By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
There are times when resetting a classic work in an updated time or alternative setting makes sense to breathe new life into staid works or to give them a new perspective. Take, for instance, Jonathan Miller’s 1982 production of the English National Opera’s Rigoletto. He famously moved the 16th century setting (with 19th century music) to New York’s “Little Italy” of the 1950s and installed the Duke of Mantua as a mob boss.
While such moves might seem contrived to some, they can have the desired effect of turning a classic piece into a more relevant and vibrant work that resonates within our own time. Such is the case with The House That Will Not Stand, currently plodding the boards at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré.
Based on The House of Bernarda Alba, the last play by ill-fated Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, The House That Will Not Stand is Marcus Gardley’s reimagining of Lorca’s poetic tale of woe and black humor regarding a house of mourning.
It was Lorca’s romantic intent to set his play a century before his own time in the Spain of 1836. When Gardley wrote his work about the domineering mother figure Beatrice Albans and her three daughters and set it in New Orleans in 1813. He wanted to capture the time when the incursion of Americans had begun to change the Creole society and its extralegal system of placage.
Quite simply, placage was employed by wealthy European men as a way to permit free women of color to be considered as being in a civil union. The placées were not recognized as wives, but the Creole society considered them as mariages de la main gauche or “left-handed marriages,” which permitted the women to command respect and obtain property.
Director abaigail jean-baptiste, who recently served as the assistant director of the Tony Award-winning Jagged Little Pill on Broadway, directed this work and assembled a notable cast of Black actresses, all with local roots.
Leading the ensemble is Troi Bechet in the role of the indomitable Beartrice Albans. With a slight limp, carrying a cane and enveloped in the black raiment of mourning, she dominates her daughters, ordering they obey her demands. She is intractable and insistent her daughters not assume the lives of placées, lest they lose their independence and standing.
Bechet’s riveting performance contains several special moments in her interaction with the others. Her nemesis is La Veuve, played by Tommye Myrick, the noted director, who oils her way around the stage, trying to get an upper hand and, perhaps, swoop in to steal Albans’ property.
Tameka Bob, a veteran of TV and film, makes a triumphant return home after living in Los Angeles for the past decade. She plays Makeda, a slave who is owned by Beartrice and a device by Gardley to remind audiences that free people of color were, indeed, slave owners like their White counterparts. Bob’s presence on stage contains specific moments of clarity as her total commitment and entire motivation is to achieve her freedom, either by a legal instrument or by buying her way out of servitude.
Makeda is also a shadowy figure, who Gardley installs as a practitioner of voodoo. La Veuve pumps Makeda for information regarding the demise of Lazare Albans, the wealthy White man who kept Beartrice and fathered her three daughters Odette (Jarrrell Hamilton), Agnes (Grace Gibson) and Maude Lynn (Elexis Selmon). It turns out he may have died under suspicious circumstances and, quite possibly, at the hand of Beartrice. Makeda uses her lowly position to extract bribes from La Veuve, hell bent on buying her freedom if the death of the estate’s master complicates Beartrice’s ability to inherit.
Odette and Agnes are sexually aware and seeking a way out from under their mother’s domineering presence. Maude Lynn is sexually repressed and largely disapproving of her sister’s overtures towards entering into contracts with eager White men at the balls, where the potential placées gather.
Hamilton and Gibson are superb in fleshing out their motivation as conflicted women who desire the company of men and sexual fulfillment, but who also wish to honor their mother’s wishes.
The tension is heightened with Gardley setting the time at 1813, ten years after the Louisiana Purchase and the beginning of the end of the recognition of placage. Lazare’s death complicates Beartrice’s inheritance, Makeda’s possible freedom and the daughters’ ability to live lives of leisure.
Also present in the household is Marie Josephine, Beatrice’s slightly off-center sister, played by Laurita Marie, who brings with her an element of humor into this largely dire tail of death and doom.
The scenic design by Jungah Han is remarkable and the actresses are all clad in detailed and accurate costumes of the period by Darolyn Robertson. Lighting designs by Itohan Edoloyi compliment the sound designs from Ghazi Gamali that combine to give the production an elegant look and mystical feel.
If ever a modern work deserved to play in the City That Care Forgot, it is The House That Will Not Stand, the title a reference to the famous quote by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil Ward regarding a divided union. With its many issues regarding propriety, sexual repression and the rights of New Orleans women of color during this period, this play has much to speak to its audiences.
Directed by abigail jean-baptiste, The House That Will Not Stand continues its run at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré, 616 St. Peter Street in New Orleans. For tickets click here or call 504-522-2081.