U-M's production of the musical tragedy "Bernarda Alba" mixes period costumes and an abstract set to confront contemporary issues facing women


UMich's production of Bernarda Alba

Scenic designer Jungah Han created an inventive set for U-M's production of Bernarda Alba, which had a drab look when it opened in New York City in 2006. Photo courtesy of Linda Goodrich.

Fredrico Garcia Lorca wrote The House of Bernarda Alba in 1936, shortly before he was murdered by a nationalist firing squad during the Spanish Civil War. Michael John LaChiusa shortened the title to Bernarda Alba when he set the play to music and added lyrics; he made some changes to the play while keeping the essential story: 

Bernarda Alba assumes the role of family head after her husband’s funeral. She orders her five unmarried daughters, ages 20-39, to mourn for eight years, as her mother did before her. It will be as though the house is bricked up; even crying is forbidden. One problem is that three of the sisters are enamored with the handsome Pepe el Romano—the eldest is engaged to him—and jealousy takes center stage. But what exactly can the sisters do under the circumstances? Turns out, some life-altering things.

When the musical tragedy opened at Lincoln Center in New York in 2006, the scenic design was drab, a realistic depiction of this closed and lonely home. 

For Linda Goodrich's production of LaChiusa's Bernarda Alba adaptation that's running November 10-13 at the University of Michigan, scenic designer Jungah Han dropped the drab for what Goodrich calls a “wildly inventive” set. The stark red floor is bordered by a black playing area, with a kind of ceiling that descends to oppress the characters. Actors step out of character and onto the rim at times to witness the action or to narrate. 

Bernarda Alba costume designs

Bernarda Alba character sketches by costume designer Christianne Myers. Image courtesy of Christianne Myers.

Costume designer Christianne Myers dresses most of the characters in black, shades of gray, and ghostly white. The all-women ensemble wears basic blouses and aprons with simple lace shawls, short veils, and fans. Black circle skirts complete the outfits. 

Only Adele, the youngest, defies her mother’s wishes. She will have love no matter what. And she will wear green. 

Bernarda Alba costume design for Adele

Costume designer Christianne Myers put the youngest daughter of Bernarda Alba in a defiant green dress to contrast with the oppressive black and gray clothes of the other characters. Image courtesy of Christianne Myers.

In addition to revealing character traits and helping set time and place, costumes have to allow actors to move. In this case, choreographer Ron De Jesus staged authentic flamenco dances, something new to Goodrich and the team, and Myers says she had to study the way the skirts would move before designing them.

Bernarda Alba costume designs

Christianne Myers studied how flamenco dancers' dresses moved before designing the costumes in Bernarda Alba. Image courtesy of Christianne Myers.

The contrast between the abstract set and realistic period costuming as well as the use of actors who step out of character serves to connect the actors to the audience, pull spectators out of the action, and ask us to think about what we’re seeing. 

And what Goodrich wants us to think about is the repression of women, a story that is timeless and never ends well.

“One of the themes I find extremely relevant in today’s world is the policing of women and how the extreme misogyny, repression, and shaming prompts women to disempower or disrespect each other, in an attempt to [exert] agency,” she says. 

U-M chose the plays for this season last spring, before Roe v Wade was overturned and before women in Iran began protesting oppression at great risk.

“I’m shocked that we’re once again at a time when women and LGBTQ people are fighting for bodily autonomy," Goodrich says. "This is an important and sadly relevant time for this story to be told.”

U-M has a dramaturg for the first time, Karin Waidley, who helped students answer questions they had about the text and historical background. She says they talked about gender norms at the time and about Lorca’s life and sexuality—he was gay, in a society that would have demanded the same sort of sexual repression the women experience in this. 

The music director/conductor is Catherine A. Walker, the lighting is designed by Shelby Loera, and the sound is by Al Hurschman. Others who helped create this work include fight directors Erik Dagoberg and Atticus Olivet, production stage manager Ainsley Grace, assistant scenic designer Ryan Espitia, and assistant dramaturg Ty Amsterdam. 

Goodrich says mounting the piece was extremely challenging: "Walker worked with a difficult score and unique, interesting instrumentation. The SMTD Stearns collection supported us in allowing use of some very rare instruments."

The director, who has staged some of the most delightful musicals at U-M, says “there is no lightness in this work. I hope that the audience may see where different decisions could have been made to affect a more hopeful outcome. We get to choose how we respond. I hope that theater will always help us to look to better our world.” 

Ann Arbor-based arts journalist Davi Napoleon did her undergraduate work at the University of Michigan and holds a doctorate in theater history, theory, and criticism from New York University. Her book is Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theater.

“Bernarda Alba” runs from November 10-13 at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the University of Michigan’s North Campus, 1226 Murfin Ave., Ann Arbor. For tickets and further information, visit tickets.smtd.umich.edu.