Lorca’s 1936 play The House of Bernarda Alba, written on the eve of the Spanish Civil War, tells the story of five sisters sequestered upon the death of the family patriarch. The edict of widow Bernarda Alba condemns them to eight years of chaste mourning, foreshadowing the fascism (and sexism) of the Franco regime. LaChiusa’s 2006 adaptation sets this tale to music, and Boho’s use of the tiny Heartland space plops you into its virtual nunnery as effectively as any Sean Graney stratagem. Perched practically in the audience’s lap, the performers make the sisters’ heartbreak a concrete proposition, and their cruel lockdown a truly shared experience.
The “environmental” strength of the show is also its Achilles’ heel. To paraphrase an American sage, you do your show with the space you have, not the one you want, but the angry, longing, sorrowful songs, sometimes belted out in six-part harmony, ultimately overwhelm the cramped venue. Though vocally impeccable, the singers are overstrident, echoing LaChiusa’s often-hammering idiom, which distills Lorca’s tragedy with unrelenting literality. The approach doesn’t so much condense the original as concentrate its pain, resulting in 90 minutes of stern musical-theater assault. And while the sexual politics of midcentury Spain aren’t irrelevant to modern women, LaChiusa dumbs down Lorca’s parable to an ad hominem indictment of men: for being absent, for abusing their power when present, for being men at all. When protest hardens into a self-fulfilling prophecy of victimhood, something has gone awry.