Terrifying, intoxicating, brutally straight-forward and shocking, stripped to its gut-wrenching core, Federico García Lorca’s Yerma, modernized as never seen before, opens the GALA Hispanic Theatre’s 40th season. Opening night audience sat transfixed by theater as haunting as a dream; as numbing as a nightmare.
Director José Luis Arellano from Spain astonishes us with his inventiveness in staging Fernando J. López’ adaptation that reduces Lorca’s original Yerma cast of twenty-two to five main characters. The stark set design (Silvia de Marta) is sterile and suffocating, yet rich with symbolism. It is as if we are inside a surreal Salvador Dalí painting, a sealed box of corrugated tin (what could be used on a roof). Dirt is strewn across the stage apron as if from an unplowed field. Against this backdrop, Lorca’s imagistic, sublime poetry shines, illuminated, disturbing and profound.
Exposed grids for down lights framing the proscenium remind us that Lorca, who wrote Yerma in 1934, in Andalusia, Spain, about the deadening effect of conventional, arranged marriages, tried to erase the line between life and fiction. For Lorca, life all around him was theater. What’s startling is the universality in this classic play; the embedded message it has for the modern career woman who feels conflicted about motherhood. To have a child or not to have a child; to be married with or without children?
Arellano’s signature style for bringing the classics to life, so memorable in his 2010 staging of Lope de Vega’s El Caballero de Olmedo/The Knight from Olmedo, once again stirs our souls. It’s the way Arellano uses his actors’ physicality, so that we connect kinesthetically with the characters, and sense their pain in our muscles. And it is the way lighting and sound from the technical team integrate organically with the drama. Composer/sound designer Mariano Marín bombards our sense with an electronic industrial hum, monotonous and maddening, yet edifying. Every now and then, the muffled voices of children, representing Yerma’s subconscious, are piped in. Lighting designer Christopher Annas-Lee makes the surrealistic style conspicuous with four upstage rows of fluorescent light tubes, that flash on and off, timed to the action.
Most importantly, the character of Yerma has to enlist our sympathy to make the climactic ending work. Actress Mabel del Pozo, from Spain, making her debut at the GALA, delivers a juicy, tour-de-force, earthy, visceral performance, that triggers our empathy. Yerma is living a harsh existence that is a living death. The future of her identity in this society is defined by fertility. We sense her rising discontent, her agonizing deprivation, the pain of living with workaholic Juan, who allows no time for love-making. When Juan spurns Yerma, their arguments turn into physical wrestling matches in the dirt. Hands become foreshadowing symbols. Hands that are capable of loving care can become hands that destroy.
Characters are beyond human, representing universal forces. And Arellano elicits stunning performances from his ensemble of four actors. But let’s start at the beginning with Yerma’s dream. The shepherd, Victor, robustly played by Iker Lastra, appears statuesque in blood-red T-shirt and skeletal goat-head mask at the sliding door in the upstage corrugated tin wall. The Dionysian, white goat mask makes a bizarre, creepy impact. In this mysterious pantomime, a projection of Yerma’s subconscious, her repressed, instinctive passion for the shepherd, Victor, becomes clear. In Yerma’s vision, Victor hands her a doll, an effigy of a baby, that Yerma seizes and stuffs under her bright, blue dress. It’s the child she dreamed of having with the man she really loves.
Eric Robledo personifies Juan, the materialist, who fears aging, and believes children will wear him down. Ambitious, he works all night, and leaves Yerma to sleep alone. He objects to Yerma’s obsession with breeding and her restless wandering that causes gossip.
Iker Lastra, as Victor, the vigorous shepherd with the “booming voice,” sells his sheep to prospering Juan, and prepares to leave the area because of his frustrated love for Yerma. Later in Act II, Iker presents Victor as naked and groveling in the dirt. And the ancient paganism of a fertility rite comes alive. Victor crosses the stage pawing the earth and snorting like a bull in heat, wildly releasing his pent-up passion for Yerma. A magnificent bit of stage business.
Luz Nicolás, as Dolores, the conjurer, the pragmatist, advises Yerma that passion is the key to conception. She offers her son as a solution for Yerma’s childlessness. Yerma can meet him on a pilgrimage at the hermitage high in the mountains outside society.
