Dark, Small Magic in a Quiet Space

YERMA Directed by Gili Bar-Hillel Produced by Rachel Sexton '00 and Anne Thompson '00 Art the Leverett Old Library October 31 to November 9

Federico Garcia Lorca, born in Spain ear the turn of the century, is one of the most remarkable and most ambitious literary figures of the past century, his creative ability manifesting itself not only in is legacy of poetry, prose and drama but also in drawing, painting and music, His body of delicately sensuous, highly symbolic poems are still considered among the most beautiful written in Spanish; the literary autobiography he wrote while attending Columbia university in 1930, A poet in New York, is a modern classic.

Garcia Lorca also had ambitions to preform and revitalize the Spanish dramatic tradition. Unfortunately, the themes that his lyrical dramatic works treated--questioning the structures of patriarchy, religious authority, sexuality and social convention--were considered too subversive by the national authorities, the Fascist government of Francisco Franco. In August of 1936, Garcia Lorca was dragged into a field and murdered by Franco's agents, his body dumped into an unmarked grave.

Yerma is among Garcia Lorca's last says, and it seems to have been one of those which brought to him the unwanted attention of the Republican censors. As the centenary of the poet's birth approaches and his country gears up for a massive celebration of his life and work, it is appropriate that the dramatic pieces in which he developed a new lyrical idiom for the stage be brought back to light, and the recent production in the Leverett Old Library does the play the justice its power deserves.

Yerma is on the surface a simple story--in fact, it seems to be caught in a kind of emotional stasis. Yerma is a "country girl" of rural Spain, loving and tender toward her young husband Juan, and desiring nothing more than to have a child; it's a desire which has remained unfulfilled for the first two years of their marriage. As time passes and Yerma's age mates become pregnant and bear children, Yerma remains barren, "empty." Her desire for a baby becomes an obsession, her infertility a trauma that begins to blur the boundaries between psychological and physical pain until it becomes an unbearable torment to her ("Every woman has enough blood inside her for three or four children," she says despairingly, "and if she doesn't have them, it'll turn to poison.")

Yerma's incessant railing against her 'fate" drives her to increasingly desperate measures as she attempts to understand and correct what is wrong inside her womb and her "blood." Isolated with her despair, she becomes alienated from her husband and from the rest of her village until her unbearable pain explodes in a climax of sexual and emotional anguish, violence and murder.

This may not sound like everyone's cup of tea, but it's to the credit of director Gili Bar-Hillel and Yerma's excellent cast that they have pulled it off remarkably well: Despite its essentially static structure, this drama of emotions remains spellbinding for its full two hours. The play's success must be credited in large part in to the startlingly beautiful and lucid performance of Lara Jirmanus '01 as Yerma. Jirmanus's Yerma retains our attention for the duration of the play; striking precisely the right balance between Yerma's haunting desires and the earthy reality of her everyday life, she manages to retain our interest and sympathy even as her essentially unchanging character becomes more and more tightly wound up, more despairing, more obsessed.

Yerma is largely a women's play. Director Bar-Hillel says that she selected it for performance in part because she wanted to take advantage of the often under-utilized "pool of talented women at Harvard," and this she has succeeded in doing. The actresses in the play's supporting roles do not fade beside Jirmanus's splendid Yerma but instead complement her and each other, bringing a multitextured and vibrant life to the text's potentially flat and symbolic set of characters.

The flexible features and resonant voice of Devin Moriarity '98 lend extraordinary character and strength to the self-assured, smugly knowledgeable elderly woman to whom Yerma turns for advice about her infertility (in fact, Moriarity's delivery is so powerful that at times the echoing acoustics of the Old Library, unfortunately, cause her lines to be drowned out by her own voice).

Nina Sawyer '01 provides a luminous foil for Yerma's intensity in Maria, a village friend of Yerma's who is lucky enough to be blessed with children--and to possess neither Yerma's depths nor her demons. Kate Arms assumes a commanding presence as the most cruel of the washerwomen who gossip about Yerma's barrenness and cast aspersions on her fidelity, but she is equally comfortable in the sympathetic, backgrounded role of Dolores, the witch-woman who provides Yerma with ancient pagan remedies against infertility. Even the minor players bring sparkle and depth to their characters: Kristen Rolf '99 [sparkles] with energy as yet another village girl, who chides Yerma to appreciate the freedom that comes with not having babies and rejoices in her own half-grown reputation as a "crazy woman." Candice Ackerman '99 is appropriately grim and threatening as the nearly silent "stepsister" whom Juan brings home to keep an oppressive eye on Yerma. And an unexpected lightness is lent [to the production] by Aidin Carey, a 12-year-old local actress who appears as the phantasmal child who skips and sings through Yerma's dreams.

The two major men's roles are also capably filled. Juri Henley-Cohn '00, who plays Yerma's husband Juan, strikes an admirable balance between his suffocating passion and his painful self-restraint; his performance's major flaw is that, in moments of high emotion, he tends to rip through his lines too quickly to make them entirely comprehensible--a shame, given that so much of the richness of this play derives from the poetry of its dialogue. Dan Berwick '01 does an excellent job in the smaller role of Victor, apparently an object of Yerma's repressed desire; the performers' hesitation and stammering body language when the two share the stage is understated to just the right degree.

But there are other elements in Yerma which make the play luminous. One of them is Garcia Lorca's astonishingly beautiful poetry itself; its delicate images and startling metaphors are rendered effectively by a cast which, with few exceptions, is capable of delivering the words without succumbing either to melodrama nor to the temptation to suffocate the lyricism out of embarrassment.

One of the elements which dominate both within the play's language and as a theme of the play itself is the sheer sensuality of emotion: passion, feelings, abstract thoughts, are conveyed in Garcia Lorca's poetry as physical, bodily experiences; the experiences of the heart and mind are mapped out onto the body. The dichotomy becomes visible when Yerma rages against the fact that her desire for a baby cannot be forced to translate itself to her body. "Wanting something in your head is one thing," she says, "but it's something else when your body--damn the body!--won't respond."

The idea of blood becomes a linking metaphor, a image that can be used to mean both the spirit and soul, and the body itself. Some of Garcia Lorca's most beautiful images derive from this juxtaposition. For instance, trying to describe the sensations she's experiencing, the newly pregnant Maria says to Yerma, "Have you ever held a live bird, tight, in your hand? Well, it's the same, but in your blood."

The sensuality of the play's poetry is brought to life in intriguing ways by its physical construction; light designer Ryan McGee '98 and set designers Mike DeCleene '98 and Dave Levy '00 have done interesting and creative work in a sparse setting. Lighting changes mark shifts in the movement from Yerma's inner world to the social world in which she lives: a cooler, bluer air surrounds her interactions in the social world. The outside world is marked from the world inside Yerma and Juan's house, and a warm orange light for her beautiful dreams of children. reminiscent of the dreamlike color and warmth of the womb, or the "blood-stream."

A simple but effective set, too, works toward making concrete the unifying themes of the text: the village's washer-women are provided with a river, via the simple expedient of a roll of blue fabric, making visible the torrent of water that infiltrates areas of the play as a symbol of fertility and female power. Inside Yerma's house, the furniture is sparse--a rocking chair, a table, jugs for water--and the dominating element is the starkest one of all: a doorway, erected against the air, marking the boundary between the house to which Yerma is expected to keep--in her unbearable loneliness--and the outside world, which calls her but offers still no solutions.

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