Yerma feels new in ways both thrilling and terrifying. For starters, there is the show’s British star, Billie Piper. Actors performing in a new city arrive blessedly free of baggage. Londoners’ lack of familiarity with Nathan Lane’s comedic prowesses may have helped them buy him as the malevolent lawyer Roy Cohn when Angels in America was at the National Theatre before coming to Broadway. In return, most New Yorkers encounter Piper’s blistering turn in Yerma with little awareness of her past in, say, Doctor Who, not to mention her incarnation as the teen pop star responsible for such hits as “Honey to the Bee.” This blank slate is liberating for everybody involved, especially when dealing with acting as emotionally, psychologically, and physically committed as Piper’s in this import from London’s Young Vic, now at the Park Avenue Armory.
Portraying a successful professional woman driven to pathological extremes by her unfulfilled craving for a child, Piper is nothing short of astonishing, yet her turn also feels un-self-conscious. This isn’t a look-at-me showcase, but a remarkably selfless excavation. What’s also new here is the play itself — and its explosive, sensory-overload staging. Theater geeks may have spotted the name and main theme as that of a 1934 tragedy by the Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca. And, indeed, a projected title informs us the show is “after Lorca.” Talk about understatement: The Australian theatermaker Simon Stone pretty much rewrote the play, from topical references throughout to a different, albeit just as horrifying, conclusion. Besides the driving thread of a woman yearning for a child of her own, the shows are so different that you have to wonder why Stone, who also directed, didn’t just write his own story on that topic.
But fine, let’s go with this “after Lorca” business, especially since radical adaptations of classics have become Stone’s calling card. (His recent sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll dynamiting of Chekhov’s Three Sisters caused quite a brouhaha in Paris.) Yerma is now just Her, and the simple Spanish countrywoman has become a senior editor for lifestyle and culture at a British newspaper. She and her partner, John (Brendan Cowell), have just bought a big house in a gentrifying neighborhood, and, to complete the picture, Her figures it’s time they have a child. What looks, at the beginning, like a little bit of whim gradually turns into a devouring obsession. The harder it is for Her to conceive, the more she wants to do it. It doesn’t help that her sister, Mary (Charlotte Randle), has a baby of her own. As the years go by, Her spirals down into obsessive madness.
Stone combines his textual reimagining with a set by Lizzie Clachan that places the action inside a giant Plexiglass box, with the audience sitting on two sides. There are blackouts between scenes, and, since the box looks hermetically sealed, with no visible hinges on the clear panels, I simply could not figure out how props and cast members appeared and disappeared. The actors are also miked to such an extent that you can hear every sound blasted out on the powerful PA in hyperreal detail: the crunch of their shoes on dirt, the rush of their catching their breath. As Her’s behavior becomes ever more unhinged, we trade hyperrealism for distortion — as in the echo treatment on the voices, or the deafening guitar feedback heard during the latter blackouts. What Stefan Gregory, who handled the music and the sound design, achieves here is just wild. Indeed, the whole production operates at a heightened level of technical ingenuity we are simply not used to seeing in the U.S.
But this would be all moot if the human element did not keep up, and it certainly does. Stone and his cast manage to create a nightmare that is simultaneously stylized and deeply affecting — an exploration, both modern and timeless, of what happens when a desire for life turns into a death wish.