In Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1934 poetic verse play, Yerma (the word means “barren” in Spanish) and her husband Juan want to have children. Beyond their desire to have a family, Yerma knows that her Catholic community will view her as an outcast if she doesn’t produce. She promises, she tries, and is eventually defeated, her defeat leading to unfathomable tragedy.
Shotgun Players new production in Berkeley, an adaptation and translation by Melinda Lopez directed by Katja Rivera, wisely avoids transporting the play to a contemporary, non-Hispanic setting as is sometimes done these days. The drama takes place in a Mexican-American town in rural Southern California during the 1920s and 1930s, a place and time where religion, ritual and work are dominant. The creative team understands the importance of the culture, and Canoga Park, California, proves to be an apt setting for Lorca’s play. Rivera’s direction is clean and spare, and tragedy that frames the work is handled deftly.
Regina Morones is a soft and radiant Yerma as the play begins and as she revolves sensually around her husband Juan, handsomely acted by Caleb Cabrera. The two create real electricity.
When things go dark, Yerma in her unraveling alienates Juan and her relationship with the community of women goes sour. The casting here is superb: Led by Incarnacíón (Linda Amayo-Hassan), the edgy, humorous mother of many, the women embrace Yerma, dance and sing, fight and console. Whenever they appear—Mylo Cardona (Veronica), Linda Maria Girón (Marta), Aisha Aurora Rivera (Dolores) and Alejandra Wahl (Maria) — they command the stage.
Sebastian Gutierrez’ music greatly enhances the play, especially as darkness overcomes Yerma. There is a memorable moment when the women go to the river to do their laundry and they sing “Bathe in the River,” a takeaway ballad that is one of the show’s high points. Catholicism is reflected in humorous signed moments, too, and the ritual of field work and home is always at the forefront.
Another specific cultural point of reference is made in a dream scene, when Yerma’s sometime boyfriend Victor (Samuel Prince) dances half-naked wearing a bull’s headpiece, the implication being that he might have been the better choice to father her children. There is a sinister turn in the scene, the women watching protectively.
Nina Ball’s set design and Valera Coble’s costumes are simple and serviceable: The actors move about the upstairs bedroom, the stairwell, the patio/field with ease; and there is engaging choreography by Raisa Donato and Natalie Greene throughout.
“Yerma,” presented by The Shotgun Players, continues at Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, through June 18. Tickets are $26-$46. Call (510) 841-6500, ext. 303, or visit shotgunplayers.org.