"I need a man!" screech female voices in the Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre production of Federico Garcia Lorca's classic tale of Spanish suppression, The House of Bernarda Alba. Since that sentiment suggests a solution rather simplistic for today's women, one is left to ponder this play of sexual repression as an artifact from another era and culture, rather than something offering insights into contemporary problems.
The enemy has shifted in the 60 years since Lorca wrote this intensely poetic melodrama. Once we achieved freedom from the sexual repression represented in this play, we discovered that sexual freedom has its own problems.
Lorca was born at the end of the previous century, and he created his most celebrated work, Blood Wedding, in 1933. Killed shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Lorca is the most significant dramatist to emerge from Spain since the classic days of Lope de Vega and Caldern in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Lorca was a poet as well as a theatre director, and his vision of the stage was turbulent and expansive, almost operatic. Indeed, it is curious that his plays have not been mined for librettos.
Peter Cirino has translated, adapted and directed this version of Bernarda Alba, accentuating the passionate poetry in the overcharged atmosphere of the dramatist's world. Interspersed with the action of the play is a sprinkling of poems from other sources in the Lorca canon. The intention of these passages is to elevate the melodrama to the tragic heights of Aeschylus, but the moral structure of the Spanish world is so severely one-dimensional that the effort falls short.
As is often the case with Cirino, the director's imagination exceeds his ability. He lacks the skill to deliver his extravagant vision and share his eccentric insight into the human condition. Far too often, Cirino is hamstrung by the inadequacy of his performers. What might have been gripping and insightful often seems incomprehensible and even silly.
Although Cirino's imagination teems, he often has the vision of a sculptor or painter, rather than that of a sculptor of human behavior, which is the director's mission. As for the translation, I doubt that Lorca could have approved of a line that speaks of "a humongous horsefly." Cirino has adapted, rather than merely translated. The dialogue often sounds more like gossip at a disco than Spanish poetry: "Did you see all those men?" exclaims one sister. "Yes," gushes another, "there's so many of them, and they're so good-looking!" Another line sounds straight out of Anne Rice: "You have no idea of the evil that festers inside of me!"
The best thing about the Planet Earth production is the world created to introduce us to the play. Entering the theatre, the audience is ushered past a trickling fountain under an ornate lamp. Nearby chandeliers flicker in the shadows. In a dark corner sits a young woman swathed in black lace, fervently saying her rosary. We pass a white faade that contains a leaded-glass window, and are taken through a heavy wooden door that serves as the entrance to the house of the title. Inside, accompanied by mournful organ music, we find our seats and begin to take in the ambiance of the dark interior.
Before us is a coffin, covered with candles. Kneeling in prayer is a young woman, who in a preplay pageant is replaced by a succession of praying women. We are surrounded by women and by the presence of death. This is fitting, since the play dramatizes the traumatic submission of a household of five sisters to the tyrannical rule of the widow Bernarda Alba, following the death of their father and her husband, Antonio.
Determined to preserve the honor of her family, Bernarda banishes all color from their lives, and the mere appearance of any hue other than black engenders a maternal rage horrible in its blind power. "This will be our tomb," Bernarda declares. The eldest daughter, Angustias, is engaged to marry Pepe Romano, who will be the beneficiary of an enormous dowry. This loveless courtship progresses under the hawklike scrutiny of Bernarda, but it soon becomes clear that after Pepe has officially courted Angustias, he lingers in the wee hours of the night to consort with the youngest daughter, Adela. By standing naked in front of her window, she has successfully stolen his attentions.
Although the male character remains offstage, the havoc within the family brings us to the brink of tragedy, as Bernarda attempts to murder the offending suitor when his treachery is discovered. This brings about the suicide of Adela. The coup de thtre of the evening is Cirino's imaginative and shocking climactic stage picture of Adela's hanging.
Cirino's production is helped immensely by the authoritative performance of Trinidad Yanez Hale in the title role. She provides the necessary honesty, passion and simplicity to ground the hysteria of the poetry with a glacially majestic presence.
Also effective are Cecelia James as the eldest daughter, Angustias, who suffers the torment of being wronged with notable dignity, and Victoria Hunt as the empathetic sister Martirio. Of the chorus of two that interrupts the action of the play with Lorca's poetry, one (Lisa Noelle) is memorable, the other (Janet Van) forgettable. In both cases, the lush poetry is rendered excruciating by the strain of their flat, untrained voices.
By far the most egregious performance is that of Christie Poulton in the pivotal part of Adela. Poulton is spiteful and shallow in a role that calls for agonizing despair over an illicit love affair doomed to tragic consequences. Her cry, "I'll do what I like with my body!" ought to ring with a conviction that would win our sympathy. Instead, it is petty and whining.
Almost equally appalling is Bridget Carroll in the role of the demented, ghostly grandmother. The performance evokes more snickers than tears.
Planet Earth has begun its season with a production that reveals strengths and weaknesses so intertwined, it is virtually a signature representation of this brave but maddening company.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the Phoenix art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.