Arouet’s The House of Bernarda Alba: Spanish Theater 101

[media-credit name=”Michael Brunk” align=”aligncenter” width=”640″]Arouet's The House of Bernarda Alba[/media-credit]

The women of Lorcas' The House of Bernarda Alba; from left: Sarah Milici, Colleen Carey, Gina Marie Russel, Lorrie Fargo and Ruth McRee

Considering the large Latino population in the Seattle region, it is a little surprising that, outside of a select few companies, there aren’t as many Spanish/Latino based theater presented on our main fringe and professional stages. As a result, the rare times one does see a play by Nilo Cruz or Federico Garcia Lorca being produced, it becomes an anticipated event for fans of theater from that sphere. Plays from the Spanish-speaking world, when done correctly, contain nearly operatic emotions, they are heightened realms, containing poetic language and events that could sweep one away.

When informed of the local production of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, which is being produced by Arouet at the Ballard Underground through this weekend, a playwright friend of your correspondent shared that he has always hoped to see a production of the play that used drag queens in place of the traditional all-female cast. While such a production would hold the danger of becoming a vehicle for non-stop camp, the core idea is solid. Drag performance operates on a similarly heightened level, the sort of catty bitchiness one associates with Bette Davis, Joan Crawford or a given episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race would be the sort of thing that a general Northwest audience uninitiated in the ways of Latino theater could understand and get behind.

Such a production would be good for a laugh or eighty, but, unless (it must be stressed) it remained true to the spirit of the source, it would not be the essence of Spanish/Latino theater; it would not be Lorca’s Bernarda Alba. Bernarda Alba is madness in the form of political allegory, class struggle, and social commentary, and it can seem both alienating and overwhelming to anyone unwilling to go along for the ride. Similar problems abound for theater companies deciding to tackle Latino theater: any company uncomfortable or unwilling to go to the extremes a typical script calls for will struggle to have a solidly good production on their hands. Additionally, given that the majority of actors are no longer trained to do language, outside of Shakespeare with some classical Greek theater thrown in, finding a full cast that can handle the delivery of the emotions required and the poetic language without coming off as stilted and insecure is a challenge.

What ends up happening is that most productions shy away from the outer edges, and so the productions, while mildly titillating, are largely lifeless. All involved, audiences and theater artists alike, would do well to become familiar with what it is they are trying to convey, the library and internet are handy resources, but so are telenovelas, or the films of Pedro Almodovar (The Skin I Live In is a delectable recent example).

Arouet’s production of Bernarda Alba seemingly attempts to strike a balance between emotional reserve and full bodied operatics, and the results are uneven. There are moments when it feels as if lines are simply being recited as plot points are established. The translation by Emily Mann is littered with the occasional word in Spanish, which can trip up an actor not familiar with how to enunciate the word. It is more than likely that this is something solely noticed by your correspondent, given his background; that said, there is a large difference between the Spanish reliance on short-vowel pronunciation, and American’s general round-vowel bias. For example, “si*len*cio” becomes “sea*lens*see*oh.” This is an argument to be had during preproduction, but this is an instance where sacrificing language accuracy in favor of the desired effect might be preferable.

This being Lorca’s Bernarda Alba, it is impossible to completely avoid its extremes, and when those moments are taking place on stage, the production crackles with life. The first indication that Arouet’s treatment will have a foot in the appropriate waters occurs early on, when Bernarda (Ruth McRee) makes her first appearance. McRee adopts an aristocratic air that fits her character to a T, and her withering exchanges with her daughters and house servants carry with them a sort of doomed malevolence; one senses that no good is going to come from the woman’s strongly held convictions, opinions and traditions.

The dam holding back the emotional undercurrents bursts open, however, when Maria Josefa (Frances Hearn), Bernarda’s ancient-crazy-mother-who-is-kept-locked-in-the-basement, enters the proceedings demanding to be allowed to get married, have children, and thereby leave her basement incarceration behind. The scene jolts the proceedings to life, allowing the other performers to loosen up and get lost in the heightened reality with increased effectiveness.

While the uneven-ess described earlier doesn’t go away completely, the power dynamics, the drama and minutiae of these women’s lives become easier to understand. The desperation with which Bernarda’s daughters scramble about in order to simply look at the men who are working on or passing by their property is easier to grasp when one sees just how desirable it would be to leave the house of a matriarch who holds an iron grip on their fates.

Along the way, we see that Lorca didn’t simply create a humorless play, nor a simple one-dimensional villain in Bernarda, who is certainly misguided, but has understandable reasons for her warped worldview. The same is true of all of these characters, but the only way to reach those levels of understanding is by not holding back on the emotional content in Lorca’s script. Thankfully, by the time we reach the end of the third act, there’s just enough grace in the production for it to land on its feet.

This production isn’t perfect, and there are various reasons for this. But, as an introduction to Lorca, Spanish/Latino theater, and The House of Bernarda Alba, it is pretty serviceable, and thus, worthy of an investigation. If watching this production increases the desire to see more of this kind of work, thereby expanding the possible palette for theater in Seattle, it can only be a good thing.

Try it, you might like it.

Through Saturday, at 7:30p.m. // Ballard Underground, 2220 NW Market Street // $15, ($50 very limited premium seating); tickets available at Brown Paper Tickets