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Classics in a New Context

Outside voices are finding mainstream exposure when they put their stamp on works from the canon

July 21, 2002|JAN BRESLAUER

More than a dozen women, many cloaked in mantillas or fingering rosaries, hover behind several rows of straight-back wooden chairs. Their faces are a rainbow of skin hues, their shapes and sizes as various as their ages.

Suddenly, a young woman in a peasant skirt bursts into the room. As the others turn to watch her, she throws herself on the ground in an erotic lamentation. "You won't be lifting my skirts behind the barn door anymore," she moans, writhing prone on the floor. "Your warm rough fingers will never trail and map my inner thighs.... Of all who served you, family or maid, bet you didn't know, I was the one who loved you most of all."

A stern matriarch draped in black enters, glaring at the servant. "Silence!" she intones.

The conflict about to unfold takes place in Federico Garcia Lorca's "The House of Bernarda Alba," which opens Thursday at the Mark Taper Forum, directed by Lisa Peterson and starring Chita Rivera.

Yet theatergoers who know "Bernarda Alba," the drama of a widow who decrees that her five daughters will mourn their father for eight years, may not recall this scene. That's because it wasn't in the original. It is part of a new adaptation, by playwright Chay Yew. And therein lies a world of difference.

The servant who had neither name nor much stage time has become Blanca, a character who figures more prominently and is about 30 years younger than in the original. The result is a heightening of the play's sexuality and class politics.

Garcia Lorca "had her but didn't use her," Yew says. "By adding the servant class, I'm adding someone who could talk about sex in a visceral way. I went with Blanca because I felt she had a delicious longing, and I understand that. As someone who grew up in authoritarian Singapore and as a gay man, oppression is second nature to me. I understand it sexually and racially."

The aim of adaptation is to make classics speak more directly to contemporary audiences. It can also be a way for artists like Yew to insinuate themselves into a tradition that has long relegated them to the margins, staking a claim to the greatest texts in the history of the Western stage.

"I came from a place where we had to do white plays because that's the thing that you do," says the personable 36-year-old Yew, referring to his upbringing in Singapore. He moved to California in the 1980s.

He is seated in his office at the Mark Taper Forum, where he is an associate artist and director of the Asian Theater Workshop. Two walls of the tiny room are plastered with a dizzying sea of postcards, with a purple feather boa tacked on top of it all, a bright slash of artful impudence.

"Now there's a way to do a classic play by claiming it as your own," continues Yew, who's writing an adaptation of Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard." "I can have this cross-culture international collaboration with Mr. Lorca and Mr. Chekhov. Just as new works are important, it should also be important to see the old ones in contrast and in a new context."

A look at who's adapting classics these days shows it's not the old boys' club anymore. The majority are people of color, women, gay, disabled or otherwise "other" voices. For theaters that have struggled for more than a decade to include a greater range of artists, this provides a convenient compromise. Producing adaptations by writers like Yew can satisfy the imperatives of diversity without scaring off the more conservative audience members, as happened during the peak of multicultural programming in the early '90s.

Yet the situation raises as many questions as it answers. "Is the reason why all these young playwrights are doing adaptations because they can't get some other work produced in the regional theater?" asks Yew. "I think the problem is not only with works by writers of color, but also new plays."

Playwright Luis Alfaro, a former MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant recipient and co-director of the Taper's Latino Theatre Initiative, states the problem even more bluntly. "If you're a straight white guy, you don't have to write an adaptation to get produced, right?" he asks. "So it is by necessity that you start to look at these things."

With careers that were given a kick-start by the multiculturalism movement of the late 1980s and '90s, artists like Yew and Alfaro are hitting a glass ceiling. Branded in part by an early success predicated on works that focused on the identity politics of being gay and nonwhite, they're having a tough time breaking out of that pigeonhole, even though their writing has since broadened its focus.

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