Yerma achieves beauty through risk-taking

For a few hours each night this weekend, the Williamstheatre production of Yerma transformed the Mainstage of the Adams Memorial Theatre into a representation of rural Spain in the first half of the century and audiences were told a grand tale of frustration, passion and loss. This production of Federico García Lorca’s Yerma was directed by Shauna Kanter, Williamstheatre’s first guest director since James Bond, who directed The Trojan Women in 1999.

The danger that the nuances of the original will be lost always exists with plays translated out of their native tongue and removed from their cultural context by thousands of miles. However, Kanter’s Yerma was a powerful experience which translated the beauty of Yerma’s poetry into an image when the English language failed.

Lorca, who lived from 1898 to 1936, was one of the 20th century’s greatest Spanish poets and also a prodigious dramatist. Lorca completed Yerma in 1933, only a few years before being killed by a firing squad serving Franco’s Fascist government. Yerma was written as the second play of a thematically connected trilogy that included Blood Wedding and The House of Bernarda Alba.

Yerma is epic in scope and structure, following the title character for a number of years as she attempts to discover how she might conceive a child. The play’s style is heavily influenced by Greek tragedy. Yerma’s proclamatory voice and the sheer size of her character recall some of the genre’s great female protagonists, such as Medea and Clytemnestra.

The play begins with Yerma, childless after two years of marriage. Her husband, Juan, is quite content without children, and concentrates on his farm work. Yerma, who feels no love for Juan, is presented with another opportunity to conceive through the shepherd Victor. However, Yerma’s sense of honor prevents her from being unfaithful to Juan. After seeking advice from her friend Maria and an old woman, she visits a witch-doctor. After embarking on a pilgrimage to a mountain where women pray for children, she finds that the secret of the mountain is the hordes of young men who arrive to help the women conceive. Finally, presented with the sterility of her husband and the hopelessness of her situation, Yerma strangles Juan.

The title role was performed by Genevieve Sparling ’04, who managed to capture the grander arc of her character from a young teenage bride to an exhausted and frustrated older woman. Sparling’s physical portrayal of Yerma’s dilemma is noteworthy, as she alternated between feeling the pain of emptiness with arms clutched to her stomach and expressing the hope of salvation as she reached for her husband. In the final scene, Yerma’s anguish is evident in her body, which moves stiffly and sorely, devoid of hope, but not of rage.

Victor, Yerma’s potential lover, was played with a gentle touch by Alex Lees ’03, as he showed both his sensitivity to Yerma’s love and his sad acceptance of her faithfulness to her husband. Benjamin Kapnik ’05 as Juan captured the physical weakness of his character, an important element for a play such as this where the character must be believably overpowered and killed by Yerma. In the final scene, Kapnik expressed Juan’s exhaustion through his voice, turned hoarse from his constant pleading with Yerma.

In supporting roles, Becca Krass ’03 provided a foil for Sparling’s Yerma in Maria, whose quiet mixture of fear and joy from childbearing contrasted with Yerma’s desperate cries to conceive. Abigail Nessen ’05 made an impressive debut as an old woman who tries to reason with Yerma. Her scene with Yerma was in the great tradition of “comic relief” scenes in works of tragedy and presented her impressive singing voice and comic timing.

The role of Dolores, the witch doctor, was played by David Eppel, chair of the theatre department. Although the fear always exists that drag roles will be distracting in a serious production, Eppel underplayed Dolores beautifully and was entirely convincing in the role.

The casting of two Spanish department teaching associates, Patricia Rodríguez and Desirée López, was an effective choice amidst a predominantly American cast. Rodríguez stole her scene as the sexy daughter of Dolores and López spoke entirely in Spanish, which developed the texture of the washerwoman scene considerably.

For this production, Kanter chose an English translation of Yerma by Langston Hughes and W.S. Merwin, but retained the use of Spanish for some of the singing and poetry. This served both as a reminder of the specific cultural context of the play and a performance of Lorca’s beautiful words in their original form. The production demanded the audience to reconcile the disparity between the American accented speech of some actors and the Spanish accents of others. Although the effect of these differences was jarring at times, they were eventually conventionalized within the production.

The striking set was designed by Miguel Romero, who also served as a guest set designer at Williams for A Tale of Mystery in 1998. Providing a wonderful example of the combination of form and function, the set was dominated by wooden planks curving towards the sky. Two were ladders leading to observation towers, and the third stretched up and beyond the proscenium. In a dramatic transition, Yerma attempted to climb this ladder while the other women tormented her from below and the ladder was beaten like a drum from behind. As the ladder shook, Yerma hung by her hands, her small body dwarfed by both the ladder’s monstrosity and the terror of her surroundings.

Downstage center of the raked section of the stage, a pool of water was used in the washerwomen scene, where six women of the ensemble gossiped, sang, washed clothes and managed to thoroughly splash the first few rows of the audience. Later, in a nighttime scene at the house of Dolores, the pool of water was lit from below, casting a shimmering glow on the actors and the proscenium.

Striking visual moments and transitions characterized this production, and, in fact, at times, it seemed that these moments were interrupted by the dialogue-laden sections of the play. This contrast between the talky scenes and the silent and stunning transitions was not reconciled well by the production.

One incredible visual moment was created by the images of Yerma’s sisters-in-law, played by Alex Gordon ’04 and Leonie Ruhland, a German TA. With long black dresses and faces painted in white, the sisters-in-law moved like ghosts around the stage during the washerwoman scene and later as silent observers of Yerma and Juan. The mysterious quality created by this silence was shattered when they called after Yerma at the end of the first act. However, the image of these two perched like crows atop the center-stage tower as the washerwomen frolicked below is unforgettable. Deborah Brothers designed the stunning period costumes, many of which used only black and white.

The ensemble also included Heather Maki ’04 and Cyndi Wong ’04, both exhibiting their range by playing a number of roles. Michael Fluellen ’03 and Emily Bloomenthal ’05 were stunning as the Devil and The Devil’s Wife in a mountaintop dance in the last scene and Chris Vazquez ’04, as well as Fluellen and Gordon, provided percussion throughout the production.

Kanter has recently relocated to New York City after directing in London for the past several years. Some of her directing credits include After the Fall, The Children’s Hour, Orpheus Descending, Forever Plaid, You Can’t Take It With You and The Skin of Our Teeth.

Yerma’s highest achievement is the questions it leaves unanswered. The final image of the play depicts Yerma pulling a red cloth out of her dead husband’s mouth. Initially inexplicable, yet loaded with possibilities, this is the type of moment that proves directors must risk in order to create true beauty on stage.