Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, his last and probably his most widely known play, is famously different from the rest of his output, a stark drama written in terse, precise prose by a poet previously celebrated for his free-form dramatic structures, his extravagant imagery, his ventures into symbolic and folkloric expression. None of these exactly disappears in Bernarda Alba; they’re packed away under its austere surface. A tyrannical widow with five daughters cooped up in her stuffy, airless house, Bernarda ranks with Hedda Gabler and Harriet Craig among the great female control freaks of modern drama, sitting on a pile of accumulated circumstances that only need time to explode.
Lorca called his play “a photograph.” You can read it as an allegory of Franco’s totalitarian regime, or an attack on sexual hypocrisy, or as a feminist tragedy in which Bernarda herself is as much a victim as everyone else. The possible meanings interpenetrate and quarrel with each other, like Bernarda’s daughters jangling each others’ nerves, precisely because they’re all locked so tightly in that one taut, neat, photographic image: the house. Michael John LaChiusa’s musical version takes the bold but ultimately futile step of tossing aside the house, in both his title and his onstage imagery. His Bernarda Alba takes place on a stage bare except for chairs and women. The one visible door, upstage center, can lead either into the house or out in Graciela Daniele’s resolutely indecisive, nondescript staging.
That LaChiusa, as always, has done a lot of impressive work here doesn’t solve his central problem: how to make the piece speak musically without destroying the contained coherence that gives Lorca’s original its power. Though it would be impossible for a musical adaptation to live inside the original’s prosaic naturalism, LaChiusa’s version, fatally, offers no lucid alternative. It takes over Lorca’s story, but finds no concrete way of telling it, instead shifting among devices. The women of the all-female ensemble sometimes step outside the story to narrate, or don flamenco hats to play the male characters Lorca carefully kept offstage. Their behavior is sometimes naturalistic, sometimes choreographed or stylized. Images recollected from Glen Tetley’s ballet version, Feast of Ashes, creep into Daniele’s staging.
None of this would matter if either writing or direction offered a strong cohesive grip on the core of the work, but that never happens. LaChiusa’s fluidity, borrowing many flavors from Spanish music and many lines from Lorca’s text, sometimes seizes a dramatic moment grandly but then sinks back into a kind of nondescript busy-work writing. Its generic feel makes the music’s Hispanic coloring, even when LaChiusa’s rhythms and harmonies are at their most inventive, seem factitious.
Where LaChiusa’s failure is intermittent, the product of a struggle to capture material that doesn’t yield easily, Daniele’s lack of success is regrettably complete. No element in this production makes sense alongside any other element. The dance conventions kill the drama, and the attempts at dramatic staging make hash of the dance. It’s not multiracial casting but sheer misdirection that lets five gifted actresses display neither sisterly feeling nor sharp individual portraits. Candy Buckley, as the sardonic servant Poncia, seems to have wandered in from a different show, while Phylicia Rashad, who might have been superb as Bernarda in a staging of Lorca’s play, seems too preoccupied with the difficulties of LaChiusa’s score to exert the necessary authority.
LaChiusa is a troubling paradox. Every work he creates proves that he’s blessed with astonishing gifts: a strong dramatic instinct, a staggering fluency with both words and music, huge ambitions that drive him to match his skills to the highest masterworks, a zealous commitment to the vitality and the importance of musical theater. Yet, time and again, his work emerges feeling manic and shapeless, as if his passions were too busy overflowing their banks to let him sort out what he wanted to achieve. Alone among his theater pieces, First Lady Suite, a tiny, bittersweet trilogy of miniatures, seems complete; all the others, Bernarda Alba included, have the quality of exciting rough drafts, gratifying for colleagues who can draw pleasure from their potential, but giving audiences little satisfaction. His producers and collaborators, who invite him back time and again to turn out yet another half-achieved work, don’t seem to mind. The rest of us wait for him to evolve his own sorting process, his own sense of artistic shape. It hasn’t happened yet.