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IT’S ALMOST AS hard to describe why The House of the Spirits at GALA Theatre is so satisfying as it is to document the presence of ghosts. You can’t quite put your finger on it — you just have to see it for yourself.
Based on the famous novel by Isabel Allende, Caridad Svich’s The House of the Spirits makes the leap from page to stage in stunningly evocative fashion, led by José Zayas’s artful, sophisticated direction, Joseph Walls’s tasteful lighting design and especially Alex Koch’s mood-enhancing – and fittingly haunting – projections, which are every bit as immersive and powerful as those he created for Studio Theatre’s The Invisible Man last year.
Together, these visual artists, plus Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden on sets and Ivania Stack on costumes, help you get lost in the complicated, surreal world first created by Allende over 30 years ago. The story goes that after learning her grandfather was dying, Allende was inspired to recount her childhood memories and stories she heard at her grandparents’ home in Chile. By no means is this the typical happy, whitewashed affair. Her grandfather, at least as portrayed in The House of the Spirits, was a brute, a hard-to-like monster. In the play, Esteban Trueba (a stern Nelson Landrieu), after losing the love of his life, becomes a tyrannical ranch owner, one who rapes any number of peasant women and also regularly visits a prostitute Transito (a scene-stealing Anabel Marcano). Later, he dramatically kicks out of his home his lesbian sister, Férula (a captivating Marian Licha). He even strikes his daughter and his wife, who leaves him as a result, never to return.
The acting team GALA has assembled is universally sharp, though two particularly stand out for the way they effortlessly transform their characters as the play progresses. First is Monica Steuer, whose Clara transitions from a flighty, happy-go-lucky girl whose best friend is her dog – a puppet controlled by the show’s choreographer Antonio Vargas – to a determined woman who becomes the family matriarch after subverting gender roles and proposing to Esteban. And then there’s Natalia Miranda-Guzman, who portrays Alba, Esteban and Clara’s granddaughter, a stand-in for Allende. Miranda-Guzman is in every scene, initially as a quiet, uninvolved narrator, watching with us events that happened in her family before she was born. But she eventually becomes a major character in the play, one who not only suffers torture by the Pinochet-led – and her grandfather-supported – military regime, but who also gets into an impassioned argument with her grandfather. From reserved to frightened to empowered, Miranda-Guzman gets to show off her wide range of acting chops.
Naturally, as a production at GALA, The House of the Spirits is performed in Spanish with written English text superimposed on screens above the stage. It can be distracting to have to read the monitors, especially since this show is rich in dialogue. But even if you miss some of the finer details in the action or Koch’s poignant projections, you’ll be charmed all the same by such a spirited show.