Blueprint Theatre Group

at the Firehouse

Had he lived in an open or at least a benign society, Federico Garcia Lorca might have written as exuberantly as Walt Whitman (in fact Garcia Lorca once wrote a passionate ode to his fellow poet). Though Garcia Lorca enjoyed a happy love affair with a young and handsome engineering student, and harbored an unconsummated passion for Salvador Dali, he lived and died (murdered at age 38 by Franco’s Guardia Civil) in a cloistered Spain bound up in religious guilt and sexual repression.

A thirsty soul in a dry time, Garcia Lorca wrote poems and plays (The House of Bernarda Alba and Blood Wedding) that seethe with the frustrations of a man poisoned by his soil. Garcia Lorca grew up in Andalusia, a land of blood feuds, barren land, and Catholic ecstasies. Typically, he wrote: “Many Spaniards live between walls until the day they die, when they are taken out to the sun. A dead person in Spain is more alive when dead than is the case anywhere else.” Indeed, watching Alba is like being shut up in an arid tomb; only at the end do you seem to breathe again.

Where death is palpable, one turns to love as refuge from despair. According to a recent biographer, Garcia Lorca’s theme is always “love lost, of the love that could or should have been.” His hunger made him create in his plays memorable women who mirrored his own sexual struggle in their resistance to the repressions that rule their lives. In his 1934 Yerma, a searing dramatic folktale in which Garcia Lorca believed he had dressed “the body of tragedy in new clothing,” the playwright made the title character a living metaphor for barrenness.

Married to Juan, a cold but jealous farmer, Yerma (whose name means “unproductive”) is unable to bear a son. The problem is Juan’s impotence, not hers; but Yerma holds her infertility against herself. Garcia Lorca contrasts images of waste and decay with those of fecundity and fruition: Yerma calls herself a “bunch of dry thistles,” a cursed creature surrounded by bountiful nature who is “rotting away” for lack of a child within her, whose blood has turned to poison, who can feel and hear her imaginary baby but still can’t bring it into the world. In Yerma, a woman’s purity becomes perverse, its own punishment.

The women around Yerma offer useless or dangerous advice and help, either ineffective nostrums and potions or hypocritical homilies. One young wife who loathes marriage rejoices in the freedom of being without children. A pregnant friend is too full of her own happiness to respond to Yerma’s mourning for the unborn. Helpless and embittered, Juan tells his wife to “accept things just the way they are.” But he doesn’t: at the same time that he almost goads Yerma into finding a stud to service her, Juan tells his spinster sisters to spy on his wife.

He needn’t worry. Though no virgin, Yerma will not make herself a whore; she carries too stern a sense of honor to let another man get her pregnant. But the alternative–learning to live with her miserable emptiness–is unbearable. Caught between an unknown, unrealized child and an unloved husband, Yerma is too strong to kill herself, though she’s not afraid of killing. Abruptly, and with no denouement, the play ends in a crime that seems to free Yerma forever from having to confront her sterility.

Yerma would be a harsh, misogynistic indictment of one woman’s biological misfortune if it weren’t so close to the poet’s heart. Aching and unfulfilled, Yerma is the moral center of this play. No one comes close to matching her intensity or life. Also intense and alive is this strong new revival by the Blueprint Theatre Group, a production that employs Peter Luke’s supple, very contemporary translation.

Played against a stark white set and under lighting that’s alternately glaring and impressionistic (set and light design by Keith Miller), Ralph Flores’s staging has a simplicity and directness that go to the story’s core, whether he’s depicting an elaborate religious pilgrimage, a masked fertility dance, or the simple act of women washing clothes by a river.

Flores’s Yerma is anchored and energized by Doris Difarnecio, whose beautiful and shattered Yerma is clearly a woman whose life force has been twisted into a death wish. Difarnecio manages to be radiant even in panic, to make milkless breasts seem a way of death. Her character’s unrelenting defiance makes her kin to Antigone, Medea, Hedda Gabler.

Since they can’t equal it, the other actors must set off–isolate–Yerma’s intensity. Sometimes they do that by performing with a deliberate lack of poetry. Noah Navar plays Juan with a combustible rancor that nonetheless suggests less violence than Yerma’s buried passions. Laura Ceron purposely deflates the gypsy woman whose mumbo jumbo is no help for Yerma’s deep-dyed desperation. In sharp contrast to Yerma, this cast plays shepherds, old women, and in-laws in such a way as to convey–sometimes too stiffly–the relentless ordinariness of village life.

But it’s hard for me to gauge the full depth of the performances in Blueprint’s production of Yerma because it’s really two productions, one in English and one in Spanish, by the same bilingual cast of ten. A big challenge to actors and director–in casting, rehearsing, and memorizing–this unique double mounting of Yerma shows an ambition and dedication rare even in Chicago theater, an insistence on losing nothing in the translation.

Both Yermas share a sensuous score composed by the Marcel Duchamp Memorial Players. Unfortunately, the songs are raucously rendered, especially the rocky laundresses’ quartet. It’s enough, however, to pull off a two-hour play in two tongues; something was bound to fall by the wayside.