Huntington's "Yerma": The Dread Barren

Ernie Pruneda, Nadine Malouf & Christian Barillas in "Yerma"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The title says it all; the definition of the word Yerma is “barren”. A 1934 play by poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca (written two years before he would be assassinated by Spanish nationalists), this has been adapted and translated by Melinda Lopez (whose own 2004 play Sonia Flew inaugurated the same Wimberly Theatre at the Calderwood Pavillion where this play is now being produced by Huntington Theatre Company, where Lopez is Playwright-in-Residence). This simple story is that of a barren woman in her village in Southern Spain where certain crops grow and graze (apples, sheep), where everything centers around an almost surreal need for water. Lopez notes that this is Lorca's least performed play, (way less than his Blood Wedding and House of Bernada Alba), primarily due to its previous poor translations (such as the awkward version by Graham-Lujan and O'Connell). As a closeted gay man living at the beginning of the rise of fascism in Spain, he desperately wanted to have children (whom he saw as conferring immortality), and could thus easily identify with what happens to a body and a soul when they can't fulfill society's expectations and, as Lopez adds, “what they think they were born to do, being denied the opportunity to be fully oneself, and perceived as in conflict with their fate.”

Nadine Malouf in "Yerma"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Lorca's life is the inspiration for his cante jundo or “deep song” about an awesome question that has no answer. Lopez's role is to preserve his story with its mystery expressed in the poetry of the play (that is, to translate) while approaching the work with the questions and techniques of contemporary playwrighting (that is, adaptation). In so doing, she notes that she is preserving the basic pathos of the unknowable, by looking, listening, and surrendering to this deep song full of love, passion, and infertility which Yerma (Nadine Malouf) must face, as she wants nothing more than to have a child and become a devoted mother. Her husband Juan (Christian Barillas) is conflicted. Yerma watches as the women of the village (unnamed characters in the original) start their own families, including Maria (Marianna Bassham), Incarnacion (Alma Cuervo), Marta (Evelyn Howe) and Veronica/Rosa Maria (Alexandra Illescas), as well as the mysterious Dolores (with Lopez herself substituting for Jacqui Parker). There is one other character, the only other male, Victor (Ernie Pruneda), who is also conflicted. In this production, there is effective support provided by a Guitarist (Juanito Pasqual) and a Percussionist (Fabio Pirozzolo). Yerma's desperation becomes an all-consuming passion as she realizes her seemingly uncontrollable fate. In Lorca's most prescient observation, Yerma ultimately questions her own value as a woman, and Lopez conveys not only her flaws but also her strength and determination. It's more of an academic exercise, though, than an involving piece of theater.

Marianna Bassham & Nadine Malouf in "Yerma"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

This reinvented tale is on view through June 30th. At 85 minutes with no intermission, it's a work to be reckoned with. Its success in the past has depended on the acting skills of the actress playing the title role, as Malouf proves yet again, backed up by remarkable acting all around. As beautifully Directed by Melia Bensussen, the creative team included movement and Choreography by Misha Shields, Scenic Design by Cameron Anderson (a bed among a field of flowers becoming more barren as the play progresses), Costume Design by Olivera Gajic, Lighting Design by Brian J. Lilienthal, Original Music by Mark Bennett, and Sound Design by Bennett and Brendan F. Doyle. There's a lot to admire and respect in this version, but the basic story still shows its three-quarters-of-a-century vintage, presenting tableaux that will most impress students of a particular tradition of writing and performing.

Ernie Pruneda & Nadine Malouf in "Yerma"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

It should be noted that the adaptation, direction, choreography, costumes, and almost the entire cast, are women. It responds to the need for more diversity in all aspects of the theater, including the community of critics. No one could speak at this point in time with more cred than Rachel Chavkin, who just this past weekend won a Tony Award as Best Director of a Musical for the innovative Hadestown (the birthplace of which was community theater!).

Herewith is her heartfelt acceptance speech: “My folks raised me with the understanding that life is a team sport. And so is walking out of hell. That’s what is at the heart of the show: It’s about whether you can keep faith when you are made to feel alone. And it reminds us that that is how power structures try to maintain control: by making you feel like you’re walking alone in the darkness, even when your partner is right there at your back. And this is why I wish I wasn’t the only woman directing a musical on Broadway this season. There are so many women who are ready to go. There are so many artists of color who are ready to go. And we need to see that racial diversity and gender diversity reflected in our critical establishment too (italics mine). This is not a pipeline issue. It is a failure of imagination by a field whose job is to imagine the way the world could be. So let’s do it.”

Si se puede.

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