Teatro Vista’s ¡Bernada! will haunt you

Photo by Joel Maisonette

Tucked away behind the concession stand in Steppenwolf’s Front Bar, the 1700 Theatre is the smallest venue the acclaimed showplace has, and they use it to present shows by other companies, like Teatro Vista, which is currently presenting a new retelling of Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba. In Emilio Williams’ poetic and powerful fever dream ¡Bernada!, Lorca’s tale takes on new intensity and beauty while maintaining its tragic structure and outcome.

Director Wendy Matteo says that the play became, during its rehearsal process, “a symbol of rebellion, an exploration of power dynamics, and an assertion of individual and collective voices. It has provided us a platform where we explore how our femmes use their power, wield their power, lose their power, abuse their power in the midst of an environment that was never built for them.” It’s all of that and more.

¡Bernada! is the story of a domineering woman with five daughters who is trying to maintain her household in her own strict fashion after the death of her second husband. The title character (played with a powerful and harsh hand, not to mention a frightening cane, by Charín Álvarez) has ordered her daughters to go into mourning for eight years, a directive that does not sit well with all of them. Williams has structured the play similar to a staged reading: chairs on platforms, facing out, are the backbones of the set. This is, however, not a mere staged reading, even when Bernada and her children deliver their lines while sitting on those chairs.

For one thing, there is Lauren Nichols’ set. Aggressively framed by video screens, the multi-platform, angular set reveals various feeds—designed by Erin Pleake—from cameras mounted around the estate. (Lorca may have died in 1936, but this play is set in a liminal time.) On one of these screens, we watch as (again and again) one character seemingly tries to escape someone who is following her. It turns out that this is Bernada’s mother, Maria Josef (also Álvarez), who is usually locked in her room for a reason that is never really explained, but her longing for freedom—she wants to marry again even at her advanced age—mirrors that of her adult grandchildren.

Those granddaughters, ranging in age from 20 to 39, are the key characters in ¡Bernada!, once we get past the overwhelming presence of the matriarch. Clad in perpetual black, at least at the start, they react in various ways to their grandmother’s decree. The oldest one, Angustias (who inherited a large sum from the death of her father, Bernada’s first husband), is the least affected because she knows that her wealth makes her a catch for suitors, so she will be out of this oppressive home soon. Claudia Quesada plays her as a woman who wants more out of life but will only take small, tentative risks to get it. What she wants currently is a young suitor from the village named Pepe, who is also what youngest daughter Adela, played by Alix Rhode, wants. Unlike her older sister, though, Adela sees herself as already free enough to don a pretty green dress—Sarah Albrecht’s costumes are brilliant—to fetch herself this attractive beau, even at the risk of a caning by her mother. (Angustias’ biggest rebellion is to wear some makeup, which is quickly washed off by her mother.)

Household servant Poncia (Stephanie Diáz) advises Adela to bide her time, since at 39 her sister will die before long—ah, 1930s actuarial tables; clearly, she does not take into consideration the longevity indicated by both Bernada and Maria Josef—and Adela will get her prize if she just waits. Diáz is a totally grounded Poncia, but the maid knows she fits better with the younger women than with the older ones, and appears to wish she were their friend instead of their servant.

In addition to Angustias and Adela, the other daughters are Martirio, 24, played by Ayssette Muñoz; Magdelana, 30, played by Sonia Madrigal; and Carmelita, 27, played by Gabriella Diaz. All of these woman are very strong, especially Muñoz, interacting and bickering as sisters when there are no males around to attract. (There are no male actors. Pepe is never seen, as Lorca wanted it.)

Movement is a huge part of this play., and credit for the highly stylized and mesmerizing ritualistic dancing and other movements, such as Maria Josef’s lovely, flowing escape scene, goes to J. Nicole Brooks, with Madrigal as dance captain. It is only through the movement and Satya Chávez’s original music that this funereal house comes alive…yet another foreshadowing of a dark ending.

¡Bernada! is a truly outstanding production from the set to the script to the direction to the acting to Conchita Avitia’s lighting to Stephanie Senor’s sound; it is so richly and fully realized that you might want to see it twice. It’s that impressive. But it is also a heavy, heavy piece. Teatro Vista’s artistic director, Lorena Diaz, said, “The theme of oppression is prevalent in this piece. So is the reminder that there is ultimately no real power to be had in the oppression of a people or one’s personhood.” Bernada Alba proves herself as capable of wielding this oppression as any patriarch could be, effectively dooming her family as she seeks to protect them.

¡Bernada! is a Teatro Vista production now playing at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, until Nov 26. Tickets are available at the Teatro Vista website. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.

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