Anyone wanting to brush up on Federico Garcia Lorca by seeing a rare staging of his 1934 play should avoid “Yerma,” which opened Tuesday at the Park Avenue Armory. Anyone wanting to see a Lifetime movie on steroids should see Simon Stone’s “Yerma,” derived from or inspired by the Lorca play about a woman obsessed with having a baby. In the Lorca play, she ends up killing her husband. In Stone’s freely adapted version, she ends up killing herself.
The much-acclaimed production, under the direction of Stone, comes from London’s Young Vic and features Billie Piper in her Olivier Award-winning performance as Her. That’s one of the many other things Stone has changed from the original. Lorca called his heroine Yerma, hence the title “Yerma.”
Yerma lives in an agrarian Roman Catholic culture, her husband a farmer. Her lives in contemporary London; she’s a magazine editor, has a widely read blog and her husband, John, is a businessman who travels all over the world, as opposed to Lorca’s Juan who spends several nights with the herds, watching that no one steals his precious irrigation water.
Some plays have an arc. Stone’s “Yerma” resembles a descending escalator. It sometimes runs slow, sometimes fast; it even stops on several occasions to provide for the evening’s many blackouts between scenes. But its direction is always downward into the madness that gradually overtakes Her’s life. Yerma and Her come from such different worlds that it is necessary that Stone give his character a few motivations for her obsession.
What we learn is that Her’s mother, Helen (Maureen Beattie giving a fine impression of a refrigerator), didn’t hold her as a child. Helen also likened her pregnancy with Her to the film “Alien,” especially the grizzly scene in which the monster pops out of a man’s gut. And then there are the hormones Her is taking. They’re supposed to make her more fertile but they also induce menopause. Who knew?
Critics usually attend the theater with notepad and pen. Stone’s “Yerma” is the first production that made me wish I’d brought a stopwatch. The 100-minute play is broken into no fewer than seven chapters, with many of the chapters divided into several scenes. We know the scenes change because the theater goes pitch black except for a large TV screen over the stage that not only gives us the chapter numbers but bits of information like “the future looks like this” and “six months later” and “the cracks start to show” and “meanwhile.”
Except for the TV screen, it seems like we the audience spend an inordinate amount of time in the dark while the stage is reset between scenes. Ten minutes in the dark? Twenty minutes? Or more?
About that set by Lizzie Clachan. It is a big glass box in which the actors perform, amplified to the hilt so we can hear them through the glass. A few scenes are played without dialogue and last only a minute or two while Stefan Gregory’s music blasts. Music these days in the theater always blasts. Gregory’s very loud score accompanies some of the acting, usually when the actors are mute, but it’s always there for the blackouts and varies from sounding like hard rock to a Vivaldi mass to a Philip Glass opera in which nonsense syllables or Spanish (a nod to Lorca, perhaps) are sung. The experience of watching the miked actors perform a series of brief skits through a glass wall is as close to going to the movies as anything you’ll find in live theater.
Her, unfortunately, is a very apt name for Stone’s heroine. Her is not much of a character, although Piper is very good at being hysterical and rolling around in the wet dirt on stage. (Rain creating mud on stage has turned into a major cliché.)
The actress also brings a pouty-Brigitte-Bardot-meets-hip-Julie-Christie quality to the early scene in which Her and John, who aren’t married yet, talk about his newly acquired taste for anal sex. Being familiar with Lorca’s “Yerma,” I wondered if maybe that’s why the couple was having trouble getting pregnant. Alas, “bum sex” is dropped and the drama moves on to weightier subjects like sperm counts and eggs. Throughout it all, Brendan Cowell’s stolid John grows increasingly sympathetic.