — Victoria Sullivan Bernarda Alba runs through April 9 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th St. between Broadway and Amsterdam Aves. www.lct.org victoria.jpgMs. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding or laughing, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees.