Theater Review: ‘Yerma’

A woman's tragedy
April 10, 2018 Updated: April 10, 2018

NEW YORK—Based on the great Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca’s “Yerma,” Simon Stone’s version has brought the story up to present times and is set in chic, contemporary London.

Originally produced by London’s Young Vic company, the play was written and directed by Stone. Billie Piper, who plays the central character called Her, won universal raves and numerous acting awards. And deservedly so; it’s a tour-de-force performance.

As for the play, it offers complexities and nuances not found in the original source. It’s a bit like watching a train trip: There’s the initial, tentative start, the rolling into a comfortable medium-rate pace, the picking up of speed, an almost passionate surge into top speed, and then a fierce ending, possibly via an out-of-control crash.

Initially, Her and partner John (the excellent Brendan Cowell) are enjoying a comfortable, mutually pleasurable relationship as they lounge about in their attractive London flat. It’s clear they adore one another.

Everything is “cool,” including Her’s work as magazine editor and blogger. She is much read and successful.

The first signs of, not conflict, but a new and unusual situation occurs when Her brings up the notion that their extra space might very well make room for a new occupant, a baby.

John, taken aback but always willing to please, shows his cooperative stance by ceremoniously stamping on Her’s contraceptive pills. Unfortunately, as per the story line of Lorca’s play, Her is unable to conceive. Thus, the play plunges along, slowly but inexorably, to a tragic ending.

Why is Her so unwilling to compromise? She and John can adopt. Isn’t that just as good?

Playwright Stone has stacked the cards against that. Her’s mother Helen (Maureen Beattie), though pleasant, is cool and remote. A scene in which Her attempts to get Helen to show a little affection is both funny, and simultaneously poignant, as Her finally manages to get a simple hug out of the reluctant Helen. Is Her trying to make up for intimacy that had never been experienced?

Billie Piper and Brendan Cowell play a couple trying to conceive. The planes of glass that serve as the set’s walls distance the audience from the unfolding drama. (Stephanie Berger)

Her’s sister Mary (Charlotte Randle) can conceive, which garners Her’s jealousy. She admits to being secretly pleased when Mary loses a child in early pregnancy. When an old boyfriend, Victor (John MacMillan) , re-enters the scene, Her hopes that something again can be kindled between them, but Victor has plans of his own.

Her’s colleague Des (Thalissa Teixeira) supports her and informs her of readership reaction to Her’s latest work—sometimes it’s not complimentary. In fact, as time goes on, Her may be losing her audience, as her emotional stability begins to crumble under stress.

The top-rate performances suggest a team, with Billie Piper at their head. Lizzie Clachan’s remarkable set design appears to comprise another character. Indeed, this particular production would not be what it is without it. It consists of two clear glass walls framing the action front and back, from far left to right of the stage area. Thus the audience, seated on bleacher-like seats at the front and the back, views a narrow, rectangular acting area.

Incredibly, the production team makes onstage changes—grassy surface, trees, a rainy, muddy field, chairs, garlands of colored lights—lightning fast and noiselessly. Overhead, supertitles impersonally announce change of location or time, with vivid choral singing accompanying these changes.

These elements bestow a remote quality to the emotional goings-on onstage. It is as if one is watching a scientific experiment, under a microscope. In fact, in the program notes, director Stone has stated that that was his intention, adding the point that he wished to thus show “a modern woman’s descent into personal tragedy.” He has certainly succeeded in this.

This “Yerma” is without question a unique and remarkable theatrical presentation.

‘Yerma’
Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Ave.
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: 212-933-5612 or ArmoryOnPark.org
Closes: April 21

Diana Barth writes for several theatrical publication, including New Millennium. She may be contacted at DiaBarth99@gmail.com

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