Actors Bridge Ensemble's ongoing affiliation with Belmont University's Department of Theatre and Dance affords the highly respected company some enviable benefits. For example, access to two wonderful performing spaces on the Belmont campus, not to mention creative and technical assistance from Belmont-affiliated faculty and students.
More specifically, department chair Paul Gatrell is a gifted set designer, and in the case of the new collaborative production of The House of Bernarda Alba, he has mounted a stellar replica of an Andalusian casa, its walls bedecked with crucifixes and rosaries — a vivid exemplar of the play's time, place and culture.
Federico García Lorca's 1930s drama certainly has room to breathe on Gatrell's set-building masterwork, and that's no mean feat given the psychosexual suffocation that's happening in this compelling opus about a Spanish family in extremis.
A recently widowed matron named Bernarda Alba imposes a bizarre post-funeral restriction on her five daughters (ages 20 to 39), requiring their eight-year abstinence from relations with men. The one exception is eldest daughter Angustias, whose father was Bernarda's first husband, and who has already inherited a serious fortune. Angustias is betrothed to the young, handsome and — given that he never appears onstage — practically mythical Pepe el Romano.
In fact, no men appear onstage in this interesting collision of female authoritarianism and rebellion — likely the earliest play to feature the line, "It's my body and I'll do what I want with it." Meanwhile, the four less fortunate sisters being reined in by Mommie Dearest must endure her bitterness, arrogance, condescension and predilection for enforcing her dictum with cane and whip.
Suffice to say that jealousy, self-interest and infighting become rampant among nearly all the women, and there is little humor to this depressing — if animated — saga. While the ultimate source of repression here springs from the codes of male socioreligious domination, it's the women who abuse each other — both verbally and physically — and ensure each other's personal misery.
The play's interesting roles are many, not least the daughters, plucked by director Jessika Malone from the Belmont talent pool. While their inexperience is perceptible, Adrienne Hall, Kyla Lowder and Natalie Thompson do reasonably well as the major siblings in the story. Thompson draws the most attention as Adela, the youngest, who is romancing the coveted Pepe on the side and has her own ideas about her future (which don't include abstinence). Thompson has a model-like presence, and works her role's aggression and spiritedness to satisfying results.
Among the more experienced, non-student older actors, Diana Holland puts in a couple of cameo appearances as the senile grandmother Maria Josepha; she's colorfully eccentric but symbolically vague. In another virtual walk-through is Kelly Lapczynski as Prudencia, Bernarda's dinner guest. Rachel Agee is Poncia, the opinionated housekeeper, a role well suited to her sardonic tendencies.
In her first stage appearance in some time, Actors Bridge producing director Vali Forrister plays the matriarch Bernarda. Forrister is well cast as the misguided, hell-bent harridan wreaking emotional havoc with everyone in her household. Her confrontations are generally characterized by the appropriate menace, though sometimes the accompanying fight choreography could be more convincing.
There's also an extra suspension of disbelief needed here, since Forrister clearly doesn't look 60, Bernarda's scripted age. Nor for that matter do the actors playing her older daughters look to be well into their 30s.
As a visual fillip, director Malone enlists some shadow-puppetry from Matt Sandbank, whose scenarios are projected against the far upstage wall of the casa. They help illustrate some of the tale, and provide a creative folk-art-style diversion.
Before the opening curtain goes up, there is some delightful Spanish guitar music, performed live by Christian Maxfield Welshinger.
Bernarda Alba is an intriguing play, and one that is rarely staged. Though this particular production is uneven, both in direction and performances, it's worthy fare for Nashville theatergoers.
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