Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City’s Children’s Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London’s Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.
Pictured: Katie Stimpson and Cody Beyer. Photo by Devron Enarson.
By Elizabeth Ellis
About a year ago, I overheard a couple of guys, probably in their late 20s, in a bar discussing the recent election results. While the two weren’t exactly drunk, they were socially lubricated enough that they felt comfortable expressing opinions that would not be considered very politically correct. The guy on the left took a swig from his bottle and, gesturing with the bottle, said to his friend, “Do you have any idea how much easier things would be for us if women just stayed in the f*cking kitchen? God, that would be so great.” His friend smirked and nodded, adding, “Well, let’s see what happens now. Hope so.” It’s precisely because this antiquated attitude still prevails among so many people of all ages that, in the last 12 months, women feel a resurgence to resist and fight back harder than ever against these dinosaurs in thought, word, and deed. The timing could not be more perfect for Theatre Y and Red Tape Theatre, as they present a powerful and evocative production of YERMA, Gabriel García Lorca’s lyrical tale of a woman’s struggle to fulfill her destiny despite intense opposition from the most significant man in her life. This moody and eerie YERMA shows how multiple oppressions can lead to irreparable damage, and often to a violent end.
YERMA, which translates to “barren,” begins in the early 20th century in rural Spain. The titular character, played with despair and an undercurrent of danger by the ethereal Katie Stimpson, has been married for two years to a shepherd named Juan (the dismissive, nasty, and brutish Cody W. Beyer); theirs was an arranged marriage. Yerma believes that a woman’s purpose is to bear children, and those who choose not to face the pain and fear of childbirth are cowards, and unless they bear children, they will rot from the inside. While Yerma is desperate to fulfill her dream and her destiny by becoming a mother, Juan does not want children. The couple’s relationship deteriorates as the years pass, and Yerma’s obsession with becoming a mother intensifies.
Part of the reason Yerma agreed to the marriage to Juan, besides her duty to have children, was that a marriage afforded both of them an air of respectability. As the facade of her union becomes more clear to Yerma, she abandons the idea of living as a respectable wife. Juan is sick of her, and Yerma’s innocent flirtations with another shepherd, Victor (the strong and appealing Brendan J. Mulhern) foment gossip in their tiny, insular community. Her perceived transgression angers Juan, and prods him to demand that Yerma stay housebound. At a local fiesta with overtones of pagan fertility rites, Yerma secretly appears and asks a crone to help her have a child. To Yerma’s dismay, her request falls flat; to add to her misery, Juan discovers Yerma at the fiesta, and their future of their marriage is threatened as the two engage in a fierce and horrible argument.
Director Max Truax’s staging beautifully brings a sense of both the macabre and the mundane as he guides the actors to embody simple country folk as well as powerful images in Yerma’s mind. The audience is seated in a circle around the performance area, representing not only Yerma’s confinement, but reminiscent of witches who cast a circle in which they perform ritual magic. The supporting cast comprises great actors and singers, making Nicholas Tonozzi’s haunting music flow seamlessly throughout the show. Joanna Iwanicka’s set is minimal but perfectly captures the spooky nature of the show: The floor is covered in black mulch, suggesting either burnt remnants of something past, or a ripe medium for growth. Benjamin Holliday Wardell’s choreography captures both the feelings of traditional folk and modern dances. The dirt-streaked slip dresses and work trousers from costumer Melissa Lorraine bring to mind the garments of those who work the earth, with the exception of Yerma, who maintains a spotless white dress until she abandons her pretense of a devoted wife.
YERMA, which Lorca described as a tragic poem, could easily be misconstrued as a throwback to traditional and restrictive feminine values, as Yerma is obsessed with only having a son, and berates women who don’t share her desire for motherhood. But YERMA’s themes move far beyond that. Yerma refuses to live under\ the stifling restrictions of her church, her community, her gender — much as Lorca resisted the growing influences of fascism in 1930’s Spain. YERMA continues to remind us of the importance of the fight to live the truth of our lives despite outside corrosive influences, and the pressure to accede to convention. This starkly beautiful production will stay in your mind for a long time.
YERMA runs through December 10th. For more information visit theatre-y.com.