Billie Piper burns like a flame given fuel onstage with her incendiary performance in Simon Stone’s modernized Yerma — an update of Federico García Lorca’s 1934 drama — currently running at the Park Avenue Armory.
Piper proves herself many times over as an actress capable of dizzying, heartbreaking heights and infernal lows, bringing such pain to Her, the central heroine in this adaptation of the rural fairy tale of infertility.
Stone, a young director with a keen eye for misery, has crafted a vehicle for both Piper’s talents and an uncomfortable, difficult piece of theater that challenges audiences in ways very few are able to understand. Thankfully, the world has someone like Stone and talent like Piper to make visions like that possible.
Stone has created something less in the tradition of Othello in modern garb and more in line with the tradition of directors like Ivo van Hove and Thomas Ostermeier. His idea of adaptation is not to recreate the conditions but to update the themes within the frame, which is why his vision of Yerma works so well.
Stone does not try to retell Yerma, but instead contextualize it in today’s world where the internet and expectations of children have changed the landscape for women like Her.
Stone’s Yerma does not end like Lorca’s, but that is not to say that it is somehow kinder or more forgiving. The new production is far more brutal, and the staging Stone creates makes it all the more horrible.
Lizzie Clachan has built what is essentially a terrarium for the inhabitants of Stone’s retelling. The set gives the audience a voyeuristic take on the lives of people whose existences become connected to the weird artificial intelligences of the womb known as babies.
Piper’s character does not know if she really wants a child, but her uncertainty soon proves itself to be a defense mechanism for a true desire to raise kids and love a new life. Everyone around her, however, has very different thoughts on the matter.
Brendan Cowell’s character, John, is apathetic toward the idea of raising a child, making for an unpleasant cocktail when mixed with his love for Her. Distance grows, followed by moments of forced emotional intimacy in order to bridge new divides.
The emotional divide between John and Her are made clear by the thrust-like nature of the stage, only cemented by the quicksilver set changes courtesy of Clachan, as if the lives of the characters are speeding by.
The incredibly creepy choral music and soundscapes created by Stefan Gregory evoke liturgical vibes, making the story seem like a folktale or a biblical parable. The music makes it seem as if there is no hope in any corner of this world — not even in the voices of those singing. It is remarkably easy to imagine a chorus of nuns mournfully retelling the story of Her, though that is one mass that might be recommended for skipping.
Of special note is James Farncombe’s light design that transports and attacks, going from gentle mood lighting for a backyard wedding to outright, dread-inducing rave lights that make one feel as if they are going to be grabbed from behind.
The rave scene in particular is probably the pinnacle of both the production and Stone’s ability to update classic texts.
Where van Hove has made his mark on Shakespeare and Ostermeier has made Ibsen his gift, Stone easily makes the rural tragedies of Lorca his own.
He has a talent for observing the universality of sorrow and coaxing those thoughts into a fluid dramatic form that feels as if it will spill far over the stage and into the hearts of those watching. The transcendent acting makes that feeling all the more palpable.
Piper’s pain as Her is just as palpable, slithering and snaking its way into everyone around her like a parasite. The vile accusations, terrible confessions and road to ruin that Her bathes herself in, whether by choice or not, defines the show’s atmosphere of anxiety.
It is difficult to tell what exactly causes Her sudden desire to have children, but it is a feeling that many can empathize with. One particular moment Her has with John creates an immediate wave of gasps and cries, as if the audience is about to rush the terrarium and try to warn them. It is sudden and brief but fools everyone, especially the characters of the play.
Yerma pulls no punches, ready to tickle and stab in the same go. Stone does not care about the audience’s whims which makes his dramatic skill all the more valuable.
His methods are harsh and the actors work through it as if they entered into a war of attrition with their souls. It is hard not to look into Her eyes and wonder, just for a moment, if what one sees is darkness or reflection.