Yale Rep has really got this invigorated-classics thing down. Capping a season that included the modernistic, politicized old-school commedia of Accidental Death of an Anarchist, the cutting-edge legend-warping of The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, and These Paper Bullets’ Beatlesque rebranding of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, now comes The House That Will Not Stand, Marcus Gardley’s brash Louisiana transplanting of basic themes from Federico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba.
Like those previous productions, The House That Will Not Stand adds loud, fast dialogue, music and rhythm, raucous comedy, musings on mortality, passionate monologues of exasperation and high theatrics to some well-laid groundwork.
With the surefooted formatting of European drama at its core, The House That Will Not Stand’s subject matter and mid-19th century New Orleans setting allow for an extra gloss of giddiness, glorious wardrobes and grandiloquence.
Garcia Lorca’s 1936 play about sexist social traditions, mother/daughter relations and upholding the reputation of one’s family may have inspired The House That Will Not Stand, but you can’t confuse the new work for a mere adaptation or update. Marcus Gardley dashes off wildly in several new directions. He sets the drama in 1836, and in New Orleans rather than Spain. He reduces the number of daughters in the drama from five to three. He adds modern slang and informality—the younger women in the show spend more time onstage getting dressed than actually being dressed up.
Gardley allows for a man to appear on stage, which Garcia Lorca didn’t. He accesses the supernatural. He adds ceremony and slapstick and dance and high fashion.
The play is funny, human and earthy from the get-go. How earthy? You can see fake moss and greenery dripping from the catwalk and scaffolding surrounding the elaborate two-story set.
The House That Will Stand also stands with earlier Rep shows this season in the way that a building becomes a central character. The Rep’s season-opening production of A Streetcar Named Desire had a house that shook. Owners equated romance with real estate. Accidental Death of an Anarchist took place in a station house where someone had been interrogated right out of a window. The House That Will Not Stand’s house plays as important a role as does the cherry orchard in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. It represents power, tradition and security, but those elements turn out to be tenuous. There’s plenty of suspense to be had in the stories of all the women onstage—the imperious matriarch Beartrice, the vain and vaguely desperate Agnes, the devout Maude Lynn, the innocent-then-incendiary Odette, and the household’s maid/slave Makeda—but if the house falls, play’s over.
This is one of those fun ensemble shows where there are a constant buzz of dialogue and a shared vocal rhythm (bolstered by the offstage live thumping of percussionist Jocelyn Pleasant), but also lots of opportunities for the performers to distinguish themselves and break free with absorbing solo moments. There’s also depth. The lighthearted banter turns cold and mocking. The mother/daughter relations get more and more strained. The severe emotional abuses inflicted by parents on their children becomes as dominant a theme as the cultural issues of the South emerging from its legacy of slavery or the continued injustices suffered by women and people of mixed race in America 178 years ago. The actors are lively and playful, especially Harriett D. Foy as Makeda, a whirlwind of whimsy, music and held-back righteous indignation. There are sisterly rivalries, particularly between the 19-year-old know-it-all cattily characterized by Tiffany Rachelle Stewart and Joniece Abbott-Pratt as the ingénue younger sis whose darker skin leads to one of the sordid subplots. (The other sister, played by Flor. De Liz Perez, provides some moral grounding and straightwoman reactions but not much more.) Hovering above it all is the tyrannical mom played by Lizan Mitchell, who’s just lost her no-good yet wealthy husband and now is in danger of losing her grip on her daughters and on the family fortune.
A lot of these interactions are played for laughs, and there are extreme situations which seem comically exaggerated. But these characters’ struggles have been mighty, and Marcus Gardley masterfully balances the light and the heavy so that there’s actual drama here. When the bickering, well-heeled family’s complacence all comes crashing town, it makes for a heck of a finale.
The House That Will Not Stand plays through May 10 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven. (203) 432-1234.