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Reproduction Becomes an Obsession in Yerma

Billie Piper stars in this transfer from London's Young Vic.

Billie Piper and Brendan Cowell star in the Young Vic production of Yerma, adapted and directed by Simon Stone, at Park Avenue Armory.
(© Stephanie Berger)

There's an uncomfortable voyeurism to Yerma, writer-director Simon Stone's adaptation of the play by Federico García Lorca now making its North American premiere at Park Avenue Armory following an initial run at London's Young Vic. The audience sits on two sides of the traverse stage, a barrier of protective glass shielding us from the happenings therein, as if the actors were particularly dangerous zoo animals. I felt dirty and even a little queasy after watching, but I couldn't look away. How could anyone possibly look away from a play that surges through the bloodstream like a nonstop adrenaline rush?

Stone takes Lorca's tale of infertility in rural Spain and transposes it to contemporary London, replacing a shepherd and his wife with two characters that are more relatably bourgeois. "Follow the lesbians," says John (an unsuspectingly sympathetic Brendan Cowell), sharing his real estate strategy with his partner (known only as "Her" and played with gale-force fury by Billie Piper). They've just closed on a three-story home in an up-and-coming neighborhood, and they're celebrating by drinking Veuve Clicquot out of plastic cups. "Next time we're buying Dom," John promises.

John MacMillan plays Victor and Billie Piper plays Her in Yerma.
(© Stephanie Berger)

But heartbreak inhabits the gap between promise and reality in Yerma. Now that they have so much living space, who will actually live in it? Years go by as they unsuccessfully try to conceive. Her aptly named sister, Mary (Charlotte Randle), has a child, so why doesn't she? Her mother (Maureen Beattie, cold as frost on a Scottish moor) quietly judges her daughter's headlong rush into domesticity. The memory of a youthful abortion makes Her wonder if ex-boyfriend Victor (John MacMillan) would have made a better match. Still, she persists.

While Stone's decision to steep Lorca's tale in upper-middle-class privilege might at first seem like yet another needless erasure of the poor from our culture, it actually ups the ante in this story of unfulfilled expectation: These are people who have been raised into the myth that you can have it all and who possess the resources to attempt to defy nature through expensive fertility treatments. Her's ability to fly close to the sun makes her fall to earth that much more brutal.

Compounding the cruelty of Stone's retelling is Her's occupation as a professional blogger determined to document her fertility woes online. "This is next level sh*t," remarks coworker Des (an aggressively youthful Thalissa Teixeira) after reading a mean-spirited post in which our protagonist plumbs the depths of her resentment, irreparably damaging several relationships in the process. Des consumes the viral metrics of the post like a speed addict snorting extra-pure cocaine, and we watch Her drive her life off a cliff in the quest to score more hits.

The cast of Yerma enacts a party scene.
(© Stephanie Berger)

All the while, we remain safe behind the glass set designer Lizzie Clachan has installed to insulate us, a theatrical representation of the ubiquitous screens we use to quench our thirst for schadenfreude and pity. Clachan and Stone strip each scene to its bare essentials, a strategy that forces us to focus on the performers while making the multiple blackouts pay off in big ways. The only time their home fills with furniture in a naturalistic way comes when she babysits her nephew. Yet James Farncombe's soft lighting and Stefan Gregory's dreamy music suggest that this is the least realistic scene in the whole play. Farncombe reverts to harsher lighting elsewhere, while Gregory's amplification of the actors' voices conveys both clinical distance and intimacy, almost like we're spying on the characters. Gregory's interstitial music becomes increasingly agitated to the point that you may be left with the jitters for hours after the curtain call.

Nothing will leave you more shaken than Piper's penetrating performance. Her character is prone to unpredictable bouts of malice, yet we never completely lose our sympathy for her. Piper forces us to see her character's flawed humanity in its fullest form. Wearing her dress backward and soaked to the bone by the final scene (earthy costume design by Alice Babidge), she is likely to trigger the maternal instincts of many audience members. They won't be able to rescue her, though: A wall of glass keeps us apart.

Stone conclusively proves that such physical barriers are no impetus to our emotional investment in a play. Yerma will have you on the edge of your seat and gasping for air as our protagonist chases her illusive mirage across a scorching desert of ruined dreams.

Billie Piper stars in Yerma at Park Avenue Armory.
(© Stephanie Berger)