The House of the Spirits
nytheatre.com review by Megin Jimenez
February 18, 2009
Repertorio Español's adaptation of Isabel Allende's novel The House of the Spirits (written by Caridad Svich) seeks to create an entire world, populated with three generations and spanning several decades. This is a project that requires the full theatrical toolkit, and the visual component contributes most memorably, through haunting video projections by Alex Koch and Robert Weber Federico's thoughtful production design.
The story of the Trueba family is cast through the eyes of Alba, its youngest member. While held captive by a military government, she relives the story of her clairvoyant grandmother and brutal grandfather. The opening scene is of Alba, bound and at the mercy of a military man; thoughts are inevitably of torture. We view the scene through a nearly transparent curtain, on which is projected live video of the scene. The effect is a black-and-white reduction of the action; the image evokes a newspaper or documentary photograph come to life. This serves as a fitting entry into the past as Alba witnesses the acts of rape, homophobia, and class discrimination that her grandfather Esteban commits through the course of his life. Politics is the shadow side of this story; there is a clear line drawn from individual acts and decisions and how these become magnified and far-reaching at the societal level, uniting past and present. Denise Quiñones acts as a steady guide through the long course of the play as Alba, delivering poignantly in what could be an overwrought role.
Nostalgia colors the portrayal of the past—Alba's grandmother Clara is the source of otherworldly action, a connection with the spirit world. A compelling touch is the puppetry that brings to life Clara's girlhood companion, a giant black dog (designed by Emily De Cola and wonderfully animated by Eric Robledo). The sweeping story also encompasses the development of a Latin American country, touching on themes of industrialization, class conflict, and social change the strong women characters long for. A strong ensemble cast, distinct costumes and a simple, versatile set help to fill in the picture. José Zayas's staging also manages to keep the many scenes varied and clear.
In the end, the themes pierce through more than the characters. While the magical realist moments are atmospheric, once faded away, it is hard to see what they bring to the actual characters; Clara the person remains opaque. Her decision to marry and suffer with a cruel man, for example, felt questionable throughout the play, given her alleged intuitive powers. Portraying characters throughout their lifetimes is also a challenge that's not quite met. While both actors playing Alba's grandparents fit the role of adults with pain experienced in the second half of the production, they feel oddly miscast and ill at ease as young lovers in the first half. The characters who do manage to shine through portray a shorter span of time. Selenis Leyva, for example, shines as Trnsito, a forward-thinking prostitute, a sharp, nuanced character.
In this sense, the stage adaptation could have perhaps pared down the novel further. While inevitably losing images and themes, less time spent on playing out group scenes, (among them a wedding, a harvest, an earthquake, and a political protest) would make time to further establish the personalities of the multiple characters and their relationships for the brief time we know them.