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REVIEW: Striking, Grim Bernarda Alba (Theater Latté Da)

Stephanie Bertuman and the cast of Theater Latté Da’s Bernarda Alba, now playing at the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis, MN. Photo by Dan Norman.

For decades, the Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca’s last play, The House of Bernarda Alba (1936), has been a staple of regional, community, and educational theatres across the world. Theater Latté Da’s announcement last year that it would give the local premiere of the play’s musical adaptation by Michael John LaChiusa – originally premiered in 2006 at Lincoln Center, but unheard in this region – was thus hotly anticipated.

As fate would have it, Latté Da’s opening coincided with the run-up to the Women’s March on Washington, DC. This timing was resonant: Theater Latte Da focuses on women’s oppression in its beautiful and solemn production of the musical Bernarda Alba. Crystal Manich directs an all-female cast that excels in bringing this grim story to new heights.

Although listed as a musical, Bernarda has the feel of an opera – especially in its devastating ending. Michael John LaChiusa’s poignant musical compositions evoke both the emotions and coldness underlying this tragedy.

L-R: Britta Ollmann, Nora Montañez, Kate Beahen, Sara Ochs, Regina Marie Williams, Meghan Kreidler, and Stephanie Bertuman in Bernarda Alba. Photo by Dan Norman.

The story is set in the provinces of Spain in the 1930s. Bernarda Alba (Regina Marie Williams) is a woman with five grown daughters between the ages of 20 to 39. After the death of her first husband, she fell passionately in love with her second husband with whom she had four daughters. However, her second husband had a wondering eye and his indiscretions left Bernarda a bitter and shamed woman. At the start of the show, Bernarda’s second husband has just been buried. She appears relieved, but has no joy left in her.

With her husband’s death, Bernarda takes over the patriarchal role in her family and flexes her power over her daughters Angustias, Magdalena, Amelia, Martirio, and Adela. Angustias (Kate Beahen) is the oldest and the only daughter of Bernardo’s first husband. Her father left her with a more substantial inheritance than her sisters received from their father making her more desirable to suitors. Bernardo seeks to insulate her daughters from shame by imposing a stiflingly long period of mourning to keep them at home. Their village life poses dangers to young women who do not conform, as witnessed by the villagers deadly beating of a young woman who murdered a newborn baby that she conceived out of wedlock. The audience is left with the feeling that the villagers were more outrage by the woman’s indiscretion than the murder of her child.

Tragically, Bernarda’s efforts to shield her daughters only serves as another form of female oppression. Her plans to protect her daughters also backfire when Angustias attracts a suitor named Pepe – who is also desired by her sisters Martirio (Meghan Kreidler) and Adela (Stephanie Bertumen). Adela’s love for Pepe makes her reckless, whereas Martirio’s love makes her vengeful.

Regina Marie Williams stars in Bernarda Alba, which features costume designs created by Alice Fredrickson. Photo by Dan Norman.

Regina Marie Williams makes for a commanding Bernarda with her dour, no-nonsense tone. Williams’s voice is exceptionally exhibited during the song “One Moorish Girl/The Smallest Stream”, where she is consumed by a sea of white. Kim Kivens is also delightful as Bernarda’s demented mother, Maria Josepha. Kivens serves as both comic relief and as a breath of fresh air each time she appears on stage. Her soaring rendition of the “Lullaby” solo was one of the production’s highlights.

Aimee K. Bryant is convincing as Poncia, the long-time servant of Bernarda. Bryant portrays Poncia as the one caring character who seeks to offer advice to both Bernarda and Adela…which proves to be a fruitless attempt to avert disaster. Meghan Kreidler gives a compelling portrayal of Martirio as a bitter old maid who does not regret a vengeful lie, despite its tragic consequences. Stephanie Bertumen gives life to the youngest sister Adela who is controlled by her emotions as they lead her to reckless and impulsive actions. Kate Beahen haughtily plays the oldest sister Angustias with both a lack of compassion for her sisters and a blindness to Pepe’s seeking to marry her only for her inheritance.

Regina Marie Williams (left) and Aimee Bryant (right) in Bernarda Alba. Photo by Dan Norman.

Jason Hanson’s music directing provides impeccable timing, with the musical ensemble blending into the song fabric and never upstaging the singers. Scenic designer Kate Sutton-Johnson skillfully recreates an older Spanish mission house that conveys that it is more of an institution than a home. Kelli Foster Warder’s choreography is simple but very effective, from the pounding of Bernarda’s cane to her enrapture in a white cloth.

Bernarda underscores the theme that the oppressed are also often the oppressors. This thoughtful and elegant production is a must see.

Britta Ollmann, Stephanie Bertuman, and Nora Montañez play three sisters forced into an extended, enforced mourning period “to keep them safe” in Bernarda Alba. Photo by Dan Norman.

Bernarda Alba plays through February 16 at the Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis, MN.

Bev Wolfe