The rage of women oppressed

Posted Saturday, April 9, 2011 in Culture

The rage of women oppressed

reviewed by David Treadwell

DAMARISCOTTA – Ten tall chairs fill the small black stage, five in front, five in back. Ten women, dressed all in black with mantillas (lace veils) on their heads, file onto the stage. Each one takes a chair, opens a black book on her lap and stares straight ahead, expressionless, motionless. Suddenly, a woman in the back row spits out harsh words in a heavy Spanish accent.

For the next 90 minutes, the women volley powerful lines back and forth, always reading from the black books or looking straight ahead. The women sit forward in their chairs from time to time to indicate movement, and then sit back. The play starts with a loud shout and ends with a literal bang, with nary a pause, nothing for comic relief. At the end, the lights vanish and the audience sits for several seconds in dark, stunned silence before erupting in loud applause.

The setting was the Skidompha Library in downtown Damariscotta, an occasional venue for the Heartwood Regional Theater Company. The play was THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA, written by the renowned Spanish dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca in 1936 just two months before his assassination by Franco’s militia.

The play begins after Bernarda’s second husband’s funeral. She informs her five daughters that they must mourn for eight years, confined mostly to the house. The oldest daughter, Anguistias, is slated to marry a man, Pepe el Romano, who, it turns out, is also the fantasy object of another daughter, Martirio, and a secret lover of the youngest daughter, Adela. After heated exchanges among the cast and fierce accusations by Bernarda about all matters big and small, Adela hangs herself, believing that her secret lover had been killed. Bernarda, ever concerned with appearances rather than realities, insists that the world be told that her daughter had died a virgin, which of course she had not.

On one level, the play depicts the low status of rural Spanish women in the 1930s, hapless creatures destined to remain forever in the background, controlled by the whims of men and the dictates of the church. But on the most wrenching level, the play is about the repression of passion and the abuse of power.

Bernarda, portrayed with pitch-perfect intensity by Millie Santiago, is driven by her own anger and sense of helplessness to totally control her unmarried daughters, no matter the cost. She spits out her lines with animal rage: “A daughter who does not obey is not a daughter; she’s an enemy.”… ”I’ll squash you like a scorpion.”… ”I put on airs because I can afford to.”… ”I do not think; I give orders.”

Four of Bernarda’s daughters succumb to their mother’s vicious harangues with resignation. But the youngest daughter, Adela, rebels, possessing the fortitude to shed the shackles placed on her by that society and those times: “My body belongs to me, and I’ll do what I want with it.”

Maddy Sherrill, a senior at Lincoln Academy in Newcastle, does a masterful job at portraying the rebellious Adela. Even when she’s totally expressionless, you can sense her saying to herself: “No one will deny me my place in the world. Not my mother. Not my sisters. No one.” Maddie ‘s immense talent has earned her a coveted spot at the highly selective Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, where she will begin studies in the fall.

Bernarda’s housekeeper La Poncia, superbly played by Amy Lalime, tries at times to reason with Bernarda, but she gets nowhere. Lalime effectively shifts between being the obedient servant and the loyal confidant, daring to make suggestions to her tyrannical boss.

Margo Morrison O’Leary turns in a powerful performance as Maria Josefa, Bernarda’s mother, often left locked up in her room by her daughter. Though Maria has begun to lose her grip on reality, she’s totally aware that her daughter is pure evil.

Each of the performers speaks with a believable Spanish accent. Each one keeps the play moving forward and the audience at rapt attention.

Griff Braley, the founder and director of the Heartwood Regional Theater Company as well as a teacher at Lincoln Academy, led a thoughtful discussion after the play. The actors spoke of the joys of working with an all-women cast. Braley, when asked about directing an all-women cast, joked that “it was intimidating, but cool.”

One woman noted that she and other cast members got right into their roles and began speaking with a Spanish accent as soon as they put the black mantillas on their heads.

THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA demonstrates once again the extraordinary quality of performances put on by the Heartwood Regional Theater Company, thanks to the clear vision and high standards of Braley. Whatever Heartwood does – tragedy or comedy, light or dark, experimental or traditional, readings or plays – this company provides an immensely satisfying experience for people who love theater.

David Treadwell, a writer who lives in Brunswick, attends theater whenever possible.

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