Snap. Crackle. Pop. If you listen close enough, you can almost hear the bones crunching in the walls of the house of Bernarda Alba; echoes of the sacrifices and secrets on which the house’s foundation was built. The women who reside there are barely holding themselves together under the immense pressure that threatens to break them. In the wake of the death of Bernarda’s second husband, the doors are closed, the windows shut, and mourners left to boil outside the home in the oppressive heat. In spite of the weather, Bernarda insists that all her daughters wear “rigorous black” to honor their father’s memory.
Traditionally, adaptations of Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, originally published in 1936 two months before Lorca’s assassination, take their design inspiration from the macabre attire of the bereaved. By contrast, this adaptation titled ¡Bernarda!, authored by Emilio Williams and directed by Wendy Mateo, boldly uses light, color, and comedy to showcase the darker parts of humanity.
Lauren Nichols’ set is a welcome and refreshing departure from this tradition. As we enter Steppenwolf’s 1700 theatre, a white set with off-kilter, parallelogram frames depicts brightly colored videos (Projections by . Teatro Vista’s Co-Artistic Directors Wendy Mateo and Lorena Diaz welcome us into the space, assuring us that at Teatro Vista “you get your art, and you get your family.” This production, and the culture surrounding it, has both in spades.
Shortly thereafter a slightly panicked, slightly sterile femme voice tells us over a recording that while we are in the house of Bernarda Alba, we are all under surveillance. The screens jolt and shimmer, briefly showing the mysterious “Mother Cam,” before the set becomes stark, and filled with saturated light (Lighting by Conchita Avitia). Then, the women* of the house of Bernarda Alba emerge, each with distinct personalities highlighted by J. Nicole Brooks’ movement direction.
The dance they do to Satya Chávez’s sultry and dangerous musical composition is sensuous yet confined, as they embody the perimeters surrounding their bodies, as they try to find gaps in the walls, as they search the audience for love. It is here we see that Angustias’ ambition and confidence, something she is careful not to wear too loudly around her jealous sisters. As the oldest, she has inherited a large sum of money from her father, while her sisters are left to divide the meager wealth of Bernarda’s second husband among them. In this world, attention is danger. These women are each the kind of person who holds a knife by the blade, and their specific movements, and costumes by Sarah Albrecht tell a clear story.
Charín Álvarez, willowy, domineering, and regal in tall combat boots, feels like a walking storm in this production. My favorite aspect of her performance in what could be a truly bombastic, Lear-esque role, are the moments of refinement. You never really know if she’s going to smile or smack somebody, and it’s terrifying. Álvarez’s Bernarda rolls insults off her tongue like honey, ensuring everybody is getting their fair share of her sharp medicine.
The first sense of warmth and humanity we are offered is Poncia, played by Chicago veteran actor Stephanie Díaz. Poncia and Bernarda Alba are opposites in every way, and the forced relationship between these formidable women is dramatically delicious.
We meet Poncia with an Apple Watch secured to her corset and the kind of updo that says “my hair is full of secrets,” (costumes by Sarah Albrecht). It is here we see that Poncia can control, or at least access, the ever-present surveillance in the house. Poncia has an ease to her that she immediately brings to the fore and shares with the audience through direct address, and so she becomes the audience’s eyes and ears as the show progresses. At top of show, Poncia is sneaking away from the end of the very long funeral, producing a banana from her costume to eat. Stephanie Díaz’s Poncia is honest yet shrewd, proclaiming to her assistant Carmelita (Gabriela Diaz) that working folks like themselves are at least guaranteed “a grave in the land of truth.” Poncia holds the tension of the play in her hands until, like water, it trickles through her fingertips and devolves into chaos.
It is through Poncia and Carmelita that we begin to understand the world we’ve been dropped into, and it helps the audience that they can play off of each other. Carmelita’s movement solo near top of show is stirring and disturbing, but tells us more of her inner life and external circumstance than a monologue ever could. Their relationship and interactions with the occupants of the house illustrate the true motives of each daughter, and Bernarda Alba herself.
Angustias, the oldest daughter (a coquettish yet proper Claudia Quesada), wants nothing more than freedom, but this notion is jeopardized by her envious sisters. In Bernarda Alba’s house, freedom is only gained through marriage, and marriage to the right, richest, most established man you can find.
Pepe, a local suitor, takes an interest in Angustias, motivated in no small part by her enormous inheritance. Adela (Alix Rhode), the youngest daughter who is much closer in age to Pepe, begins to encroach on their courtship by drawing his attention away from Angustias. Alix Rhode’s Adela wears potential in every step, her youth screaming out of every pore that she has something to offer the world that can’t be contained in this house.
The middle sister, Martirio (Ayssette Muñoz’s), has been struggling with her mental wellness and desire, and cannot seem to find enough clarity to express healthy love. She tries, over and over to connect with her sisters through awkward physical affection, to engage Pepe’s attention, and to no avail. In many ways, Martirio is the embodiment of longing, she wears it on her sleeve. Ayssette Muñoz’s performance as Martirio is bone marrow deep, and painful to watch as her pain is so clearly not her fault.
