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Review: YERMA: Tragic Tale of a Woman's Obsession

Review: YERMA: Tragic Tale of a Woman's Obsession


Conceived by Melinda Lopez and Melia Bensussen, Adapted and translated by Melinda Lopez, Based on the play by Federico Garcia Lorca, Directed by Melia Bensussen; Scenic Design, Cameron Anderson; Costume Design, Olivera Gajic; Lighting Design, Brian J. Lilienthal; Sound Design, Brendan F. Doyle & Mark Bennett; Original Music, Mark Bennett; Music Director, Jesse Sanchez; Choreography, Misha Shields; Fight Direction/Intimacy Consultants, Claire Warden & Ted Hewlett; Production Stage Manager, Kevin Schlagle; Stage Manager, Jeremiah Mullane

CAST (in alphabetical order): Christian Barillas, Marianna Bassham, Alma Cuervo, Evelyn Howe, Alexandra Illescas, Nadine Malouf, Jacqui Parker (at this performance, Melinda Lopez), Ernie Pruneda; Guitarist, Juanito Pascual; Percussionist, Fabio Pirozzolo

Performances through June 30 by Huntington Theatre Company at Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-266-0800 or

Yerma, a play with music, adapted and translated by Melinda Lopez from Spanish poet/playwright Federico Garcia Lorca's 1934 work, is receiving its world premiere by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. On press night, in the age-old tradition of the show must go on, Lopez was pressed into service to perform in place of the ailing Jacqui Parker, one of the five women who surround the title character as her emotional support community, even as their multiple children are a stinging reminder of her infertility.

Yerma (Nadine Malouf) is a childless woman obsessed with her desire to become a mother and live a traditional family life, the life she is expected to lead in the agrarian society where her husband Juan (Christian Barillas) works hard in the fields so she can tend to their home. However, despite their passionate lovemaking as the play opens, each succeeding year without a pregnancy takes its toll on their marriage. Yerma tries to maintain hope, but Juan is increasingly occupied with the demands of his work and becomes less and less available to her. She feels powerless, betrayed by fate, and faced with few options as her husband virtually abandons the quest. Her friends suggest she take a lover, and her childhood friend Victor (Ernie Pruneda) might be a willing candidate, but Yerma's honor will not let her seriously consider this path.

Instead, after years of failed attempts to conceive, Yerma pays a visit to Dolores (Lopez), Marta's (Evelyn Howe) mother, who helps desperate women who want to have (or not have) a child. In a scene reminiscent of a seance, Yerma submits to Dolores as she weaves her magic with the assistance of Marta, Maria (Marianna Bassham), Incarnación (Alma Cuervo), and Veronica (Alexandra Illescas). When Juan discovers the covert activity, he erupts and blasts apart the fissure that has been growing between husband and wife. Barillas is raw with emotion, finally showing that Juan has also been torn apart by their failure to make a family and his inability to make Yerma happy.

Yerma is a tragic tale, but it is fueled by hope (until it isn't) and is told with lyrical language, infused with beautiful flamenco-inspired music (guitarist Juanito Pascual, percussionist Fabio Pirozzolo) and Spanish culture, and filled with a rich cast of secondary characters who are central to the story. Even with a roster of strong performances across the board, it is Malouf who captivates with her passionate, emotional turn in the leading role. She and Barillas have great chemistry, whether in bed or in battle, and she is convincing with every step she takes on Yerma's arduous journey, from hopeful young wife to the devastating end of the road.

Director Melia Bensussen co-conceived the play with Lopez and their vision is artfully realized. Cameron Anderson's scenic design situates a bed center stage, surrounded by volumes of yellow flowers which are gradually plucked throughout the play, and Brian J. Lilienthal lights the set to reflect the changing seasons and moods. Olivera Gajic's costumes are simple in design and fabric to represent the basic nature of the women's country lives. Original music is provided by Mark Bennett (with sound design by Bennett and Brendan F. Doyle), and choreographer Misha Shields connects the dances and movement of the ensemble to the variety of drum beats and strains of the guitar. Music director Jesse Sanchez seamlessly injects the songs into the narrative, and the vocalists sing beautifully and with heart. Claire Warden and Ted Hewlett do double duty as fight directors and intimacy consultants, both vital aspects of this production.

Yerma is a lesser-known work from Lorca's canon, perhaps owing to poor translations, mostly written and directed by men. With Lopez and Bensussen bringing the women's perspective to the story-telling, Yerma and the women around her are fully realized characters, and attention is paid to the way in which the men are affected by the cultural expectations. Yerma questions her value as a woman and struggles to find purpose in a life without children, but Juan also deals with self-doubt and insecurity. Without the third pillar of a family, the foundation of their marriage begins to buckle, and the external pressures propel them to their destiny.

Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson (Ernie Pruneda, Nadine Malouf, Chris Barillas)

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