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Quantum Theatre tackles Federico Garcia Lorca's earthy Yerma

There's a story behind Quantum Theatre's production of Federico Garcia Lorca's Yerma. Actually, there are several.

Lorca, the iconic Spanish poet, was an outspoken Communist who in 1936, at age 38, was gunned down by Nationalists during his country's civil war. Frequently drawing on gypsy culture, he left behind a celebrated body of work, including the posthumously published Poet in New York.

Melanie Dreyer, a performer and director who formerly taught drama at the University of Pittsburgh, recently read Yerma while teaching at Cornell University. The 1935 work tells of a Spanish village woman who pines for a child. Her husband's disinterest, and her refusal to go outside marriage, drives her to obsession, with tragic consequences.

"I said, 'Oh my god, I've got to tell this woman's story,'" says Dreyer, who herself waited years to become a mother. "It's a play about longing and need, and what you're willing to sacrifice to get what you want."

She approached Quantum's artistic director Karla Boos. Before leaving Pittsburgh, Dreyer had seen Quantum's flamenco-inflected The Red Shoes; Boos, meanwhile, was still pursuing a passion for flamenco she'd acquired while working in Spain. The pair approached Carolina Loyola-Garcia, who'd danced in Red Shoes, but who was interested in Yerma as a video artist. Loyola-Garcia, herself a native of Chile, then teamed with Jose Munían, a local Spanish-born filmmaker, to create the show's video component.

The show's flamenco arrived in the persons of Cihtli Ocampo and Echan Margolis. The U.S.-born husband and wife are acclaimed performers, she a dancer, he a singer and guitarist. Mark Chapman, of Pittsburgh's Guitar Society of Fine Art, connected them to Boos.

Inspired by Lorca's florid style, Quantum's adaptation is a stylized affair. Inside a former bank branch, the audience will pass through rough-hewn wooden doors to find a set in the round, consisting mostly of two small bales of hay, augmented by period-looking axes and clay pitchers. Margolis and his guitar will perch on a raised platform. Four video projectors will pour still and moving images (from forest scenes to abstract sequences) on the white fabric walls surrounding the risers. Characters sometimes appear in silhouette behind the fabric, often the acclaimed Ocampo, who portrays not a scripted character but Yerma's alter ego -- "her passion and soul," says Dreyer.

Melinda Helfrich plays Yerma, Fermin Suraez her husband. Margolis will play all music he composed for the show, with motifs for each character.

Munían says he considers Lorca the Spanish equivalent of a great Pittsburgh-born playwright who set epic, universal stories in humble locales. "What August Wilson did for the people of the Hill District, Lorca did for the gypsies," says Munían, who grew up in Spain during Franco era, when Lorca's plays, though not overtly political, were forbidden.

Yerma remains seldom performed. "It's so primal and female," says Boos. "I think it's not done because it takes a lot of courage" -- the kind of courage, perhaps, that Yerma herself lacks.

Boos sees Yerma as a critique of traditional society, and of the patriarchal mores that oppressed people like Yerma -- and Lorca himself, a gay man. But Lorca, she says, also saw tragedy in Yerma's own inhibitions: "It seems he was saying, 'The glass of water is right there -- drink it.'"

 

Quantum Theatre presents Yerma Thu., April 2-April 26. ArtDimensions Pittsburgh building, Penn and Highland avenues, East Liberty. $25-35 ($15 students). 412-394-3353 or www.quantumtheatre.com

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