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A CurtainUp Review
"There's a moment about 100 years after the work of an artist that you can either say 'you are now condemned to the ranks of a footnote' or 'We are going to make you the center of an international culture by keeping on telling your stories.' And when the play was written in a language that isn't the one you're going to perform in, the first step is to reinvent it. The sturdiness of the original becomes apparent in the moment of reinvention. The heartbeat coursing through the veins of Yerma is indispensible."
— Simon Stone, Yerma's "reinventor" and director.
Billie Piper and Brendan Cowell (Photo: Stephanie Berger)
Federico Garcia Lorca, one of Spain's greatest dramatists and poets, is best remembered nowadays for his three folk tragedies: Blood Wedding (1933), Yerma (1934) and The House of Bernarda Alba (1936, published posthumously). Twenty years after Lorca's assassination the rarely staged middle play became an opera in three acts by composer Hector Villa-Lobos. More recently, Emilio Ruiz Barrachina made it into a film with the true to its meaning title of Yerma: Barren.

Like the Barrachina film, the stage production of Yerma that's now at the Armory after its acclaimed Young Vic premiere, has juxtaposed the Andalusian culture of the Lorcas play and London's modern world. All the buzz about this radically new staging by Australian director Simon Stone, might make you think of him as another Ivo Van Hove— the Belgian avante-garde director whose reinterpretations of the classics involve stripping them down to their implicit meanings while retaining the essential text. But Stone has topped Van Hove's theatrical derring-do.

Stone's Yerma stays true to Lorca's tragic story of the farm woman isolated from her community by her barrenness. However, it's presented within the framework of contemporary London's blogging journalists business men traveling all over the world, and fertility treatments for those who can afford them—. and the words spoken are not by Lorca but by the adapter-director. In short, this is as much Stone's as Lorca's play, more an original story than an adaptation.

Devotees of Lorca's poetic language willing to buy into Mr. Stone's rationale for his radical "reinvention" in the quote at the top of this review, will find the hour and forty minutes spent at the Armory a riveting theatrical outing. That is, if they're lucky enough to nab a ticket.

For starters, this is a chance for New Yorkers to see the British actress Billie Piper live instead of in TV shows like Doctor Who and Penny Dreadful. As the unnamed Her, Piper is an unforgettable modern day version of Lorca's farm wife — a sexy, happily married woman of thirty-three with a trendy career as a successful journalist-blogger whose inability to conceive a child sends her plummeting towards an end as dark as any Greek tragedy. This contemporary battle with the ticking biological clock over the course of five years certainly brings Lorca's classic into the world we live in.

While Piper is the star attraction, the other cast members (all of whom were in the London production) add to the all-around acting excellence. You couldn't want for better than Brendan Cowell as John, the husband who loves Her madly but can't deal with the humiliation of her blogging about their t struggle to have a baby. When the endless and costly infertility treatments cost them their house, the deteriorating relationship boils over into confrontations that are more harrowing than the finale of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage.

Interspersed into the depiction of the loving relationship's gradual collapse are encounters with skillfully portrayed and relevant to the story characters: Charlotte Randle as the barren Her's more fertile sister Mary, is understandably upset by a devastatingly hurtful reveal in her sister's blog. . . Maureen Beattie as the sisters' more feminist than maternal mom . . . the sudden reappearance of John MacMillan, her likeable long ago lover whose child she aborted (which he resented but now understands) . . . and Thalissa Teixeira as Des, a hip administrative assistant.

But even the superb Piper and her very able colleagues can't outshine the marvelously original stagecraft. The Armory's huge Drill Hall turns out to work remarkably well for a story that seems to call for a more intimate setting.

Set designer Lizzie Clachan has ingeniously encased the playing area in a glass box, which places the audience, on each horizontal side. Even the most strong voiced actors would be hard to make themselves heard through those glass walls, but the heavy amplification used enables the audience to hear every word of the ever more volatile emotions on display. It almost feels as if they were inside the box with the actors — yet remainng outside, at a more bearable protective distance

What makes this set-up a genuine coup de théâtre is the way what happens inside that box look different in each of the many short scenes. An abruptly ended totally bare scene can come back from an extended blackout fully furnished, or as a garden with a grass floor and a tree. The actors too change outfirs courtesy of costumer Alice Babidge.

Since the glass box has no doors or visible openings, it's all like a magic act. Probably the propulsive choral music with which Stefan Gregory punctuates the longish blackouts serves the purpose of covering up the sounds of scenic changes. But that varied and somewhat eerie incidental music, like the titles of upcoming scenes projected on a large screen, also serves to foreshadow the ever darkening events to come.

There are times when you'll want to look away from those darkening events. But there's no looking away from Billie Piper's powerhouse performance and this imaginative reinvention.

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Yerma by Simon Stone, After Frederico Garcia Lorca
Director: Simon Stone
Cast: Maureen Beattie (Helen), Brendan Cowell(John), MacMillan(Victor), Billie Piper(Her), Charlotte Randle(Mary), Thalissa Teixeira(Des)
Set designer: Lizzie Clachan
Costume designer: Alice Babidge
Lighting designer: James Farncombe
Music and sound designer: Stefan Gregory
Video designer: Jack Henry James
Stage Manager: Cynthia Cahill
Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, no intermission
Production of the Young Vic presented at the Park Avenue Armory
From 3/23/18; opening 3/27/18; closing 4/21/18
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at April 2nd performance

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