Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of A Doll's House, Part 2
LaChiusa's haunting score musicalizes García Lorca's story of a family in an oppressive state of mourning after the death of Antonio Alba, under the unyielding grip and glaring eyes of his widow, Bernarda Alba. LaChiusa retains García Lorca's dark atmosphere, where emotions run to the extreme and any action seems likely to trigger calamity. Bernarda knows Antonio was a philander who betrayed her throughout their marriage, and is obsessed with preserving her family's dignity, living in perpetual fear of rumors and spying neighbors. That family comprises five unmarried daughters and Bernarda's aged mother, Maria Josepha. Loyal housekeeper Poncia is also part of the household, though plainly lacking the stature of the blood family.
For the family to uphold its dignity, all five daughters must marry honorably, but Bernarda keeps them so secluded from the world, their chances of making such matches are faint, while their desires to break out of their fortress-like house ever surge, leading to frustrations the daughters take out on one another. The oldest, Angustias, is the child of Bernarda's first husband. She is wealthier than her sistersher deceased father, unlike the near-do-well Antonio, left a substantial inheritance to his daughter. Angustias does have a marriage offer from a beautiful younger man, Pepe de Romano, though is clear to all but Angustias that Pepe only wants to marry her for the money.
Youngest daughter Adela, defying both her mother's dictums and sisterly boundaries, makes brash overtures to Pepe through her window. It turns out middle sister Martirio has long yearned for Pepe, but holds no hope of him returning her ardor, as she is sickly and considered ugly. While sisters Magdalena and Amelia try to keep peace among the three whose passions place them at crosshairs, Bernarda Alba fiercely stifles any expression of their feelings, only further stoking their pent-up desires. All the while, in contrast to the black mourning clothes the other women wear, Maria Josepha totters about in a rumpled white gown, crying out to her daughter Bernarda that she wants to marry, as if the only exit from this stifling existence, even in one's dotage, is at the hand of a man. Only Poncia speaks truth to Bernarda, but her insights go heeded.
As in García Lorca's play, all the characters on stage are women. Men who figure into the story are depicted symbolically, such as a shirt and hat propped up on a ladderback chair. Their presence is very much felt, not as characters with their own stories, but as catalysts for the torments lived by these women. Director Crystal Manich has a wealth of experience staging operas, and in many ways Bernarda Alba fits the mold of an opera, with only brief spoken texts between musical sequences and the infusion of intense emotion into the score. That emotion stems both from its poetic lyrics as well as its multi-textured music, ranging from the uncoiling vigor of the toreador's whip, to dreamlike melodies that float above the stony harshness of the house. Manich's hand in bringing this difficult work to life is evident throughout, never allowing a moment undraped in emotional valence.
Beautiful as is LaChiusa's inventive score and well considered as the production is, this is a challenging piece of musical theater, given its heavy air of foreboding and suppression. What makes it a soaring experience are the wonderful performances, starting with Regina Marie Williams as a Bernarda Alba who scolds her way through life, pumping her walking stick on the ground to assert dominion. Williams' smokey voice infuses "Bernarda's Prayer" and other songs with a sense of perpetual grievance, and she whips "Lambrada's Daughter" into an unforgiving sermon. On the heels of a tragedy that is largely of her doing, she delivers Bernarda's closing line with a chilling conviction that is stunning.
Kate Beahen conveys Angustias' arrogance, Stephanie Bertumen completely inhabits Adela's impetuous egotism, and Meghan Kreidler is unyieldingly morose as Martirio, managing to use the force of her anger to convince us that the radiant Kreidler is the sickly and ugly middle child. Each of the daughters has her own musical piece that delves into her inner life, with Britta Ollmann Amelia appealing consigning herself to an innocent nature unlike her sisters. Kim Kivens finds humor in aged Maria Josepha, but delivers a melancholic "Let Me Go to the Sea" and a rare touch of tenderness in "Lullaby." Aimee K. Bryant, as always, is a powerful presence as Poncia, the outsider who sees through the guise of the Alba clan.
Evocative choreography by Kelli Foster Warder creates a stream of stunning stage images, drawing on traditional Spanish dance. Sometimes the dance pushes inward in with the force of stomping feet, other times with lightness, affording the suffocating strife in this family of women a moment of grace. The uses of flashing fans, fringed shawls, and in one sequence a flowing white cloth, offer visual style. Jason Hansen directs the band, offering a superb treatment of LaChiusa's undulating score, which is far more engaging in production than when heard on compact disc.
The design elements are extraordinary, with a beautiful set designed by Kate Sutton-Johnson that provides the illusion of a traditional Spanish mission home encased in a cage. Alice Fredrickson's costumes for Bernarda and her daughters are elegant and extravagantly detailed, beautiful and constraining, while a green dress that represents Adela's grasp for liberation is as light as air. The wig (by Paul Bigot) worn by Bernarda is a silver-haired helmet, as befits the clan's commander in-chief. Mary Shabatura's lighting exquisitely details variations in degrees of gloom, while Kevin Springer provides an essential soundscape with menacing winds, animal straining at their ropes, and the very walls of the house shaking.
Theater Latté Da has invested an abundance of care in mounting Bernarda Alba, attending to excellence in every aspect of the production. It is visually stunning, replete with powerful performances delivering an emotionally rich score. All of these are reasons to give Bernarda Alba a place on your must-see list.
The narrative at the heart of all this superb work, however, might knock a few points off that placement. For all of the work so beautifully executed, and the intensity which García Lora and LaChiusa have kneaded into this story, it is unflinchingly grim, and one might feel a desire to make a fast retreat from Bernarda and her family. Relishing the splendid elements of this production is easy. Relishing its underlying meaning is quite a stretch.
Bernarda Alba runs through February 3, 2020, at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: Dynamic pricing, $35.00 - $53.00, student and educator rush tickets, $15.00, subject to availability one hour before curtain, two tickets per ID; Actors Equity Association, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, and Twin Cities Musicians Union members, $20.00, two tickets per membership card. For tickets and information, call 612-339-3303 or visit theaterlatteda.com.
Words and Music: Michael John LaChiusa, based on the play The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico García Lorca; Director: Crystal Manich; Music Director: Jason Hansen; Choreographer: Kelli Foster Warder; Assistant Director: Jillian Robertson; Scenic Design: Kate Sutton-Johnson; Costume Design: Alice Fredrickson; Lighting Design: Mary Shabatura; Sound Design: Kevin Springer; Hair, Makeup and Wig Design: Paul Bigot; Properties Master: Abbee Warmboe; Dramaturg: Elissa Adams; Production Director: Allen Weeks; Production Stage Manager: Tiffany K. Orr; Assistant Stage Manager: Rachael Rhoades; Technical Director: Bethany Reinfeld.
Cast: Kate Beahen (Angustias), Stephanie Bertumen (Adela), Aimee K. Bryant (Poncia), Haley Haupt (Young Maid), Kim Kivens (Maria Josepha), Meghan Kreidler (Martirio), Nora Montañez (Magdalena), Sara Ochs (servant/Prudencia), Britta Ollmann (Amelia), Regina Marie Williams (Bernarda Alba).