A wisp of milky-white sand drips down from an enormous suspended breast, turning a parched Andalusian courtyard into a sort of cosmic hourglass. A woman sits sleeping near the courtyard’s center, her dream—the child she has yearned for since her marriage—standing barefoot in a soft amber glow high atop the wall behind her.
It’s an exquisite opening image, both for Federico García Lorca’s symbolic tragedy, Yerma, and for the attractive new playhouse in which the Gala Hispanic Theatre presents it. Evocatively lit by Ayun Fedorcha, and backed by the mournful cry of a violin, the stage picture suggests a Salvador Dalí canvas come to life. And with its dueling resonances of fecundity and aridity, of time passing and chimeras standing still, it promises an evening of poetic symbolism to inaugurate the 29-year-old company’s tenancy at the Tivoli.
It would be lovely to report that the rest of the performance lives up to this memory-scorching start, but while Hugo Medrano’s staging certainly has its moments, they’re not always in harmony with Lorca’s tale of barrenness and bitterness in 1930s Spain. The play’s story of Yerma—a woman driven mad by her inability to bear children in a loveless marriage—is at once a wrenching personal tragedy and a metaphor for what Lorca saw as the emotional repression of life in his country prior to the Spanish Civil War. But apart from that oversized, sand-oozing breast, Gala’s production treats it as a conventional melodrama decorated, lest it seem too downbeat, with comedy, dancing, and flashes of spectacle.
That said, Ana Veronica Muñoz certainly looks the part of the anguished title character, dressed in deep maroons and black and so consumed by the emptiness of her womb that her neighbors avoid her lest she burst into tears at the sight of their infants. The one exception is the amusingly practical mother of many boys (Miriam Cruz), who wishes she’d had just one girl to share her workload. But everyone else clearly feels there’s no sense rubbing salt in open wounds; life in their little town is chilly enough for those who don’t feel useless and ostracized. Yerma’s jealous husband (Carlos Castillo) offers little in the way of compensating warmth. Though his wife is unfailingly loyal and honorable, he orders her to stay indoors, and when she persists in walking in the moonlight to still her despair, he brings his dour, crowlike sisters into their house to shadow her every move.
Muñoz’s occasionally histrionic desolation and Lorca’s eloquently impassioned poetry render the tragic dimensions of the central character’s yearning in stark blacks and whites. But the production decorates the story’s edges with all sorts of color, not only through Alessandra D’Ovidio’s brightly hued costumes, but also with playing in secondary roles that ranges from broad to downright boisterous. The production is far less tarted up than the early-’90s debacle in which Arena Stage’s designers outlined the Andalusian hills in random Spanish phrases—but it still overdoes. Medrano uses a few lines about an annual fertility pilgrimage, for instance, to justify the creation of choreographed tableaux involving a frolicking masked devil and his wife, chattering about sex, and a somber chorus line of black-veiled, candle-holding women who march at night to a church (and behind whom lurk the town’s single men, eager to help out). There’s also a trio of stomping, swirling, utterly irrelevant flamenco dancers.
Tony Cisek’s persuasively sun-bleached, two-level ramped setting looks Mediterranean enough, but it’s used strangely. At one point, the 30-degree slope of the ramp is used to represent a river in which the local women wash their clothes, certainly an odd choice; arraying the women along the top of the wall would be less suggestive of a waterfall, but given the giant sand-breast, perhaps the company figures visual logic and verisimilitude are beside the point.
Be that as it may, the troupe’s adoption of English supertitles—and its ditching of the distracting and generally not-terribly-simultaneous headset translation it used in the past—counts as a definite boon. The dialogue is projected on a black screen suspended from the lighting grid, which allows Caridad Svich’s straightforward English phrases (“Oh what pain of blood hammers in my head”) to augment, rather than drown out, the rhythms of Lorca’s Andalusian poetry. A note to the English-only crowd: The projections are pretty high up, so you’ll want to sit relatively far back in the house, where you can take in the screen and the stage images in a single glance. Happily, the sections of the steeply raked auditorium have only between eight and 11 rows, so this is hardly a hardship.
Many of the production’s flaws are attributable to a natural desire on Gala’s part to show off its new home in as many ways as possible—with music to test its acoustics, spectacle for sightlines, and so forth. This is every bit as understandable as it is ill-advised; the auditorium, with its broad, curved seating and expansive stage, really is a handsome space. A mix of impulses nearly as varied as those that inform the production it’s housing, the playhouse achieves a nice blend of historic preservation (columns with intricate plaster detailing) and postmodernist tinkering (what looks like chain mail covering the walls). Most appealing of its many decorative flourishes is the partly refurbished, partly peeling, and ornately gilded 1920s ceiling dome that is, in the theater’s new configuration, about 30 feet closer overhead than it was in the old Tivoli Theatre. A full restoration will require a fortune that’s yet to be raised, but even now, the dome provides a glittering crown for one of the cooler theater spaces in the city.CP