Isabel Allende's sprawling South American saga, The House of the Spirits, has been adapted for the stage with an intimate touch. There's still magical realism and surreal effects — Clara's clairvoyance and Barabbas the dog, portrayed by a giant puppet — but the novel's been pared down for the stage, and Allende's fancy literary devices have been transposed into somewhat overripe poetry.
The fates of three generations of women and their families are intertwined throughout the novel. In the stage adaptation, they are boiled down into a manageable cast of nine, with some of the actors playing multiple parts. At times, Caridad Svich's English translation from Allende's Spanish is bumpy and off-putting. But Allende's great tale comes through regardless, for it's a haunting story — an epic journey through and of the 20th century. Main Street Theater excels here.
Feminist history and politics get their due in this story. To protect her sanity while under torture for alleged political crimes, young Alba (Laura Michelle Salas) summons memories of her family, and the emotion-laden flashbacks rush in like a dream. Alba's grandmother Clara (Eva De La Cruz) is the odd but beloved daughter of Nivea and Severo (Luisa Amaral-Smith and Orlando Arriaga), well-to-do liberal parents at the turn of the century in this nameless city in this nameless country. Papa has political ambitions and enemies, Mama is strong and independent, and Clara has visions and can see the future. Her sister Rosa (Chelsea Ryan McCurdy) is so beautiful, she has green hair to set off her radiantly luminous skin — everyone talks of her green hair, but we only see blond.
Rosa is loved by poor but ambitious Esteban Trueba (Seán Patrick Judge), whose personal story soon overtakes the narrative. While Esteban toils in the mines to make money for their future marriage, Rosa is accidentally poisoned by rival politicos out to kill her father. Clara stops speaking, while Esteban's grief takes him to his family's rundown estate, where he vows to make a fortune. His machismo runs wild, and he impregnates his faithful retainer's daughter Pancha (Rosarito Rodriguez), among many others, and later marries Clara. Pancha's child, also named Esteban (Richard Solis), is unloved and cast off by his father; he will later become a political flunky who hates the spoiled, privileged class. And in an ironic twist worthy of Dickens, he will grow up to be Alba's torturer.
Allende's story is glorious melodrama, full of coincidences and fateful encounters that richly pay off later in the tale. Other children are born; lovers appear; Esteban's sister enters the picture. The characters' stories are deeply connected with the unnamed country's. As in life, death comes without warning, but the prickly older Esteban survives nature's catastrophes as if born to suffer. God knows, he's not a sympathetic character. But he's the linchpin of the story, both in the stage adaptation and the novel, since he's the one person who lives through the entire saga. And we never completely warm to him, even though he loves his granddaughter Alba unconditionally and goes to extraordinary lengths to find her once she's "disappeared." His conversion comes much too late. Throughout, he's been a boor, a horror of a man, a macho pig; Allende can't give him enough sympathetic qualities to make us care deeply for him. Pity is different from love.
The cast, under Rebecca Greene Udden's warm and visually astute direction, brings out the best in Svich's translation. Esteban may not have our heart, but Judge has our rapt attention as he worms his way into Rosa's family and bullies through life. De La Cruz supplies Clara with otherworldly attributes and fiery backbone, while McCurdy has innocence enough for the roles of both Rosa and Blanca, Clara's daughter who loves the political firebrand Pedro (Alexander Garza). Luisa Amaral-Smith, noteworthy in MST's Awake and Sing and Anna in the Tropics, graces us with two more heavily emotional portraits: Mama Nivea and lesbian Ferula, sister of Esteban and confidante of Clara. She also offers us a third wonderfully wacky character as the oily French count Satigny, who wants to marry Alba.
Allende's grand narrative has been an international bestseller ever since its debut in 1982, when it was published in Spain while Allende was in exile from Chile during dictator Augusto Pinochet's fascist regime. Her story of three generations of strong, independent women — buffeted equally by history as by their own faults and loves — has universal appeal, and Main Street's provocative production keeps it wonderfully alive.
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