The Intimacy & Fight Direction was designed by Jyreika Guest, and the intimacy storytelling is excellent. The limited fight choreography, though it does not interfere with the momentum of the drama, leaves something to be desired. The text is where we find most of the violence in the play, with the audience viscerally gasping at some of the intense dialogue.
When the “Mother Cam” I mentioned earlier is activated again later in the show, we see that Bernarda Alba’s mother is played by Charín Álvarez as well. Late one night, she bursts into Martirio’s path. Though we have been told the entire play that their abuela is mentally unwell, Álvarez’s conviction and sense of inner freedom makes it feel like she might be the one seeing reason in this house of madness. The tragedy of circumstances that are out of one’s control are exacerbated as Álvarez and Munoz face off onstage, with a granddaughter looking her potential future in the face. Álvarez is fierce and free as their abuela, and though it’s a brief scene, it’s haunting.
The entire cast is full of can’t-miss performances. Sonya Madrigal, playing the beautiful and cruel Magdalena, carries a lot of the choreographic storytelling and really gives the play a strong foundation. Magdalena demonstrates that grief in this house is a performance, and honey, she never lets us forget it. Her long straight hair flicks in and out of scenes, just as sharp as the barbs she directs at her sisters between fake tears.
Every one of these actors is either a vet, or someone who has been emerging for years. At the top of the show, Wendy and Lorena reminded us gently that these are all people who can command a stage, and should be hired as such, and I’m endorsing that perspective here. Having seen their work mature over the seven years I am here, they each offer consistent and exciting performances, and I look forward to seeing more work from Alix Rhode (recently seen at Porchlight Theatre and Remy Bumppo).
Wendy Mateo’s clear and crisp direction compliments Emilio Williams’ beautiful yet blunt text. I appreciated the economy of the script – I followed the plot clearly but there was so much personality in the text– not a line was wasted. There also was not a single moment where I was keenly aware that a masculine person authored these feminine voices, which I think is a testament to the collaboration in the room.
I was able to attend the industry gathering after the show, and a testament to Wendy’s direction and her co-leadership of Teatro Vista with Lorena is evidenced by the outcome of the show, but also by how the people involved felt about it. More than one person expressed how personally lucky they felt to be a part of this family, and the trust and joy in the room was extremely palpable. You could feel it in the curtain speech, onstage, and after the play. In these uncertain times, caring for our people is what lays the foundation for a truly engaging and sustainable theatre.
At a chest-constricting 75 minutes, Emilio Williams’ ¡Bernarda! is a thrill ride you won’t want to miss.
¡Bernarda! Runs at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre until November 19th.
Author’s Note: *Women is used to describe the characters and does not denote the performers’ gender identity.
BIAS ALERT: I recently co-curated a series of essays via American Theatre magazine, and Teatro Vista and this production were featured in Madie Doppelt’s article “Engagement, Not Commentary: Celebrating Theatres that Thrive.” I have been in community with, and am friends with several of the artists in the show, and I had a relationship with the producing entity Steppenwolf Theatre from 2017-2019. One of my former students is a designer on the show as well.
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PLAYWRIGHT: EMILIO WILLIAMS
DIRECTOR: WENDY MATEO
Bernarda/Maria Josefa: Charín Álvarez*^
Carmelita: Gabriela Diaz
Poncia: Stephanie Díaz*
Magdalena: Sonya Madrigal
Martirio: Ayssette Muñoz^
Angustias: Claudia Quesada*
Adela: Alix Rhode
Poncia, Magdalena, Martirio: Alexandra Casillas
Bernarda, Maria Josefa, Angustias: Mayra I. Echevarría
Adela, Carmelita: Laura Quiñones
Casting Director: Adelina Feldman-Schultz
Production Manager: Matthew Chapman
Stage Manager: Isabel Patt
Assistant Stage Manager: Olivia Ellery
Movement Director: J. Nicole “Nicky” Brooks
Scenic Designer: Lauren Nichols
Properties Designer: Lonnae Hickman
Projections Designer: Erin Pleake
Lighting Designer: Conchita Avitia
Lead Electrician: Baylee Speer
Composer: Satya Chávez
Sound Designer: Stefanie M. Senior
Costume Designer: Sarah Albrecht
Technical Director: Dan Michalski
Wardrobe Supervisor: Makenna Van Raalte
Intimacy Director: Jyreika Guest
TEATRO VISTA STAFF
Executive Artistic Director: Lorena Diaz
Producing Artistic Director: Wendy Mateo
Managing Director: Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel
Creative Director: Gabriel Ruiz
Production Consultant: Julie Jachym
Business Manager: Christi Harrison
Social Media Strategist: Jess Godwin
Executive Assistant/Project Coordinator: Karla Serrato
Audience Services Manager: Jordan Ratliff
Marketing Assistant: Tatiana Bustamante