Our nation’s current fixation with sex scandal has made it a fitting year for Federico García Lorca’s centennial. If anything characterizes the theatrical oeuvre of this Spanish master, it’s his constant exposing of the painful absurdity of society’s moral codes, and his playful prodding of his complacent audience— which he immortalized as “El Publico” in one of his plays. But while Lorca has popped up here and there this year, INTAR’s current festival is the most ambitious attempt to produce a broad sampling of his work.
In New York, Lorca is most often staged in his native Spanish, perhaps out of fear that his poetic genius is untranslatable, or perhaps because Hispanophiles are the most interested in seeing it. But his more frequently performed plays— the “Rural Trilogy” of Yerma, Blood Wedding, and The House of Bernarda Alba— tend to revel in the rustic rhythms of an almost medieval early-20th-century Spain, obscuring Lorca’s contemporary relevance. The INTAR festival intrigues because it includes new English translations of two lesser-known plays, As Five Years Pass and The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife, as well as the involvement of the young director Michael John Garcés, who often works in a Spanglish, Nuyorican vein.
Garcés’s As Five Years Pass re-creates the Surrealist flavor of Lorca’s early association with Dalí and Buñuel in fluid, if not riveting, fashion. Actors declaim in simultaneous syncopation, engage in dreamlike card games, and lurk as charismatic mannequins. In a romantic rapture, a Young Man (Carlos Orizondo) has waited five years to marry his fiancée (Sol Miranda), a woman who despises him, preferring a moronic rugby player. Garcés does a good job in eliciting the comedy— physical and cerebral— from the play, and Caridad Svich’s translation doesn’t betray Lorca’s astonishing lyricism. But the second act delivers little dramatic punch, perhaps because of the playwright’s relative immaturity.
A terse and well-played farce, The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife is the sleeper of the festival. Lorca begins the play by coyly addressing the audience through a narrator intent on using poetry to break down a “barrier of fear.” Bringing out the sitcom elements in the story— about a 53-year-old shoemaker who chooses an 18-year-old bride— director Max Ferrá squeezes some nice work from Denise Casano, who vacillates between lust and virtue in the lead role. Ralph Lee’s mask and puppet design, one of the festival’s highlights, is used potently here. In carnival fashion, Lorca mercilessly pillories the “What would the neighbors say?” prudishness that
drives small-town (and inside-the-Beltway) witch-hunts.
The last time I saw The House of Bernarda Alba was in Mexico City with an all-transvestite cast; it was a gripping show, performed with no irony. Camp potential aside, it was still more effective drama than INTAR’s production, which strains to convey the unbearable tension of six unmarried sisters living under the whip of an overbearing matriarch. With the exception of Virginia Rambal’s imperious Bernarda, the acting is undistinguished. But Lorca’s text dominates this play— its Washington SquaremeetsLike Water for Chocolate plot thrives on the nexus between class and gender oppression. Like Henry James’s, Lorca’s women are bitter about their inevitable martyrdom, but attain a kind of transcendence through their refusal to surrender to commodification quietly. If Ferrá’s “shock” ending works, it’s because El Publico, which hasn’t changed much in the last hundred years, still hungers for a charismatic poet to break through the veil of hypocrisy.