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House of the Unholy: “Bernarda’s Daughters” reviewed

Bernarda’s Daughters, by Diane Exavier, is a title guaranteed to trigger thoughts of The House of Bernarda Alba, the distinguished play by Federico García Lorca (written 1936; premiered 1945). In that modern classic, a household of five sexually repressed sisters are cooped up at home in a rural village in Andalusia, Spain, under the domineering presence of their mother. I directed Lorca’s tragedy around 40 years ago, and only last month read Leslie Stainton’s doorstopper biography of the playwright. I was thus primed to see this staging of Exavier’s play—a coproduction of the New Group and the National Black Theatre—very loosely inspired by Lorca, set around a contemporary Haitian-American family in Flatbush, Brooklyn. (According to the play’s website, other inspirations include “Sylvia Wynter’s The House and Land of Mrs. Alba, with poetic and literary cues from Kamau Braithwaite, Louise Glück, Mary Ruefle, Toni Morrison, and more.”)

Lorca’s play may have served as an inspiration, but Bernarda’s Daughters is a different play entirely. Despite several expert performances, it pales in comparison to the far more dramatically compact House of Bernarda Alba, making comparisons futile. Lorca’s cast of nearly 20—many of them minor roles—is reduced to six, the five Abellard daughters (only a couple of whose names resemble the originals) and their eccentric grandmother, Florence Delva (Tamara Tunie). Lorca’s potent matriarch, Bernarda, is gone (although her name remains and someone gets to briefly impersonate her), as is the formidable maid, Poncia.

In Bernarda’s Daughters, the family house—at Bedford Avenue and Lenox Road, for interested Brooklynites—is being encroached on by a new apartment house; among many other outside sounds, noise from its construction continues to be heard throughout the action (sound design Kathy Ruvuna). The neighborhood is being gentrified by whites who can afford high rental prices, a fact that has increased the house’s value in real estate eyes. (An internet check of the locale as it now looks shows all four corners of the intersection occupied by apartment houses, three old and one newish-looking.)

Carlos J. Sotos’s pared-down set forgoes a realistic depiction of the house, instead placing the Abellard women in a cage-like space surrounded by a series of slim black beams placed at the stage’s perimeter suggesting the house’s framework, the beams connected by transparent mesh; structural components, like windows, are lined with ribbon lighting. Plain upstage curtains can be swished open or closed, while the interior can be subdivided by another mesh curtain when a specific space needs to be defined. For a play in which the house is so central a symbolic, memory-laden component, the choice of representing it only as something to be imagined is seriously problematic.

Conventional furniture is replaced by cushions and plain wooden boxes painted in different colors, the kind of generic prop seen in countless low-budget Off-Broadway productions. Lighting designer Marika Kent does her best to bring visual interest to this unexciting environment, while costumer Rodrigo Muñoz succeeds in giving each of the sisters an appropriate look. The sisters’ father has died and, following his funeral in Brooklyn, Bernarda has returned to her native Haiti for his burial, leaving her daughters—who, as modern American women, have far more agency than Lorca’s—on their own, along with their grandma. Over the course of 90 intermissionless minutes, divided into five “acts” set during the summer heat, the sisters lounge around casually as Exavier’s structurally floppy play has them hopping from subject to subject on a flimsy dramatic base in which, absent their mother, the all-important element of conflict is sadly missing.

Every now and then their discourse is interrupted by their flamboyant, heavily accented grandmother, Florence. Dressed like a colorful villager with an odd crown composed of sticks, chicken bones, and other forms of detritus (hinting at some sort of Vodou power?), she introduces an element of ritualistic surrealism, singing of poetic images—the moon, a dead, catlike lover, and the land among them—repeating an unexplained refrain, “I sew the bag. Give me my bag.” She also offers elusive bits of exposition, commenting on the late father’s love for Bernarda, recalling her own “man,” and providing atmospheric Haitian memories. Several sisters are also likely to engage in elusively evocative speeches, sprinkled with images of sex, blood, and death. These, though, are too vague to contribute much to the play’s narrative thrust. Frequently, Haitian lingo, like “moun blan” for white person, peppers the dialogue.

The multiple issues touched on, most of them superficially, include the shooting by the cops of an innocent black man on the sidewalk outside—an act responsible for the protestors we hear offstage—and expressions like “fuck the police.” At times, several siblings discuss their generally unhappy relationships with men; one, Maryse (Malika Samuel), in a comment we might later apply to their late father, describes them as “power-hungry, grown-child sociopaths who will come very close to killing the woman they love in any number of ways, just to feel a little bit like kings.” This attitude, though, doesn’t prevent Maryse from openly flaunting her pleasure in sexual encounters with the opposite sex. In a passing reflection of Lorca’s concerns, sister Adela (Taji Senior) remarks on Bernarda’s belittling of the sisters’ sexuality.

Caustic comments are tossed off in the direction of local whites and their propensity for calling 911 at the slightest provocation. Several anti-Semitic jibes are so offensive to Adela that she launches, implausibly, into such a polished defense of Jewish involvement in finance that it actually gets a scattering of applause. There are multiple other threads, touching on names, birth certificates, the meaning of America (where you survive only by exploiting others), and so on; but little of it coheres.

The central dramatic problem, which pops up intermittently among the chatter, and which I’m not sure I fully grasped, has to do with the estate, which came into existence via insurance funds received via a misfired accident scheme cooked up by Daddy. The house was promised by their late father to Louise (Armand Pascale), whose birth mother came before Bernarda. Daddy, who, the sisters eventually learn, was supporting a second family, betrayed his trust, thereby enmeshing Louise in a legal tangle as she tries to somehow recoup the loss of money from the house’s sale, money with which she dreamed of opening a small vacation hotel.

Already in a relationship with a white guy named Matt (which earns sisterly frowns), Louise contemplates seducing Peter, the white, Jewish, real estate lawyer who now possesses the deed, so he’ll marry her and she can regain at least partial possession. This plan never seems to go anywhere, but is about the most dramatic thing in the plot, where it struggles for coherence. All the sisters, including Lena (Kristin Dodson) and Harriet (Alana Raquel Bowers), are well acted under Dominique Rider’s direction. The only acting weakness coming from the usually reliable veteran Tamara Tunie, who seems seriously miscast playing the problematic role of Florence Delva. Not for a minute is she a convincing Haitian peasant, neither in accent nor presence. But even had she seemed more authentic, it would not have prevented Bernarda’s Daughters from being a theatrical misfire.