How many ways do men mistreat women?
In "Bernada Alba," Michael John LaChiusa's elegiac musical that opened Saturday in director Crystal Manich's stately, if dour, production for Theater Latté Da, you can count the ways.
Husbands ignore, cheat on and ultimately abandon their wives, leaving the word "whore!" hanging in the air like rotten fruit. Suitors communicate in the gruff language of merchants buying farm animals. And male overlords force themselves onto female underlings, making it understandable that there's not just relief, but celebration when one of these cads dies.
The best any of these women can hope for is a partner who is not too terrible.
Like Federico Garcia Lorca's 1936 play on which it is based, LaChiusa's 2006 musical has no men onstage. Women play the roles in pantomime. Still, men hold strange sway over the Spanish village where the show is set, both as potential romantic partners and, paradoxically, as ways out of the women's confined worlds.
That confinement is presided over by the title character, who deals with the world as it is, not as she wishes it to be.
We hear the footfalls of Bernada Alba (Regina Marie Williams, in a performance that's a walking monument to strength) before she even appears to mourn her second husband, who has died, leaving her with property and five unmarried daughters under her domineering hand.
She keeps her offspring, from 20-year-old Adela (Stephanie Bertumen) to 39-year-old Angustias (Kate Beahen), cloistered from the world for their own protection. But she's trying to corral forces — desire, passion, freedom —she cannot control. Angustias, who inherited money from her father, is being courted, which awakens rash desires in Adela and in Martirio (Meghan Kreidler), considered too ugly to ever marry. It all ends badly.
LaChiusa, who wrote the book and lyrics, is known for quirky works, including "Marie Christine," which is a voodoo "Medea," and "The Wild Party," a vaudeville orgy that ends tragically. "Bernarda Alba" feels like a chamber opera, with lots of Spanish musical influences. But the music doesn't always sit right with the voices, even as Manich has tapped an all-star cast of celebrated singers who whoop and yelp as they are accompanied by Jason Hansen's thrumming band.
The voices do not always cohere, owing to the fact that the show feels more like an opera than musical theater. Even so, the performances are individually notable. Williams' Bernarda Alba can cut you with a look or a note, and Williams embodies that force with severity. Bertumen's Adela has youth, verve and naiveté on her side, and she comes across like a Spanish Juliet. Kreidler is far too striking to play the ugly duckling, but the actor plumbs Martirio's wounded rejection with skill. For comic relief, no one can beat Kim Kivens, whose senile Maria Josepha, Bernarda's mother, is a font of levity in a landscape of darkness (Mary Shabatura designed the lights).
From Manich's staging, which uses coats and hats to suggest characters, through Kelli Foster Warder's poetic choreography, the production is suffused with vividly evocative metaphors. That symbolism extends to Alice Fredrickson's period costumes, including a white dress that fans out like a peacock tail, and to the set itself, a transporting Spanish courtyard designed by Kate Sutton-Johnson.
Truly, there's a lot that's palpable and moving in "Bernarda Alba"— and makes it well worth seeing — even if you leave saying "sheesh!"