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Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

The House of Bernarda Alba

Federico Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba, in a new adaptation by Chay Yew, is a play about oppression and repression. Chita Rivera plays Bernarda Alba, a woman who, upon returning home from her husband's funeral, calmly announces to her five adult daughters that they will now mourn their father by locking themselves in the house for eight years. Bernarda does not so sentence her children out of an uncontrollable grief at the loss of her husband. She simply orders them to remain in their house for nearly a decade because that is what is done; after all, the neighbors are watching. And so, the play is not about a crazy woman so torn apart by her husband's death that she unintentionally destroys the lives of her children. It is, instead, the story of a woman who calculatedly forces her daughters to give up any chance at love or happiness because she believes duty and appearances require it.

The forced seclusion is hardest for twenty-year-old Adela to accept. Bernarda's older daughters have, to varying degrees, already internalized Bernarda's teachings that they are ugly and will only be married for their money, so they feel they have little to lose. Adela still believes she is beautiful and capable of being loved. Sandra Oh's Adela flits around the stage, unable to take to her prison. She alternates between nearly taking flight in joy at the pleasures of youth, and viciously lashing out at anyone who threatens to deny them to her. It is somewhat gratifying to see Adela cruelly taunting her sisters or speaking nastily to the servants. Too often, young women who are mistreated are portrayed as kindhearted Cinderellas who never have a harsh word for anyone. Full credit to Lorca and Yew for creating a victim who isn't always sugary sweet, and to Oh for breathing fire into her.

For all of its concern with weighty subjects, the production at the Taper is not nearly as dark as one might expect. Most of its best laughs are provided by the character of Poncia, a servant who has worked for Bernarda for thirty years and attempts to warn Bernarda of the trouble brewing in her house. Camille Saviola plays the bawdy, honest, and wise servant perfectly; it is surprising her credits do not include a stint as Juliet's Nurse. Captivating when she tells the girls about falling in lust with her husband, gentle and practical when she tries to soothe a broken heart, not overly presumptuous when she attempts to advise the lady of the house - Saviola inhabits this part as though she was born to it.

The set, by Rachel Hauck, is teeming with symbolism. The stage is Bernarda's bare white stone courtyard, surrounded on three sides by patches of sand or gravel. But the sand is bright red, representing not only earth, but blood and passion. When an outsider accidentally tracks some of the sand into Bernarda's pristine courtyard, her servants immediately clean it -- there is no place for nature, emotion, or even color in the house of Bernarda Alba. Lisa Peterson's direction inserts some stylized moments which serve to heighten the play's intensity. At one point, when Bernarda's daughters have a meal, they operate their silverware in a controlled rhythm. At another time, they quickly alternate their lines, as though they are not speaking thoughts that have naturally come into their heads, but rather are reciting poetry together. Sometimes, a chorus of women, all dressed in black, observes the proceedings. All of these elements, as well as the background music (provided by the only man in the company, Annas Allaf), emphasize the isolation of Bernarda's daughters, and the complete control exerted over their lives and minds by their mother. At the same time, the unreality of the production and the multi-racial casting of the Alba family add to the universality of the play's themes. This is not simply the story of a single Spanish family in 1936; it is the story of any woman whose internalization of her culture's rules results in her oppression of other women, any parent whose overprotectiveness threatens to destroy her children, and any society whose laws stifle the human nature of its citizens.

That the play does not end joyfully is to be expected. One look at the straightbacked Bernarda and it is clear that she will never yield. But the intermissionless evening is so smoothly paced - quickly moving toward its conclusion while simultaneously creating memorable images - that the play's resolution is captivating despite being somewhat predictable.

The House of Bernarda Alba plays at the Mark Taper Forum through September 1, 2002. For tickets and information, call 213-628-2772 or click

Center Theatre Group/Music Center of Los Angeles County, Mark Taper Forum; Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director; Robert Egan, Producing Director presents The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico Garcia Lorca, in a new adaptation by Chay Yew, Directed by Lissa Peterson. Set Design by Rachel Hauck; Costume Design by Joyce Kim Lee; Lighting Design by Christopher Akerlind; Original Music and Sound Design by Mark Bennett; Hair and Wig Design by Carol F. Doran; Casting by Amy Lieberman, CSA; Production Stage Manager Mary K Klinger; Stage Manager Robin Veith.

Tsai Chin - Maria Josefa
Shaheen Vaaz - Blanca
Camille Saviola - Poncia
Christine Avila - Beggar Woman
Adrianne Avey - Girl
Chita Rivera - Bernarda Alba
Sandra Oh - Adela
Lydia Look - Amelia
Rita Wolf - Martirio
Eileen Galindo - Magdalena
Marissa Chibas - Angustias
Jeanne Sakata - Prudencia
Christine Avila, Aixa Clemente, Jeanne Sakata, Karen Huie, Adrianne Avey, Carla Jimenez, Anita Dashiell - Village Women
Annas Allaf - Guitar and Oud

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- Sharon Perlmutter

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