A compelling Latin American saga: The House of the Spirits

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Entertainment,Barbara Mackay

If you enjoy the magical realism of Chilean writer Isabel Allende, you should head to the GALA Hispanic Theatre for its current production: Caridad Svich's adaptation of Allende's novel "La Casa de los Espiritus (The House of the Spirits)."

Svich's play -- an intimate and extended portrait of four generations of a family set against postcolonial social and political upheaval in an unnamed Latin American country -- stretches from the early 20th century to 1974, condensing many details of the novel.

"In any adaptation, you don't want to be too faithful to the source material," said director Jose Zayas. "We needed to find a guiding conceit that could help us create a two-hour evening without sacrificing what is ultimately a 500-page novel with dozens of subplots and characters.

"We decided to use a double narrative in which the story is told by the granddaughter, Alba, in the third person, and by Esteban Trueba, her grandfather, in the first person." As in the novel, Trueba represents an old-world, conservative point of view, and Alba represents a modern one.

"In this way, you can focus on a relationship between a granddaughter and a grandfather, on two very different generations, and on how Alba understands her position as a woman in this country and in her grandfather's life," said Zayas.

Onstage
'La Casa de los Espiritus (The House of the Spirits)'
» Where: GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW
» When: Through March 10
» Info: $20 to $40; in Spanish with English subtitles; 202-234-7174; galatheatre.org

"La Casa de los Espiritus" has always been considered both a violent and lyrical work. "That it is so beautiful and poetic tends to make us forget that it is a story drenched in blood," said Zayas. "Esteban, the narrator, is a serial rapist and a killer. This man is not at all pleasant. And we don't shy away from that."

But though the play is honest and true to the story, the violence in "House of the Spirits" is not explicit. Zayas has used a lot of projections in his narration, so that a moment of torture is done behind a curtain, for instance, distancing it from the viewer.

Svich and Zayas have also made an effort to recreate Allende's prose where, within one paragraph, she will talk about the past, the present and the future. "We've tried to achieve ways in which all these moments are happening simultaneously," said Zayas.

Like the novel, the play ends with redemption. "Of course, it's a play about forgiveness," said Zayas. "Alba ultimately has to come to terms with the horrible things her grandfather has done, but she also has to forgive. You have to break the cycle of blame. Alba says, 'Through my words ... I'm going to find a way to write through my pain and move toward the future.' "

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