The Department of Drama in the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) presents “The House of the Spirits,” an adaptation of Isabel Allende’s novel written by playwright Caridad Svich. Svich’s adaptation is a theatrical response that works to capture the feel of Allende’s magical realism. “The House of the Spirits” opens on Nov. 11 in the Storch Theatre at the Syracuse Stage/SU Drama Complex, 820 E. Genesee St. A preview performance is on Nov. 10.
Allende’s debut novel “The House of the Spirits” was published in 1982. The national bestseller has captivated readers around the world and has been translated into over 20 languages. A 1993 film adaptation of the novel starred Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Winona Ryder, Glen Close and Antonio Banderas. Svich’s stage adaptation was originally written and performed in Spanish and was produced in countries such as Chile and Costa Rica. In 2011, Svich won the Francesca Primus Prize, awarded by the American Theatre Critics Association, for the English translation of her “The House of the Spirits” adaptation.
The OBIE Award-winning playwright will be in Syracuse on Sunday, November 12, to participate in a panel discussion following the 2 p.m. performance of “The House of the Spirits” in the Archbold Theatre at the Syracuse Stage/SU Drama complex. In addition to Svich, the panelists include Stephanie Fetta, assistant professor, Department of Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics, College of Arts and Sciences; Gladys McCormick, associate professor, Department of History, College of Arts and Sciences; and Celia Madeoy, associate professor, Department of Drama, VPA, who directed the production. The panel discussion is scheduled to start at 4:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public.
Svich’s play charts the rise and fall of the Trueba family from the 1920s through the 1970s in an unnamed South American country much like Allende’s native Chile. The story is told from the point of view of Alba who opens the play as a political prisoner held in a room and being tortured by a government interrogator. Her swirling memories illuminate the stage. Through those frightening, amusing and fantastic memories of the two generations of women before her, Alba finds the strength to confront her past and tell her own story. The play itself, Svich said, offers an opportunity to look at the past, both good and bad, and learn from it. As emotional as it is political, the play, Svich said, “is an elegant ghost story.”
“Alba, who is always on stage, is a witness to history,” Svich said in a 2013 interview with DC Theatre Scene. “She is living it and at the same time trying to retrieve the past through memories recorded in her grandmother Clara’s notebook about their close family life and her happy childhood in the country. Alba’s memories of who she is help her survive.”
Director Madeoy sees her actors becoming part of history by working on this piece. Madeoy noted that there is still violence and violence against women in political events in this world. “To this day, it is still a mystery what became of these people who are called ‘the disappeared,’” Madeoy said, referring to those who went missing in Chile under the rule of Augustus Pinochet and during the “Dirty War” in Argentina—a war that Svich’s own family lived through. “I think Caridad is choosing to open our minds to the political nature of this work.”
To do this, Svich created a theatrical representation of the novel’s themes rather than a direct retelling. Svich called it “a meditation on Isabel Allende’s landmark novel.” In a phone interview with Larry Rohter of the New York Times, Allende said, “you cannot translate the novel into a play, but you can take the ideas, the spirit of the novel and create something new.” Svich, who described the novel as "funny and grotesque, dark and caustic,” wanted to tap into the sharp wit of the book. In doing this, she wrote songs into the play to capture a bit of Bertolt Brecht’s theatrical style.
In addition to using some of Svich’s original music, Madeoy worked with her designers to bring magical realism into the play by drawing from Allende’s novel. In order to span 50 years during the play, Madeoy said, she saw a way to use projections in a new, innovative design. It was a quote from Svich on magical realism that ended up being Madeoy’s primary inspiration. “For me, magical realism is where the real and the fantastical are together, coexisting,” Madeoy said, quoting Svich. “In magical realism, the elements of fantasy are not questioned.”
“The House of the Spirits” runs Nov. 10 through Nov. 18. A panel discussion will be held on Nov. 12 and will include playwright Caridad Svich. Tickets are available at vpa.syr.edu/dramatickets, by phone at 315.443.3275 and in person at the Box Office.