BERKELEY -- Marcus Gardley has long conducted a love affair with history.
In "And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi," he excavated the bones of slavery. In "Love Is a Dream House in Lorin," he dug into the colorful past of a blue-collar Berkeley neighborhood. In "This World in a Woman's Hands," he unveiled the real woman behind the lore of Rosie the Riveter.
Now in "The House that will not Stand," the Oakland native unearths a slice of the rich and eccentric history of New Orleans, specifically the 19th-century practice of plaçage and the prestige it gave to a class of aristocratic free women of color. Despite this fascinating historical underpinning and Gardley's sly and lyrical prose, the densely plotted "House" blows hot and cold for two and a half hours in its uneven world premiere at Berkeley Rep, directed by Patricia McGregor. For all its magical incantations, murder, lust, voodoo and exorcism, the narrative never casts a spell potent enough to stir the soul.
The ambitions of the piece remain intriguing. Gardley's drama transports Lorca's classic tale "The House of Bernarda Alba" into the heart of Creole culture. This epic is set in 1836, not long after the city was the scene of the largest slave rebellion in American history. During this period, free black women could make common law marriages to wealthy white men. If the men died, they could even inherit grand houses and dazzling fortunes. Before the Louisiana Purchase, they were said to own most of the city.
Alas, Beartrice Albans (a formidable Lizan Mitchell) has no such luck. When her man, Lazare (Ray Reinhardt), passes away, there is a white wife waiting to steal her house and the dowries -- and, therefore, the futures of Beartrice's three daughters -- right out from under Beartrice. Two of her daughters, Agnès (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart) and Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), pine for romance. Agnès is 19, perilously close to becoming an old maid, and Odette has a dark chocolate complexion that is not favored by the status quo. The other, Maude Lynn (a one-note Flor. De Liz Perez) yearns only for the Lord.
Certainly Gardley has written some dazzling bursts of bon mots with which Beartrice entrances her foes, and Mitchell wields wit like a rapier, slicing into her nemesis, La Veuve (Petronia Paley), and her tormented sister, Marie (also Paley.)
Mitchell also captures the tragedy of Beartrice, a woman wise enough to know the old world order is passing, and soon U.S. law will transform her from a doyenne into a second-class citizen. She longs to flee to Paris, where she can be the toast of the town.
And yet for all the swirling mystery around Beartrice (who may have offed her lover), and her daughters, who claw at each other over who will woo the best beau, none of these characters is quite compelling enough to ground the play. Even the ritual summoning of Lazare's ghost doesn't generate the theatrical fire intended. Gardley's shifts in tone from naturalism to magical realism also undercut the flow of the fable. Some of the performances are inconsistent. Paley is enchanting as the aunt who may be coming undone, but she never ignites as the vicious diva La Veuve.
Indeed, only when the action turns to the fate of the housemaid Makeda (Harriett D. Foy) does "House" truly begin to catch fire. Foy laces Makeda with equal parts steel and softness. She has been a slave in this house for 30 years, but has never lost her dream of freedom. The spirit beneath the submissiveness is apparent in Makeda's gift for earthy wisdom.
On the subject of making gumbo, she likens cooking to making love: "Use two hands and don't be afraid to try something new."
Foy is electric in the part. When Makeda sings to Odette, willing her to see the roots that connect her to a mythic past across the oceans, "House" attains a depth of vision and majesty of poetry that the rest of the piece fails to conjure.
'The house that will not stand'
By Marcus Gardley, presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Through: March 16
Where: Thrust Stage, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St.
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $29-$59; 510-647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org