Women in prison
The House of Bernarda Alba
Davis, CA 95616
The opportunity to see a play by Spanish poet Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) comes once in a blue moon hereabouts, almost always in an academic context. This playwright’s moody, poetic, tragedies call for big casts—too big for local Actors’ Equity Association companies with small venues—so we typically see Lorca at our colleges, with students in the cast.
But the current production at UC Davis is a professional effort in many ways. Visiting director Juliette Carrillo came up through Yale University and has done shows at the Mark Taper Forum and South Coast Repertory. Actress Susan-Jane Harrison (Bernarda Alba) trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and has worked professionally in London and San Francisco. Actress Bella Merlin (Maria Josepha) is a faculty artist who has worked in London and Moscow.
This handsome production also takes advantage of the technology at the UC Davis Main Theater in Wright Hall. There’s a raked platform center stage, with a trap door, used to stunning effect when characters emerge from the basement. And there’s an old-school, ostentatious curtain raising—how often do you see that these days?
Lorca’s story involves a dark, hot, airless house filled with socially isolated, frustrated women, most dressed in black for mourning. Carrillo stages it as a theatrical ritual, with a chorus of eight women, their gelled hair teased into Mohawks, who bark like dogs, blow foghorn notes on empty wine bottles, and tap sticks in a percussive manner. There are parallels to Greek tragedy, but also to Japanese drama; the distancing manner in which Carrillo handled the inevitable ending reminded me of The Love Suicides at Sonezaki.
The spare-looking—but complex—scenic design by Rose-Ann Raphael, the eye-catching costumes by Maggie Chan, and the thoughtful lighting by Kourtney Lampedecchio are all noteworthy. This is a concept show that is something to behold.
Harrison, as the icy, imperious widow Bernarda Alba, holding her entire household in a state of grim suspension, is impressive. And Merlin—playing a senile grandma—is memorable in a part that merges character aspects of both Lear and Ophelia. The relentlessly bullied daughters and maids jockey for position and advantage as they dream of escape.
The House of Bernarda Alba is dark, thoughtful, extremely well-done—and it plays through next weekend just over the causeway.