Monday, October 13, 2008

Blog Exclusive Review: Bernarda Alba

Elizabeth Margolius' production of Michael John LaChiusa's musical Bernarda Alba at Bohemian Theatre Ensemble


Federico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba is a riveting play. A tale of rural Spain and the miserable women trapped there, it has a steadily increasing force that builds to a shocking ending. Michael John LaChiusa’s musical adaptation, called simply Bernarda Alba, currently in its Chicago premiere at Bohemian Theatre Ensemble, boasts an exceptional score and superb singers. Unfortunately, due to miscalculations on the part of both the play and the production, it fails to have a similarly potent theatrical impact.

The story focuses on Bernarda (Deanna Boyd), whose second husband has just died. She declares that, due to mourning, her five daughters will always dress in black and stay locked in the house. Angustias (Kelsey Shearer), the eldest daughter and the only one with an inheritance (as she is the child of Bernarda's first husband) is being courted by Pepe el Romano—despite the fact that she is 39 and no beauty. Though he is making a lucrative marriage, Pepe is going elsewhere for his physical satisfaction: 20-year-old Adela (Cat Davis), Bernarda's youngest daughter. When the daughters' desires go up against Bernarda's fanatical need for control, tragedy results.

The music that LaChiusa has composed is genuinely thrilling. Full of the rhythms and vocal patterns of flamenco, the songs are exciting on a deeply visceral level. The entire ten member cast and the three piece orchestra show a real comfort with the music, and the raw power is amazing. In fact, at times there is too much of that raw power for the miniscule 30-seat theatre. Music and voices like this need more room--in Bohemian's space they can become overwhelming. Still, from a purely musical perspective, the show is a great success.

It is from a theatrical angle that it is problematic. Some of the miscalculations belong to LaChiusa. Primarily, he has taken a play that is highly realistic in style and changed the focus. He has emphasized the original's implicit sexuality and taken the few moments of poetry and expanded them into lengthy arias. The problem with this approach is that it takes a tight, tense play and turns it into a poetic, sensual meditation, sapping the play's dramatic tension. And without that relentless forward motion, the play just sits there--often interesting, but never grabbing the audience.

The production amplifies these script problems with a few of its own. The first is the size of the space--the cast barely fits on the stage, and with most of them onstage whether or not they are in the scene, director Elizabeth Margolius hardly has room to stage the play. There are also a few odd casting decisions: while Shearer brings her character to compelling life she looks virtually the same age as Davis--bizarre as Angustias is nearly twice Adela's age. Also, Martirio (Lisa Liaromatis) the second youngest daughter, is frequently described as crippled and ugly due to illness--yet in this production she has nothing more than severely pulled-back hair to distinguish her from her able-bodied sisters. The sisters' relationships lack the clarity and definition that they have in the original, and it damages the drama.

So in the end, we are left with a really fascinating score in a play that is at best imperfect. The choice of whether to go depends on your interest in audacious new musicals. If you need a show that works perfectly, it may not be the best use of your time, but if the risk and amazing music excite you, then it is worth a visit.

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