Throughout The House of the Spirits/La Casa de los Espiritus, I sat leaning forward, agog in the spell of Caridad Svich’s powerful, multi-layered play, enhanced by inspired acting and staging by a phenomenal cast and production team. So what makes this intense, thoughtful theatre piece, that takes place in a nameless Latin American country, “reminiscent of Chile,” so profoundly relevant and worth seeing?
Gifted, versatile actor Miranda-Guzmán as Alba in The House of the Spirits, is superb. She was witty, warm-hearted, and lavishly costumed as Diana in El desden con el desden/In Spite of Love. Here as Alba, the actress is stripped down to wearing a torn, bloodied T-shirt (costumes by Ivania Stack). Yet, Miranda-Guzman delivers an earthquake of a performance that starts quietly and builds into an emotionally shattering outcry from her gut.
But let’s back up to the opening where Alba begins the journey into her memory. A gauzy, scrim curtain draws open to reveal Alba (Natalia Miranda-Guzman) being tortured by Esteban Garcia (Carlos Castillo), and we are jolted from reality into a surreal world of memory and magical realism. We are inside the split-psyche of Alba, who is piecing together her past, based on her grandmother Clara’s notebooks.
A blindfold falls from her eyes: Then Alba rises and walks through upright, framed screens, that represent notebook pages of streaming-words from video projection. Six on-stage frames, and murmuring voices become an eerie metaphor throughout the entire play.
As directed by Jose Zayas, there is a wondrous sense of flow and timelessness, through the flashbacks, that transcend the need for logic. That’s what makes this play so freshly unique. The past, present and future all seem to coincide.
Playwright Svich never lets us forget we are seeing this from Alba’s point of view. Trying to make sense of the past through her grandmother’s notebooks, Alba is an unobtrusive observer and occasional narrator in every scene, seen either squatting on the floor, or standing in a framed portrait, or sitting at a kitchen table, all the while projecting a puzzled, sphinx-like facial expression.
Here’s how it starts: Reminded by Clara’s portrait in a family album, Alba recalls another generation’s old world order. A close-knit, happy family lives in the country. The family patriarch, the great-grandfather and senator, Severo (Manolo Santalla), passionately loves great-grandmother Nivea, the feminist (Marycarmen Wila), who predicts “the whole country” will rise up in favor of women. Clara is a boisterous nine-year old child, “the seer,” (played winsomely by Monica Steuer), who makes clairvoyance convincing with odd remarks, such as: “Something bad is going to happen….”
Yet Clara cannot stop her sister Rosa’s death. Actor Nancy Flores, costumed in a wild, resplendent green-haired wig, fits Alba’s narrated picture of “….Rosa the beautiful…..a mermaid, a siren,….with green hair, yellow eyes, porcelain skin…” This narration creates a ghostly aura of magical realism. All is not well beneath surface reality. After the poisoning of Rosa and her autopsy, Time moves in a world in which exact time has no relevance, as exemplified in a video feed of a clock with slowly rotating hour hands.
Fast forward. Enter the push for modernization in the persona of Esteban Trueba, enacted by a polished master of the debonair, Nelson Landrieu. With laid-back ease, Landrieu convincingly impersonates the fascinating, tyrannical reprobate, Esteban, as a wonderfully nasty, brutal, egotistical man, lacking self-control, who exploits his workers and rapes peasant women. He comes across as a man you wouldn’t want to date your daughter or to invite home for dinner.
Esteban longs to build a dynasty for his family and descendants; yet he is his own worst enemy. It’s a difficult, complex role. Yet in “The Journals of the Spirits” scene, the actor gets help from Koch’s superimposed, streaming video of the labyrinthine house, that opens up Esteban’s mind. We catch a glimpse of his driving ambition to build a European castle, an emblem of European Colonialism: “…a model of order, beauty and civilization….” We see a virtual light show of Escher-like images: “… staircases that lead nowhere, doors that hang in the air…abstracted doorframes, windows. ” Theatrically, the overall effect is magnificent and absurdly ironic.
New York actor Antonio Vargas is charming as Pedro, the revolutionary peasant, who works under Esteban and plays a guitar, sings protest songs, and dares to hit his head against the class ceiling, a lower class man sleeping with an upper class woman.
In addition, Vargas, who assists as a choreographer, seems to revel in the joy of being a puppeteer who pulls the strings for Barabbas, by award-winning puppet designer, Ingrid Crepeau. Barabbas, named after the thief who was crucified next to Jesus, is the big, black dog, who behaves like a puppy. When his strings are pulled, the puppet trembles with pleasure after Clara pets him.
There are many other bravura performances too numerous to name that display the versatility of these actors. Actor Anabel Marcano plays Transito Soto, the peasant prostitute, who transforms into a respected capitalist business woman. Then, there’s Marian Licha, who plays Esteban’s sister, Ferula, as well as doing a turn in a trouser role as the depraved Count Satigny. Last, you’ll want to be sure to notice the dog Barabbas, a big endearing puppet operated by actor Vargas, who trembles with pleasure, like a puppy, when Clara pets him.
Multi-talented Svich, who wrote the play, also composed the original lyrics and melodies. The musical arrangements were done by composer Jane Shaw provide poetic relief and add thematic dimension. For instance, Belen Oyola-Rebaza, as the pivotal character Pancha, cuddles a swaddled infant and croons a beautiful, soothing lullaby, “A forgiving moon,” celebrating the cycle of birth. In contrast, “The Ballad of the Three Marias,” dramatizes the growing class warfare, the destructive disparity between rich and poor. Then, the “The angel in the corner will soon be married,” danced as the Cuaco dance, with waving handkerchiefs, celebrates the wedding of Esteban and Clara. (Ironically, the “Cuaco”, was often used for protest dancing in public squares during the Pinochet dictatorship.)
La Casa De Los Espiritus (The House of the Spirits)
Closes March 10, 2013
GALA Hispanic Theatre
3333 14th Street, NW
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $20 – $40
Thursdays thru Sundays
Members of the GALA audience may remember that Pinochet’s regime (after 1973) was a dictatorship, fraught with human rights abuses, disappearances, and torture. In Svich’s play, however, it’s a mistake to assume fictional characters are specific historical figures. This statement holds true for Isabel Allende’s richly rewarding novel as well, in which real historical figures form a backdrop but are not the central characters. Moreover, playwright Svich’s intention in her play was to make a more universal statement. Go to Caridad Svich’s illuminating insights in the Up Close interview.
You have to decide if the end justifies the means after hearing from the family members that lived in the haunted house of The House of the Spirits. Never forget that the past can repeat itself.
In Spanish with English surtitles
La Casa De Los Espiritus (The House of the Spirits) A play, with lyrics and melodies by Caridad Svich . Musical arrangements by Jane Shaw . Based on the novel by Isabel Allende . Directed by José Zayas . Translated by Caridad Svich . Featuring Nelson Landrieu, Natalia Miranda-Guzmán, Antonio Vargas, and Monica Stueur, Carlos Castillo, Belén Oyola-Rebaza, Manolo Santalla, Marian Licha, Anabel Marcano, Marycarmen Wila and Nancy Flores. Produced by the GALA Hispanic Theatre at Tivoli Square . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.