Play Review: The House of Bernarda Alba

Last night I had the privilege of seeing the Wild Rice production of “The House of Bernarda Alba.”

One of the things that most surprised me about Singapore when I moved here was the vibrant theater scene.  From children’s to adult theater, traveling productions and local, I have been really pleased by the variety and quality.

Of all the shows and companies I’ve seen, two consistently stand out to me–Singapore Repertory Theatre for their children’s theater, and Wild Rice.  It’s rare for me not to like an SRT production.  Wild Rice, on the other hand, raises the bar every time I see a production.

From the first Wild Rice show that I saw–Emily of Emerald Hill to The House of Bernarda Alba, the choices made by the Wild Rice team have blown me away.  The shows they pick are always intelligent pieces with stellar casts.    Costuming is flawless.  Set Design (and lighting) compliment and help set the mood but never overwhelm. So when the Wild Rice season begins, I eagerly anticipate some of the best theater I’ll see all year.

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One Matriarch.

Five daughters.

Eight years of mourning.

To keep up appearances after the death of her husband, tyrannical mother Bernarda resolves to seal her family of from the world — a decision that effectively compels her five daughters to give up love and happiness for a life of duty and obligation.  Within the oppressive confines of the Alba household, tensions swirl and emotions run high.  The arrival of a seductive suitor lays bare the bitter rivalries and repressed sexuality that lie at the twisted, tragic heart of Bernarda’s family.  (from the program)

This is often not an easy show to watch.

The dramatic tension is high from the moment Bernarda orders her daughter Magdelana to stop crying because no one must see her cry no matter how much she loved her father through the climax.

We learn the secrets of the household, because–as ever–nothing is as it seems at first glance.

The cast is wholly female–the suitor Pepe never appears on stage, so while we hear about him, we never see him.  We can only experience him through the lenses of the sisters and their thoughts about him, and his relationship with Angustias–the eldest sister (39)–the only one with a sizeable inheritance (she is the sole child from Bernarda’s first marriage) and how her sisters react to this relationship.

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One of the themes that runs through the show is that of maintaining a certain appearance.  They aren’t so wealthy any more, but that must not be known–the house must be spotless and perfect.  The neighbors must never gossip about the daughters of the house.  Entire families are dismissed as unsuitable as partners for women “of their class” (a repeated phrase).

Appearances are worth more than anything.  For the sake of appearances, Bernarda’s mother must spend most of her time confined to her room because she would shame the family with her insanity.  It is important that the village women all come to mourn, regardless of Bernarda’s actual opinion of them.  For appearances, the family will mourn in black for 8 years, never opening a window.

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At first glance, only one daughter is rebelling against her mother.  But as the show progresses, each daughter’s ways of transgressing become clearer.

The role of women is a big theme–how they should act, what they should expect from a husband, how they should pass their time, how they should dress, how they should appear to the village–and it is bleak.  Lorca pulls no punches about this.

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I’d strongly recommend Bernarda Alba to any theatergoer who enjoys intelligent serious theater.

The House of Bernarda Alba will be showing through March 29th.  Get your tickets here.

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