There’s no room for whimsy in Theater Latté Da's 'Bernarda Alba'

Dan Norman

Dan Norman

Five sisters share a house with their single mother and a maternal maid, peeking through their windows at a charismatic dude who has passionate stirrings for one sister yet ends up engaged to another. Theater Latté Da’s Bernarda Alba casts powerful women in powerful roles, but after 90 minutes of brutally somber songs, you might start to wonder what Greta Gerwig would do with this material.

Crystal Manich directs this new production, the regional premiere of Michael John LaChiusa’s 2006 musical adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s 1936 play. The Little Women parallels go beyond plot: Like Louisa May Alcott, the Spanish writer was caught up in a civil war, one he was tragically not to survive. Just two months after completing Bernarda Alba, Lorca was assassinated.

LaChiusa’s adaptation accentuates the hothouse atmosphere of a story that gives these women strong voices that they often turn against each other, having lost faith that criticizing men will lead to any progress. The eponymous matriarch, played with earth-shaking gravity by a cane-wielding Regina Marie Williams, preaches a gospel of self-control: As a woman, she figures, your body is your one bargaining chip. Spend it carelessly, and you deserve whatever fate befalls you.

Twice widowed, Bernarda guards her house like a fortress, and her daughters come to fixate on an ostentatiously available bachelor as the sole outlet of their potential liberation. The unseen Pepe can only marry one of them, and eldest daughter Angustias (Kate Beahen) has the most money.

During that courtship, Bernarda’s youngest daughter, Adela (Stephanie Bertumen), signals her availability for a less formal attachment—infuriating the jealous Martirio (Meghan Kreidler), whose own prospects look about as promising as those of a snowball in Seville. The slats of Kate Sutton-Johnson’s set shake as horses in the family stables kick at their stalls, desperate to rut. (You probably don’t need an entire musical number to catch the symbolism there, but you get one just in case.)

LaChiusa’s long-limbed melodies, accompanied by Jason Hansen’s hidden band and accentuated by the actors’ body percussion, provide a stunning showcase for these voices. The intermission-less show is a long song of seething; Manich and her cast sustain an anguished slow burn so intense that no one even tried to clap between songs at last Friday’s performance.

Kreidler and Bertumen are superb as the duo whose confrontation sparks a climax. In recent years Kreidler has been widely and rightly heralded as one of the most compelling stars in Twin Cities theater; Bertumen, also gifted, is less widely known, but that seems likely to change soon. Here, she’s perfectly cast in a role that employs both sympathetic spunk and tragic depth.

Bernarda Alba is a bracing, bleak meditation on the corrosive effects of a repressive patriarchy. You’ll wish these vibrant characters joy, but Bernarda’s is a house of pain.

Bernarda Alba
Theater Latte Da
345 13th Ave. NE, Minneapolis
612-339-3003; through February 16