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“Every woman lives as she’s allowed,” says Dolores to Yerma, the title character in Fernando J. López’ new adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s play about the lives of women in rural Spain a century ago. It’s a line that isn’t in the original, and, like this adaptation, it’s a bit on the nose. Yerma was part of Lorca’s Rural Trilogy, which dealt with the oppressive religious customs of his native Andalusia, seen mostly through the eyes of women. As social commentary, it was provocative enough to raise the ire of the fascists: They eventually murdered him.
Lorca was, however, a poet first and a playwright second, so Yerma is harshly critical but also a bit oblique, filled with poetic monologues and metaphors and pagan imagery, references to water and sand and flowers and so on. López reduces the play to the five main characters and seeks to distill their personalities into a single mood, which is intensity. And in this debut production by GALA, directed by José Luis Arellano García, they convey this mostly by yelling.
When Yerma tells her husband she wants a baby, she’s yelling. When her husband expresses indifference, he’s yelling. When she flirts with another man, they yell. When her friend has doubts about her pregnancy, she yells, too. There’s also fucking, and characters rolling around in dirt, often while yelling and sometimes naked. The dirt is a peculiar addition to a set design involving corrugated metal sliding doors, a metal table, a washtub, and fluorescent light tubes, which makes Lorca’s 1930s rural Spain resemble the set of Iron Chef America.
There’s some logic to all this. “Men are of the earth,” the folk sorceress Dolores states. But if the symbolism is guaranteed not to be lost on you, some of the complexities of Lorca’s protagonists—Yerma above all—will be.
The central character, whose name means “barren” in old Spanish, is a young wife unable to have children in a society where a childless woman is considered less-than. She grows envious of her pregnant friend, then depressed, then desperate. She rages against the village gossips; society as a whole; and ultimately, her husband, in a violent manner. Yet she never acts on her temptation (personified by hunky acquaintance Victor) to leave her loveless marriage—she’s obsessed with honor. It’s a concept that imprisons her as she embraces it, defiantly against Dolores’ entreaties to take Victor’s bait. This willfully submissive side to Yerma is almost buried here under all that yelling. In showing Yerma’s attempts to conceive (she initiates very explicitly staged sex, then contorts herself to induce pregnancy), López gives her more agency than women were afforded in Lorca’s day, when a child was considered a gift from God.
As Yerma, Spanish actress Mabel del Pozo pours her guts out, an impressive display that would come across as over-the-top were the supporting characters not equally emotive. The male characters—Eric Robledo as Yerma’s husband Juan and Iker Lastra as Victor—don’t come off as well, mostly because the histrionics don’t fit what are really quite bland roles. Better are the supporting female characters, GALA regulars Natalia Miranda-Guzmán as Yerma’s friend María and the always-terrific Luz Nicolás, as the most interesting character, the beguiling pagan witch Dolores.
Though they don’t really pay off, GALA takes some bold risks with this staging: It’s a colder, bleaker, less folksy, and more industrial take on Lorca’s meditation on patriarchy and duty. Yerma was undeniably dark, but that darkness was leavened with Lorca’s lyricism, and his multifaceted characters. López and Arellano García downplay everything else in favor of tension, which is cranked up to 11 from the very beginning. This production wants to leave you drained; it succeeds, though it drains away Lorca’s poetic expression as well.
Spanish with English surtitles. 3333 14th St. NW. $20–$42. (202) 234-7174. galatheatre.org.