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‘Yerma’ review: Billie Piper gives an unforgettable performance in Off-Broadway drama

Simone Stone updates Federico García Lorca’s 1934 drama.

‘Yerma’ runs through April 21 at the Park Avenue Armory. 643 Park Ave., armoryonpark.org.

A young woman’s all-consuming desire to become pregnant leads to Greek tragedy-esque madness in “Yerma,” Australian playwright-director Simon Stone’s experimental and modernized adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s 1934 Spanish-language drama of the same name, now playing the cavernous drill hall space of the Park Avenue Armory on the Upper East Side.

The large-scale, intermissionless production comes from London’s Young Vic, where the recent experimental revivals of “A View from the Bridge” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” also originated before playing New York. With “Yerma,” we see a breakout leading performance from English actress Billie Piper (BBC’s “Doctor Who,” Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful”).

Whereas Lorca set “Yerma” in a rural and religious farmland community, Stone relocates it to contemporary London, where the unnamed protagonist (identified in the script as “Her”) is the lifestyle editor of a well-known newspaper and her husband John (Brendan Cowell, conveying hesitation and unease) is trotting the globe securing business contracts. This lends universality to the storytelling while also raising questions about the role of contemporary culture in the character’s self-destruction.

At first glance, the couple is happily eating Hawaiian pizza, drinking Champagne and joking around in their new home in the suburbs. Out of nowhere, and apparently for the first time, she proposes that they have a child. John consents and, in a symbolic gesture, stomps upon her birth control pills. Her mother (Maureen Beattie), a “first-wave feminist” who hated being pregnant herself, is less enthusiastic about the idea.

Months and then years go by and she is still not pregnant, while her sister (Charlotte Randle) becomes pregnant without even trying. She reacts by taking her anger out on John, seeking comfort from an old boyfriend (John MacMillan) and divulging her feelings and intimate family details in blog entries.

The empty-looking stage (which the audience surrounds on opposite sides) is itself surrounded by high glass walls, forcing the audience to voyeuristically peer through a “fourth wall.” This gives the production the feel of a medical experiment. I kept expecting a scientist to pop out and explain that we were watching a real-life case study. Brechtian-style supertitles containing expository information and commentary are also used in between scenes.

Whether or not the glass box concept is more than an elaborate, self-conscious gimmick is up for debate, and the play is certainly not easy to sit through. But for those ready and willing to take the ride, it offers pure tragedy played out with escalating, thriller-like intensity.

Piper’s high-pitched performance — a portrait of someone losing her mind — is full of restlessness, vulnerability, delirium and desperation and will not be forgotten anytime soon.

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