To gauge the intensity of “Yerma,” Spanish director José Luis Arellano García’s latest collaboration with Gala Hispanic Theatre, consider that the production doesn’t even pause at intermission. About halfway through this version of Federico García Lorca’s 1934 tragedy, a haunting stage tableau evokes an unhappy household meal. The play’s anguished, childless heroine, Yerma, is slumped on a metal table. Her husband, Juan, stands nearby. And Juan’s unmarried sisters — two eerie, faceless figures swathed entirely in black — stand at the table, too, dourly drumming eating utensils against the plates.
The house lights come up: The audience is free to take a break. But the four actors remain onstage throughout intermission. The ominous clinking sounds carry on; you might imagine that the utensils are blades hacking at Yerma’s soul. You can hear the sounds downstairs in the lobby as theatergoers purchase refreshments.
The staged intermission is just one of many powerful sequences in this visually striking production, which represents the world premiere of Fernando J. López’s adaptation of García Lorca’s text. A Spanish playwright and scholar, López has distilled the play’s cast of characters down to five (plus Juan’s fleetingly glimpsed sisters) from a significantly larger number, heightening the tale’s starkness and mood of claustrophobia and thereby more efficiently conveying a sense of Yerma’s plight. (The performances are in Spanish with English surtitles.)
Yerma (Mabel del Pozo) longs for a child, though her husband, Juan (Eric Robledo), does not share that desire. The presence in their rural village of Yerma’s old acquaintance Victor (Iker Lastra) — to whom Yerma is attracted — does not help matters. Oppressed by social conventions governing women’s responsibilities and behavior, the unhappy wife has nowhere to turn for comfort.
Scenic designer Silvia de Marta underscores the notion of comfortlessness with an arrestingly bleak set, consisting of corrugated metal walls, the metal table, a tub and a broad strip of reddish dirt — tying in with the themes of barrenness and fertility — on the floor at the front of the stage. Characters occasionally kneel or crawl in the dirt, which, like the other scenic elements, is sometimes dimly lit and sometimes flushed with harsh fluorescent light. The musical underscorings by composer and sound designer Mariano Marín are comparably somber.
(De Marta, Marín, Lastra and del Pozo hail from Spain and are making their first appearances at Gala, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Director Arellano’s Gala credits include “El caballero de Olmedo” and “Cabaret Barroco.”)
De Marta also designed the modern costumes, which adhere to an austere color scheme: Yerma wears a cobalt dress; her friend Maria (Natalia Miranda-Guzmán) and the seer Dolores (Luz Nicolás) wear yellow and scarlet ones, respectively, for instance. The actors all do a fine job enriching their characters’ stylized contours with hints of naturalism. Miranda-Guzmán aptly suggests a subdued young mother who feels highly ambivalent about her life. Lastra’s Victor smolders and menaces but demonstrates a real connection with Yerma. And del Pozo supplies a fierce portrait of a woman whose yearning is both a weakness and a strength.
Wren is a freelance writer.
“Yerma,” by Federico García Lorca, adapted by Fernando J. López. Directed by José Luis Arellano García; lighting, Christopher Annas-Lee; properties, Alicia Tessari; video, Álvaro Luna. In Spanish with English surtitles. About 90 minutes. Tickets: $20-$42. Through Oct. 4 at Gala Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. Call 800-494-8497 or 202-234-7174 or visit www.galatheatre.org.