Stomp and circumstance 

Passionate flamenco and a solid cast give voice to the oppressed in freeFall’s Bernarda Alba.

In Michael John LaChuisa’s musical adaptation of The House of Bernarda Alba, flamenco not only adds ethnically correct flourish; its heart-stopping stomps convey the desires of the oppressed. Based on the final play by Federico García Lorca, Bernarda Alba reaches beyond its setting of Andalusía, where flamenco originated, to create a portrait of the ruling class by way of an all-female household mired in religious and societal hypocrisies.

When approaching Lorca’s story of a tyrannical widow and her five daughters, it may help to know the context. The play was published in 1936, just two months before he was murdered by Franco’s henchmen; it resonates with the playwright’s own desperation, persecuted for being a socialist and, quite possibly, homosexual. The script also may not have been a final, final draft; that could explain its gaping holes, stilted exposition and flimsy plot progressions. Some scholars have deemed it a 20th-century take on Greek tragedy, and it certainly does revel in violence and tragedy — and a love triangle (or is it a quadrangle?) that’s difficult to comprehend (partly because the man everyone loves is never seen), and paints its symbolism with broad strokes.

LaChiusa (The Wild Party, Giant) has effectively trimmed Lorca’s dialogue, and accentuates the allegory with folk-inflected melodies and flamenco dance. The production at freeFall, directed with mood-setting detail by company patron Eric Davis, isn’t afraid of telenovela histrionics; in one scene, film projections represent unbridled passion with stampeding horses and a couple rockin’ it Skinimax-style. All that's missing is a train entering a tunnel.

Lack of subtlety aside, the play is worth seeing and has staying power, thanks in large part to the ingenious choices of Davis. The director conceives of the family’s departed patriarch as an eerily floating, paper-covered corpse-like figure that hovers overhead, and in one scene, adds dark comic relief by doubling as a dinner table. Atmospheric touches galore are provided by lighting designer Tom Hansen, whose symbolic green hues represent freedom — Lorca’s nod to the Generación de 1898 writers and philosophers. The masterful choreography of Carolina Esparza, a local flamenco artist, might be the biggest selling point of all, made even more resonant by Michael Raabe’s ensemble, which features cello by local scene favorite Tom Kersey and other talented musicians.

Davis elicits depth and a natural dynamic from his cast. Kate Young, a Chicago actor new to freeFall, portrays Bernarda Alba with searing bravada and nuanced pathos. She adds an intriguing ambivalence to the flawed mother on the brink, who masks despair, paranoia and misanthropy behind a veil of Catholic virtue. Jennifer Byrne turns in a moving performance as the sensible but scarred eldest daughter, Angustias, who is blatantly courted for her wealth. Singer/actor Alison Burns, whom we always regard as the pretty blonde, transforms almost unrecognizably into the pitiable, craggy and crippled Martirio. Meghan Colleen Moroney, as the head maid Poncia, is the most real and relatable: the play’s appointed voice of the common folk and common sense. The other sisters, played by Georgia Mallory Guy (Magdalena), Kelly Pekar (Amelia) and Sarah McAvoy (Adela), turn in solid performances, as do Laura Hodos and Bela Aquino, who do double duty as servants and assorted male characters, and Ann Morrison, who brings a touch of bittersweet humor to her portrayal of a grandmother in the throes of dementia.

With an all-female cast dressed in black lace and a stunning minimalistic set, fans of Spanish literature or filmmakers like Pedro Almódovar and Guillermo Del Toro might appreciate Bernarda Alba as a poetically dark Old World fable about women, loss and oppression — albeit told to us by three men: Lorca, LaChiusa and Davis. The musical is beautiful and disturbing, even perhaps a little campy, leaving you with lingering afterthoughts about the power struggles and turmoil women continue to face.

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