Sunday, April 8, 2018

Yerma - Where Need Becomes A Dangerous Obsession

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Director Simon Stone's reinterpretation of Federico García Lorca's Yerma is, quite simply, one of the best shows of this or any other theatre season. Enjoying its North American premiere at the Park Avenue Armory, and featuring a tour-de-force performance by Billie Piper, the work examines the unraveling of a relationship where those involved are each hoping for a markedly different outcome.

Set in present day London, Piper's character, referred to simply as "Her", is in a very happy relationship with John (Brendan Cowell). However she's about to turn 33 and, hearing her biological clock ticking, wants to have a child. Something John seemingly wants no part of. Trying to put the matter on hold for as long as possible, he arranges for his work to take him out of town for longer and longer periods. Said travel not coincidentally occurring during the time his mate is most fertile. Even when John finally acquiesces to his partner's need and really throws himself into the matter, so to speak, the attempts and results are much less than encouraging.

Piper's character is also a professional journalist and blogger. Often writing about personal issues important to her. Her co-worker Des (Thalissa Teixeira) continually urging she make her postings as real as possible. The result being that even though she changes the names of all involved, anyone who knows Her and those in her orbit, can pretty well guess who she's referring to. Such as John's friends and colleagues, who quickly key in on mentions of his possible infertility, and his refusal to get tested. Or the fact how, she once induced him to orgasm while he was passed out drunk. She also refuses John's request to stop writing about her attempts to get pregnant; feeling that sharing this story has become so much of who she is. Her ever growing need in this regard blinding her to the fact she's not the only person in this equation. She also failing to notice how her own sense of identity may be more tied up in trying to conceive a child, rather than actually having one.

Much of this character's need to have a child may also stem from the relationship she has with her own mother (Maureen Beattie). A woman quick with comic or caustic remarks, but having serious issues of her own when it comes to being emotionally close with her offspring. Thus by having a child, Her can then shower it with the maternal love she herself never received.

In the program notes, Lorca is quoted as saying Yerma has no plot; and indeed, the early scenes remind one of a rather sappy British sit-com. Featuring snap shots of Her and John in a sexual and alcohol-fueled existence. Yet it's not long before things start to become intensely real, with both characters forced to face the cold light of reality. Especially when it comes to truths neither wants to hear.

Brendan Cowell (John) and Billy Piper (Her) in Yerma at Park Avenue Armory. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

Stone's staging of his own adaptation is nothing short of brilliant. He taking an 84 year-old play, albeit one with a universal theme, and placing it in a totally relevant and modern setting. With all the emotional baggage that comes with it. The various scenes divided by such ominous sounding titles as "Disillusion", "Reality", "Deception" and Descent", among others.

Another essential element of the story is the very intriguing set by set designer Lizzie Clachan. The show taking place in what can best be described as a huge glass tank which fills most of the stage. Watching the characters ensconced therein, one can't help but feel those inside exist in their own closed universe. Each often unable to see beyond their own needs and desires, and where compromise, such as adoption, is definitely not an option.

Piper, who is onstage for almost the entire play, gives a shattering performance, going from a well-adjusted woman to one mentally and emotionally unhinged, while spiraling deeper and deeper into despair. Originally seeming somewhat vapid, it's not long before the audience sees exactly where she's coming from as they quite willingly accompany her on the emotional roller coaster that has become her existence.

Cowell is very good as John, providing a perfect counterbalance to Piper's performance. He matching her verbal joust for joust, while also being the more realistic person in the relationship. Ironically, it's John, for all his selfishness, who ultimately becomes the more responsible of the two. While also displaying an important streak of self-preservation.

Charlotte Randle works well as Mary. the sister of the Piper character. Someone who has relationship problems of her own, and who also figures into her sibling's writings - as well as some unpleasant fantasies. Beattie gives a strong performance as Her and Mary's mother. A woman who cares about her children from a distance, yet is unable to give either of her daughters the emotional support and understanding they need. John MacMillan does a nice turn as Victor, a former lover who unexpectedly reenters the picture and who may be a possible solution to a certain problem.

Also deserving of mention is the excellent work by lighting designer James Farncombe, and music and sound designer Stefan Gregory.

Interesting when it starts and riveting by the time it finishes, Yerma works best because it never forgets the various human elements in this all-too-real situation.

Featuring: Maureen Beattie (Helen), Brendan Cowell (John), John MacMillan (Victor), Billie Piper (Her), Charlotte Randal (Mary), Thalissa Teixeira (Des)

by Simon Stone
after Federico García Lorca

Directed by Simon Stone
Set Designer: Lizzie Clachan
Costume Designer: Alice Babidge
Lighting Designer: James Farncombe
Music and Sound Designer: Stefan Gregory
Video Designer: Jack Henry James
Casting: Julie Horan CDG
Associate Director: Kate Hewitt
Associate Lighting Designer: Nicki Brown
Associate Sound Designer: Peter Rice
Company Stage Manager: Pippa Meyer
Deputy Stage Manager: Sophie Rubenstein
Stage Manager: Cynthia Cahill
Assistant Stage Manager: Heather Cryan
Assistant Stage Manager: Ella Saunders
Production Manager: Jim Leaver

A Park Avenue Armory and Young Vic Production
Thompson Arts Center at Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Avenue at 67th Street

Tickets: 212-933-5812 or

Running Time: 1 hour, 50 Minutes, no intermission

Closes: April 21, 2018