New Adaptation Puts a Contemporary Spin on an 80-year-old Classic
Can a septuagenarian and a teenager both enjoy an 80-year-old play?
That’s what we set out to learn at Saturday’s night’s world premiere of Yerma, Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1934 tragedy that kicks off ¡Viva los 40!, the 40th anniversary season of GALA Hispanic Theatre.
The answer, we’re happy to report, is a resounding “yes,” thanks to a combination of stunning performances in a play that is brilliantly directed and staged. Underlying it all is an adaptation that makes the play as timeless and contemporary as if it were written today.
The adaptation, written by Spanish playwright Fernando J. López in just seven months, consists largely of a reduction in cast from the original 24 to the five characters whose story this is.
Yet the play remains faithful to Lorca’s original. Both the spoken Spanish and the English translations—which are easy to read on large screens mounted above the stage—are verbatim from the text.
Set in a rural outpost of Spain, the story is stark in its simplicity. Yerma, whose name means “barren,” is married off to a stranger, someone she barely knows but welcomes into her bed.
But Juan is a farmer who cares more about his crops than having children. The arranged marriage turns slowly toxic as Juan ignores Yerma’s desperation for a child. She complains endlessly to her friend Maria, who reminds her—to no avail—that having children can produce suffering too.
Although tempted by Victor, a lusty childhood friend who might have made a better husband, and encouraged by Delores, a cheerfully wanton woman who urges Yerma to escape, the sadly ‘barren woman’ of the title cannot break the chains of honor and religion.
The actors are amazingly good. Yerma is played with radiance–superseded by ferocity and hatred—by Spanish star Mabel del Pozo, who, in addition to stage and screen roles, currently plays the lead in a popular television series.
Victor, the friend and would-be lover, is played by Iker Lastra, who brings a demonic frenzy to the role. Lastra, who co-starred with del Pozo in another Spanish television series, has performed in more than 30 theater, television and film productions.
Eric Robledo plays the role of Juan, changing, before our eyes, from a fairly likeable though materialistic young man to a suspicious husband, ordering his wife to stay home. Originally from Mexico, he now lives in New York.
Maria, the most docile-seeming of the five, is played with quiet dignity and control by Chilean actor Natalia Miranda-Guzmán. Dolores, the outcast who tries to shake things up, is gloriously portrayed by a laughing Luz Nicolás, who is originally from Spain. Both now live in the DC area and appear regularly in GALA productions.
Despite their different nationalities—Spain, Mexico, Chile—the actors’ Spanish accents did not set them apart as much as their characters. The group worked seamlessly as an ensemble.
Much of the credit for Yerma goes to the brilliance interface of its direction, staging, costume, lighting and sound design. It’s hard to tell sometimes where one ends and the others begin, since they all complement each other and underscore the ironies of the play.
For example: Dolores—the brazen woman with her scarlet dress and bottle of whiskey—is actually the voice of reason. Her plea to Yerma—“Just leave, Go to the man you love, the man who can give you children”—is a contradiction to the laws of church and society.
The two sisters—whom Juan sends for in order to spy on Yerma—are shrouded in black. They are lifeless, terrifying forms that hover, but never speak or laugh. Guardians of morality and symbols of death, they bear an unmistakable resemblance to women in burkas.
A single set by Silvia de Marta (who also is the Costume Designer)—consisting of corrugated metal walls, surrounding a sink, a table and chairs—serves variously as the interior of a prison-like home, a farm where Juan endlessly tills the soil, the village square, a cemetery and the bizarre clinic-like temple to a demonic saint.
The river of soil that stretches across the stage symbolizes both the fertility of earth and the barrenness of the grave. In fact, when Juan adds buckets of soil to the growing mound, it is much like someone tossing earth onto a corpse.
A large cross dominates the set, reminding us of the power of religion in countries like Franco Spain and much of the Middle East today. A gay man who dared to defy the Catholic Church, Lorca was murdered by the fascists at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. He was 38 years old.
Dramatic changes in lighting transform the set. A silver light turns the walls to steel, symbolizing the sterility of the marriage and the unyielding nature of Juan’s treatment of Yerma, while gold creates the illusion of intimacy and love. Christopher Annas-Lee’s Lighting Design also contributes to a terrifying moment in a cemetery, as flashing lights, then darkness, warn of terrible things ahead.
Mariano Marin’s Sound Design (who is also the composer of the score) plays a similar role. The percussive beat of utensils on bowls is like drums in a forest, the only form of communication between Juan and his sisters.
As in medieval drama, the male characters occasionally don masks. The lusty Victor emerges as a with horns, while the godly Juan comes forth with the head of a lamb.
Silvia de Marta’s costumes spell out the characters for us. Delores, happily dishonored, wears red, while Yerma begins with blue, for the water that signifies life, and then shifts to white, for purity.
José Luis Arellano García, an acclaimed stage and television director from Madrid, is responsible for the overall direction of Yerma. This is his fourth play at GALA.
In an interview with Joel Markowitz on DCMetroTheaterArts, Co-Founder & Producing Artistic Director Hugo Medrano urged non-Spanish-speaking audiences to forget their ignorance of the language and simply focus on the raw emotions of the actors.
We had no trouble doing exactly that. While one of us is fluent in Spanish, the other is not. The one who could not understand the spoken words was as mesmerized as the other. Both of us found the screens easy to read and used them to confirm what we sensed from the sound and gestures of the performers.
This is theatre as it is meant to be.
YERMA plays from September 10-October 4, 2015 at GALA Hispanic Theatre – 3333 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 234-7174, or purchase them online. Here are directions. Yerma will be performed in Spanish with English on-screen translations.
The review is written by Ravelle Brickman and her granddaughter Eva.