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A CurtainUp Review
The House of Bernarda Alba
The review of the NAATCO production in 2000
By Les Gutman
A stark blond-wood platform, blood-red rose petals scattered at its sides, a branch of a red-blooming cherry tree overhead, an enormous white rectangle painted on a black brick wall at its rear, surrounded by 20 or so chairs that might have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for Tokyo's Imperial Hotel in each of which an Asian woman dressed in black sits. One's initial impression of Chay Yew's beautifully realized production of Lorca's masterpiece, The House of Bernarda Alba, is of its Asian influences.
This may seem routine to newcomers to this theater company, but as someone familiar with NAATCO's mission and prior work -- presentations of "classic" plays employing many of the finest Asian actors but without specific Asian cultural references -- I was a little surprised. Was NAATCO taking a detour from its traditional philosophy that seemed to work so well?
I'm delighted to report that the answer is no. Once Yew's adaptation, gently contemporized but exceedingly faithful, gets under way, it is Lorca's essential Andalusian sensibility that permeates throughout. Perhaps the end-product reveals a more universal Lorca, but it remains his "Spanish Earth" that we can practically taste.
Bernarda Alba is fascinating because it is a play with only women, and yet manipulated in so many ways by men. (And I don't even particularly include the fact that it was written and here has been adapted and directed by men.) It is a tragedy about the nature of the male of the species and the manner in which they affect women, both by their presence and their absence.
We meet Bernarda (Ching Valdes-Aran) as she returns with her five daughters from the funeral of her second husband. Already a stern, brutal matriarch, she clamps down even more: ordering that her daughters mourn for eight years. Although each girl is distinguishable (the eldest, Angustias (Natsuko Ohama), the only child of Bernarda's first husband, is unattractive; Magdalena (Sophia Morae), the most like her mother; Amelia (Julienne Hanzelka Kim), bookish and possessed of very modern feminist ideas; Martirio (Julyana Soelistyo), mostly quiet but damagingly resentful; and young Adela (Eunice Wong), the most bewitching and not surprisingly immature), each suffers in some sense from the exclusion of men from her life -- a means of quenching, in Adela's words, the "fire" that is "coursing through my legs."
Enter Pepe el Romano, the best looking young man in town (well, not enter -- no men are actually seen in The House of Bernarda Alba), seeking the hand of Angustias in marriage, because it is she alone among the sisters who has wealth. This does not stop him from having an affair with beautiful Adela -- who has the cajones to wear red -- nor does it temper Martirio's jealousy. The cane-wielding, witch-like Bernarda has quite a cauldron on her hands.
Stirring the pot even more are Bernarda's two maids, Blanca (Michi Barall, for whom NAATCO Artistic Director Mia Katigbak subbed at the production I saw), who suffers in her own right since she was the dead husband's lover, and La Poncia (Kati Kuroda), Bernarda's would-be confidant, conveniently an inveterate gossip and snoop as well. Oh yes, and Bernarda's silver-haired mother (Gusti Bogard), kept by Bernarda in the dungeon, and delusional either because of or as a result of this. (She wears a white wedding gown, and talks of getting married and having a baby.) The end is tragic, as much or more than one would expect if we didn't know.
Mr. Yew has brilliantly accented the proceedings with a chorus of twelve black-clad women who sometimes clap, sometimes sing or hum and occasionally enter the story. The sum effect -- aided by Stephen Petrilli's dramatic lighting, a couple of songs by Fabian Obispo and even Kristin Jackson's choreography -- is stunning. Yew executes a trunkful of splendid ideas (both in his dramaturgy and stagecraft) worthy of extended discussion that I'll resist engaging in here.
NAATCO has repeatedly presented actors whose talents exceed our expectations for inexpensive off-off-Broadway stages, and this play is no exception. Indeed, the ten cast members bring extraordinary resources to this stage, and I wish time and space permitted me to discuss the abundant luxury in detail. I feel compelled to single out the Obie-winning Ching Valdes-Aran, who presents us with a Bernarda as hard as a rock and yet who shatters like a piece of delicate crystal. The other performance I mention specially is a surprise. Kati Kuroda's La Poncia is masterful; she forcefully commands our attention and engagingly entertains, coming close to stealing the show.
Several years ago, CurtainUp reviewed another adaptation of Bernarda Alba, Migdalia Cruz's Another Part of the House (see link below). That proved to be an unsatisfying experience that veered drastically from the beauty of Lorca's great play. NAATCO and Chay Yew have righted that ship, honoring this classical treasure with the stature it deserves.