Isabel Allende’s 1982 novel The House of the Spirits is not an easy work to bring to the stage. An ambitious family saga that spans four generations in an unnamed Latin American country with a magical realist slant, it tells the story of the Trueba family in interlocking narratives.
The novel maps changing patterns of illicit love, gender inequality and political turmoil. Clairvoyant visions, long-lasting curses and a gigantic dog accompany the family’s decades-long tribulations.
Caridad Svich’s 2009 adaptation, receiving a bilingual production at the Cervantes Theatre, touches on many of the plot points, but ends up downplaying the story’s poetic energies. On the stage, the calligraphic sweep of the novel is replaced by a disjointed and rapid series of events.
Nigel A Lewis’ meticulous lighting and Yaiza Varona’s evocative music are crucial to Paula Paz’s production, creating refreshing transitions. Even though much of the action takes place against a backdrop of a family photograph, Paz’s direction prevents things from feeling static, navigating the visually busy scenery in agile ways.
The 12 cast members approach their characters with melodramatic intensity, and their heightened rhythms convey the story’s frequent mood swings. There are particularly sharp performances from Pía Laborde-Noguez (the narrator Alba), Elena Sáenz (the forsaken sister Elena), and Diana Volpe (Alba’s great-grandmother Nívea). The actors are at their strongest when they come together in choral moments.
The scenes featuring a dog puppet (designed by William Aubrey Jones and animated by Gian Carlo Ferrini) add further charm to this sensuous rendering of Allende’s epic tale.