And Natalia Miranda-Guzmán, as wistful María, who is pregnant but unsatisfied with her own cooped up existence, longs for a different form of freedom. “How much better it would be to live outdoors.” It is María who sees the sexual strain between Victor and Yerma: “A woman looking at roses isn’t the same woman looking at a man’s thighs…and you look at him.” Yet Yerma, bottles up and transfers her desires for Victor with a maternal gesture by offering Juan a glass of milk.
There are many highpoints: Juan has sex with Yerma, seated on the stainless steel table (to a jangling, harsh off-stage sound). With elated child-like enthusiasm, she runs upstage to the back wall of rutted tin, and hugs herself, as if cradling sperm for the baby she yearns to hold. It’s an unexpected action that elicited ripples of empathetic audience laughter on opening night.
Symbolism enriches the style throughout. The play starts realistically and elevates into an otherworldly landscape.. Victor tells Yerma and us, that Juan will make money, “Juan’s made of earth. And I’m made of blood…..But who is he going to leave it to when he dies? ”
Throughout, you can sense magnetism between Yerma and Victor. At one tension point, Victor utters an eerie throaty rasp, cryptic and ugly, as he says that Juan should “….dig in!” (meaning “try harder.”) to have a child. And Yerma echoes “Dig in!” like a refrain. Then Yerma delivers vintage-Lorca poetry:”Where do you come from, my child?….When, my child, will you come?” Lights change and become interactive with Yerma’s lyrical vision: “….when your flesh smells of jasmine./May branches shake at the sun/and fountains leap around me!” The net mix of the odd, the ordinary and sublime is unnerving and exquisite.
It’s the twists that keep us edgy. Arellano’s highly original, imaginative staging is startling and creates the highpoint of all highpoints. At the end of Act I, to emphasize the theme of the living death on earth in a loveless marriage, the clacking of spoons in empty china dishes creates a deadening, petrifying climax that follows us into intermission. Juan’s two strange sisters, shrouded in hooded black robes, personify hell in life, and stand at the table with their brother in his work clothes. The threesome click silver spoons in empty bowls. The repetition crescendos, like an out-of-control ticking clock of thoughts, and signifies three against one, as if to say: give in, conform, surrender, and accept a childless marriage. Yerma, overwhelmed, is slumped over at the end of the table, as if deaf to the world.
Director Arellano introduces other surprises. María and Victor at different times lean over a basin or table and pantomime vomiting, an act of denunciation, disturbing and thought-provoking. These characters reject their oppressive life with their entire beings.
So, what prevents Yerma from seizing the moment and rebelling against her society’s puritanical limits? Dolorous, the pagan sorceress, at the hermitage, a religious shrine, promises Yerma pagan fertility rites, and opportunities, including her own son. But Yerma clings to a deep sense of honor that prevents her from going outside her marriage and having a sexual liaison with another man.
The ending is as mystifying as a Dalí painting and may headline many post-show discussions. Awareness of Lorca’s famous 1922 lecture, “Deep Song/cante jondo” may help. The climax can be seen as a wild, volcanic outcry of a siguiriya, the spine-tingling shock of the gypsy “deep song,” deeper and more ancient than any flamenco cry or belting refrain from a commercial pop singer. It’s a cry for freedom, a cry of agony from pain that represents generations of women.
A woman today would walk out, find another man, or use modern medicine, and give birth to a child. Or would she? Although more liberated, women now can be sidetracked by many choices. Motherhood is only one role among many.
Lobby buzz centered on how to react to the playbill cover (designed by Christopher Shell). A woman swaddled in bagfuls of wrap, as if she’s pregnant is wrapped in plastic. Are we strangled by manufactured products? That’s all I can say without giving away the ending.
Every theater-goer with an imaginative mind should enjoy this production. Seize the moment and see it.
In Spanish with English surtitles
Yerma (Barren) by Federico Garcia Lorca . Adapted by Fernando J. López . Directed by José Luis Arellano García . Featuring Mabel del Pozo, Iker Lastra, Eric Robledo, Natalia Miranda and Luz Nicolás . Produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.
Running Time: 90 minutes with one 15 minute intermission
Highly recommended. Five Stars