Like A Bird Made of Light: “Yerma”

Nadine Malouf (Yerma). Photo Credit: T Charles Ericksonn© 

Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company
Adapted and translated by Melinda Lopez
Based on the play by Ferderico Garcia Lorca
Directed by Melia Bensussen
Original music by Mark Bennett
Choreography by Misha Shields
Fight direction and intimacy direction by Claire Warden & Ted Hewlett

May 31 – June 30, 2019
Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA
Boston, MA
Huntington on Facebook

Critique by Kitty Drexel

Trigger warnings: sexual acts, hallucinations & mental illness

(Boston, MA) It is 2019 and the United States government is at war with its people. Laws that aim to control anyone with a uterus are rushing through courthouses at an unprecedented rate. They aren’t protecting life; they are punishing women for having sex. Cadavers have more agency than women. Meanwhile, the foster care services in these same states are overwhelmed with children that desperately need good homes. Saying that the Huntington’s production of Yerma is topical is an understatement. Yerma approaches childbirth not from an opposite standpoint but an adjacent one. The right to choose also means choosing to have a child.

Yerma (Nadine Malouf) believes in the transformative power of motherhood. She wants to raise a family in Andalusia, Spain with her husband Juan (a stoic and strong Christian Barillas). She wants it more than anything; it is her calling. Fate has other plans. The years pass and still, there is no child. Villagers talk. Juan listens and worries. Yerma’s dreams kill her while she is still living. An old woman, Incarnacion (Alma Cuervo) tells Yerma to take what she wants. Yerma’s peace of mind is ruined when she can’t. The cast includes Marianna Bassham, Evelyn Howe, Alexandra Illescas, Jacqui Parker, Ernie Pruneda, and playwright Melinda Lopez.  

Audience members, please note that heterosexual, reproductive sex is depicted in this production. It is integral to the plot and, while not graphic, there is no mistaking what is occurring. The characters engaging in sex have a troubled, emotionally violent relationship. The intimacy choreography of Claire Warden and Ted Hewlett have made the staged acts safe, sane and consensual for the cast but audience members should understand their limits when it comes to viewing such intimacy.

Yerma’s downward spiral is played with conscious passion by Malouf. She makes Yerma’s mental illness relatable while also communicating a greater metaphor for human disorderliness. Sometimes, even if we follow all of the rules, we can’t have what we wish for. Watching Malouf pick Yerma up and try again and again hurts us. The sincerity and believability of Malouf’s performance keep us riveted.   

Yerma is a play with music although not a musical. The cast is required to sing, and they are lovely. The music draws upon the Spanish-folk tradition (think flamenco). Juanito Pascual and Fabio Pirozzolo work synergistically with the cast (in the true definition of the word). Their energy is particularly poignant during Yerma’s pagan mad scene. They perform with great fluidity; they are attentive to the point of virtuosity. Guitar, percussion and cast blend to tell a beautiful story on the stage.

Yerma is ripe with visual metaphor. We are treated to the maiden/mother/crone dynamics in all aspects of design. Cameron Anderson’s set looks like a fairytale and pays homage to pagan fertility rituals with its chalice imagery. Olivera Gajic’s costuming captures the character duality within Yerma. For example, virginal, white veils look like shrouds under Brian J Lilienthal’s lighting.

Undiagnosed mental illness of a debilitating nature plays a large role in Yerma. Yerma’s infertility plagues her to the point of hallucination. Her people don’t know how to help her. Yerma wouldn’t know what to do with help even if it was available. Husband Juan foolishly thinks that Yerma would change her behavior if only she understood that he doesn’t need children. He doesn’t understand that it isn’t about him. Yerma is absolutely alone. This makes her illness worse.

Yerma will is not a play for everyone. It is beautifully done but its themes may trigger certain sensitive audience members. Certain people will flock to it. There are others that should; male lawmakers should pay close attention to the plight of a woman who wants to conceive but cannot to understand the circumstances of women who have conceived but would choose not to. An unwanted pregnancy should not be a lifelong punishment.  

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