Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
Talk about an ambitious production. In taking on Isabel Allende's magnificent novel, "The House of the Spirits" Book-It Rep faced the problems of adapting a multi-generational family story into a producible length, making its complex stagecraft theatrically manageable, and maintaining the intimacy of the narrative voice, the variety of characters, and the fantastic qualities of its "magical realism." Myra Platt succeeds both from a literary and from a dramatic perspective (she did the adaptation and directed the production) and a talented and well-focused cast create an evening that thrills in the sheer joy of storytelling.
The production balances the most intimate of family sagas with a broad political and social history and deftly astonishing touches of the supernatural and spiritual. Although expansive, it never feels over-extended: it moves quickly and purposefully along its trajectory, and brings us to a satisfying resolution. Most surprisingly, the play is convincingly, organically theatrical while never straying far from its purely literary origin.
The scenic design, by Etta Lilienthal, is beautiful and highly functional, featuring a mobile which suspends ordinary household objects in space, beyond the control of such things as gravity and the laws of physical reality. A tall, slim pedestal elevates the voice of the Church, and the teetering authority of the ruling classes. Various other scenic elements move in and out on wagons. It's an elegant setting for the "big house on the corner" as well as the humble peasant homes, and public places of this Latin American milieu.
The cast has to be as transformative and mercurial as the magical events of the story, with most of the actors playing multiple roles. The fine child actor Olivia Spokoiny plays the child, Clara, whose powers of clairvoyance initiate the narrative that will sustain through her own grandchild fifty years later. She also plays the young Blanca, Clara and Esteban's first child, and later Blanca's child, Little Alba. She smartly portrays each of the characters, delivering her lines with clarity and assuming the stage with confidence and great focus. That preparation allows the adult Clara, played by Jennifer Sue Johnson, to assume the stature and depth the character requires. Similarly, Todd Licea plays the autocratic Esteban Trueba with just the right blend of pride, egotism and petty tyranny combining brutal chauvinism with genuine affection for his granddaughter, Little Alba. I also especially enjoyed Marissa Price as Rosa the Beautiful, Transito and a Mora Sister, Leticia Jaramillo as Nana and a Mora Sister, and Paul Bergman as Pedro Tercero Garcia, a revolutionary son of the peasant foreman, Pedro Segundo (well-played by Wesley Rice).
The strength of all these widely diverse and well-designed characters was in the way they gave individuality, urgency and consequence to the events of the story. We had clear, distinctive individuals with complex relationships that became the history of a time and place, and who created a continuous line of narrative. In the end, the beauty and the power of this tale is that the history of a family not only echoes the history of a society, but in an almost mystical way, becomes that history. Myra Platt's incredibly capable adaptation of the novel gave these fine actors a world in which to live their lives so that we could see both the obvious, superficial social and political machineries, but could also sense and apprehend the greater forces of private lives on public events. It was an exciting and boldly ambitious undertaking, and to my mind, a remarkable and moving achievement.