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Sixty years before American audiences were entranced by the 1992 Mexican film Like Water for Chocolate, a mystical fable about a young woman's repressed dreams, Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca wrote a trilogy of tragedies about the hopes and fears of his country's peasant classes. Shortly before he died, in 1936, at the hands of Francisco Franco's fascist troops, the visionary 38-year-old poet completed his three-play cycle by writing The House of Bernarda Alba. Banned by the Franco government, the play remained unproduced in Garcia Lorca's native Spain until 1964 (a 1945 Buenos Aires production was the official world premiere). Still, the playwright's themes about love, honor and the oppression of women have fascinated ever since.
The two-act play, small portions of which are performed in Spanish, is now on stage at El Centro Su Teatro under the inventive direction of Jennifer McCray Rincón. To her credit, Rincón combines her spare, symbolic staging with Manuel Roybal's evocative musical score to help bridge the language barrier that occasionally exists between Garcia Lorca's original and contemporary sensibilities (Rincón and Su Teatro artistic director Anthony J. Garcia collaborated to create the mostly accessible bilingual translation). And although a few scenes are lacking in weight and texture, Rincón nonetheless manages to elicit several remarkable portrayals from actresses of disparate backgrounds.
Su Teatro stalwart Yolanda Ortega-Ericksen leads the company with a compelling portrayal of the sixty-year-old widow, Bernarda. Sternly declaring to her five daughters, "Until I leave this house feet first, I will make all the decisions--mine and yours," the imperial Ortega-Ericksen has little trouble establishing command of Bernarda's aptly described "Casa de Guerra." Despite the fact that it's sometimes difficult to sympathize with Bernarda's extreme moral outlook--the matriarch leads a crowd's charge to kill a young neighbor girl who has, for fear of being ostracized, killed her newborn child--Ortega-Ericksen's solid portrait is still an impressive accomplishment for the veteran actress. She's nicely complemented by Ivette Visbal's rendering of the oldest daughter, Angustias, a 39-year-old spinster whose future brightens considerably when she learns of the unseen Pepe Romano's interest in marrying her. Visbal locates a repressed regal air within Angustias, initially wringing her hands when wondering how to behave in front of her beau, only to deliver a stinging rebuke moments later when her sister, Adela, confesses to an illicit tete-a-tete with Pepe. Lizzette Sanabria's portrayal of the youngest hija is an appropriate mixture of bottomless desire and frustrated idealism. Her character's final, wordless episode is well-staged and well-acted, and it beautifully echoes the production's mysterious prologue.
To be sure, Su Teatro's homespun version of this strangely enduring tale isn't a thoroughly polished, big-budget show. Then again, Rincón's community-style approach seems perfectly in keeping with what Garcia Lorca and a handful of university students had in mind when they teamed up to tour the provinces of Spain with their collection of saber-rattling passion plays. Except that in this case, the company's valiant attempts to expose social injustice are simple heartfelt pleas and not, as they wound up being for Garcia Lorca and his friends, an outright capital crime.
The House of Bernarda Alba, performed in English through October 31 and in Spanish from November 5 through 14 at El Centro Su Teatro, 4725 High Street, 303-296-0219.
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