Stage Door Review

The House of Bernarda Alba

Thursday, April 14, 2022

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by Federico García Lorca, translated by David Johnston, directed by Soheil Parsa

Aluna Theatre & Moden Times Stage Company, Yonge Centre, Distillery District, Toronto

April 14-May 15, 2022

Bernarda: “Needle and thread for women, horse and whip for men”

After a narrow diet only of contemporary plays so far this year, it’s a great comfort to see a classic drama like Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba (written 1936) and to regain the perspective that hopelessness, repression and an urge for change are not solely modern concerns. Knowing the past helps us see the present more clearly. García Lorca’s critique of authoritarianism may focus on one family in small village in Andalusia in the 1930s but it has enough resonance to have inspired productions and films in the past 30 years in such different places as India, Morocco and the Philippines. Ontario last saw a professional production of the play in 2002 when it was staged by the Shaw Festival under the direction of Tadeusz Bradecki.

The story concerns the matriarch Bernarda Alba and her five daughters. The family return home after the funeral of Bernarda’s husband, the father of four of Bernarda’s daughters and of another, the eldest, by his first wife, the only daughter to have her own money.

Through her life Bernarda's hatred of men has impelled her make sure none of her daughters has contact with any man, much less marry, lest they bring disgrace on the family. Now she imposes on them the same eight-year period of mourning that her mother imposed on her.  Having rank without wealth she seeks to preserve her family's honour at the cost of stifling her daughters' lives. To maintain order and to fulfill what she sees as her duty, she, the matriarch, paradoxically imposes the rules of a patriarchal system on her daughters and a hierarchical system on her two female servants.

Uncannily like present-day dictators, Bernarda Alba evinces an unswerving allegiance to the past and its strict definition of gender roles. As she says, “Needle and thread for women, horse and whip for men”. Women speak to a man only when spoken to. They look at a man only if he looks at them first. Duty, loyalty and obedience are the only virtues she values in those who she considers beneath her, which includes all five daughters and her servants and most of the village. When a woman in the village has a child out of wedlock and its body is found by dogs, Bernarda urges the villagers on as they torture and kill her. From Bernarda’s point of view the woman has brought shame on her and her family and thus deserves to die.

García Lorca’s portrait of authoritarianism made be the pride and ruthlessness of Bernarda Alba, but his critique is the fact that maintaining such iron-fisted control over human beings, as over nature in general, is doomed to failure. The play demonstrates how Bernarda’s forced cloistering of her daughters away from men has only engendered a fierce longing for what they have been forbidden, especially now when four of the five are aged 20 to 39. It concern Bernarda not one bit that eight years of isolation will place all of these women beyond a marriageable age.

Bernarda’s second youngest daughter Adela had been courted by a man, whom we never see, named Pepe el Romano. Bernarda forbade that relationship. Now Pepe has turned his attentions to Angustias, who not only has her own money but has been made her father’s sole heir. Bernarda encourages this because Angustias is already 39 and she will be glad to have someone she thinks of as an outsider out of the house.

Bernarda, however, is unaware that at night Pepe comes not only to woo Angustias, only for her money as everybody but Angustias says, but still sees Adela. This situation has made imprisonment in the house almost intolerable not just for Adela, but for her sister Martirio, who also loves Pepe and is jealous of the attention he pays Adela. García Lorca writes in the style of poetic realism so there is much imagery about about the futility of human rules trying to contain nature. A stallion that Bernarda hopes to breed stamps against the house wall enraged at being kept in a stall. Bernarda’s maid La Poncia tells her, “There is a storm brewing in every room in this house”, an idea Bernarda disregards. And a storm does indeed break out.

The play is is incisively directed by Soheil Parsa and powerfully acted. Bernarda Alba is magnificently embodied by Beatriz Pizano, who seems to have been working towards this peak role her whole career. Pizano keeps Bernarda’s face frozen in an expression of anger and disdain. Her outward composure suggests bottled-up fury that can burst out at the slightest provocation. Pizano exudes such dominance as Bernarda we can see why everyone fears to cross her. In the Shaw Festival production of 2002, director Tadeusz Bradecki suggested at the end that Bernarda can no longer maintain the façade of absolute control she has cultivated. Here, Soheil Parsa presents a bleaker view in showing us that Bernarda is barely affected by the tragedy that her actions have caused and, like so many tyrants, readily concocts a story to make sure her status is not endangered.

The cast is made up of actors of diverse backgrounds, a decision that helps to universalize the action. García Lorca subtitled the play as a “Drama de mujeres en los pueblos de España”. Here the play shines as a “drama” to all victims of repressive regimes.

One of the best moves is to cast Rhoma Spencer as Bernard’s maid La Poncia, a woman just as old as Bernarda, who has worked for her for 30 years. The relationship between these two women is one of the most fascinating in the play. To have La Poncia played by a woman who is Afro-Caribbean adds another dynamic to their interactions. Now when Bernard insults La Poncia birth, it reveals Bernarda as both a classist and a racist.

Yet, La Poncia supports Bernarda because she, La Poncia, knows more about what is happening in the house than does Bernarda and La Poncia tries in vain to advise Bernarda what to do. Bernarda shuns all of La Poncia’s advice, saying she is a mere employee, but Bernarda also depends on La Poncia to learn the gossip both inside and outside the house. Spencer lends warmth and self-knowledge that set her apart from all the other women in the play. Spencer shows that La Poncia is someone who, if fate allowed, could prove that the household need not be ruled by fear.

Bernarda’s three rebellious daughters are well differentiated by the actors who play them. Angustias is said to be 39 in the text, 42 in the production, and thinks herself superior to her half-sisters since she has her own money and inherits all their father’s wealth. Lara Arabian give Angustias a haughty air, but she shows it is undercut by the fear she won’t acknowledge publicly that Pepe is in love with her money not with her. Arabian always gives Angustias the tortured look of someone who is unsuccessfully trying to deceive herself.

Nyiri Karakas also gives the 20-year-old Adela an air of superiority because she is the only one who knows she is loved by a man, even if that man is forbidden to her. Karakas shows how Adela revels in this fact and flaunts it in the faces of her sisters despite Bernarda’s disapproval. Adela could be said to be the only sister to experience joy, although it is a joy tinged with cruelty.

The worst-off of the three is the 24-year-old Martirio, played with fiery passion by Liz Der. Almost more than Adela of whom she is insanely jealous, Martirio seethes with an emotion she can barely control. She see both Adela and Angustias as her enemies since they at least receive Pepe’s attentions whereas she loves him and is ignored. Der’s portrait of Martirio is of a young women rapidly being consumed from inside.

Bernarda’s other two daughters confine their rebellion to words spoken in secret about their sisters and mother. Monica Rodriguez Knox well captures the cynicism of the 30-year-old Magdalena, as if comfortable in the knowledge that she will take over her mother’s position once Bernarda dies. As the 27-year-old Amelia, Theresa Cutknife looks so young I mistook her as the youngest of the five. Cutknife portrays Amelia as the daughter most affected by Bernarda’s strictness which has made her become meek and constantly fearful.

Soo Garay is excellent in her three very different roles as the Maid, the family’s only visitor Prudencia and Bernarda’s 80-year-old mother María Josefa. Garay shows how the maid naturally gravitates to la Poncia as someone with whom she can speak the truth. Unlike La Poncia the maid fears Bernarda and will play the hypocrite to avoid censure. Garay’s Prudencia is a delightful character, one example that not all women of Bernarda’s social class are as full of pride as Bernarda.

María Josefa is a character we only heard off-stage until near the end. Of all the women in the house Bernarda puts her under the strictest confinement. She has gone mad and therefore the neighbours can’t have the chance to see her. Even in her room, Bernarda will have La Poncia put a bag over her head to keep her quiet. When we do see her, she wanders across the back of the set in a worn wedding gown saying she will marry a young man and live by the sea. We can only wonder whether this frightening portrait is a picture of what Bernarda’s daughters will become if Bernarda prevents their desires from being fulfilled.

García Lorca’s style of poetic realism is well served by the production. Trevor Schwellnus has created an empty set bounded by banners painted with vaguely religious symbols. In this empty space he deploys a wide range of non-naturalistic lighting effects from pinspots on speakers to backlighting the whole stage in order to emphasize the eerie atmosphere of Bernarda’s house.

Similarly, sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne has created a non-naturalistic soundscape that heightens sounds of symbolic value such as the clang of the funeral bells that are driving the Maid mad or the thrashing of the penned stallion. He also conjures up the crowds of people outside whom we never see, such as the farmhands coming in to do the harvesting and singing as they work or the villagers tormenting the woman who had a child out of wedlock.

When Bernarda’s daughters and La Poncia hear the men outside at work, they start to sing along in a magical moment, wishing they too could be outdoors working even under the hot sun rather than being confined in darkness indoors. The tyrannic repression of individual expression, thwarting of human desires and denial of physical and creative freedom in the name of tradition is all summed up in García Lorca’s portrait of the house the Bernarda Alba. García Lorca intended to make a “documental fotográfico” of a particular time and place. He succeeds in making a chilling poetic account of authoritarian conditions that exist all over the world and that some would like to impose in once free countries in Europe and North America. See the play for the beauty of its acting, direction and production, but also see it as an early insight into the threat and ultimate futility of totalitarian control.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Lara Arabian as Angustias, Liz Der as Martirio, Rhoma Spencer as La Poncia, Beatriz Pizano as Bernarda, Theresa Cutknife as Amelia, Monica Rodriguez Knox as Magdalena and Nyiri Karakas as Adela; Beatriz Pizano as Bernarda Alba; Rhoma Spencer as La Poncia; Nyiri Karakas as Adela, Rhoma Spencer as La Poncia, Monica Rodriguez Knox as Magdalena, Liz Der as Martirio, Lara Arabian as Angustias, Theresa Cutknife as Amelia and Beatriz Pizano as Bernarda. © 2022 John Lauener.

For tickets visit buddiesinbadtimes.com.