The­ater

“The House of the Spir­its” seemed dif­fi­cult to trans­late to stage, un­til a pas­sage changed the fo­cus.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS - BY DAVID MONT­GOMERY mont­gomery@wash­post.com

Is­abel Al­lende had not yet dis­cov­ered the words of a great nov­el­ist sim­mer­ing in­side her when she learned on Jan. 8, 1981, that her grand­fa­ther lay dy­ing. She was a former Chilean jour­nal­ist, now ad­min­is­ter­ing a school in ex­ile in Venezuela, af­ter Au­gusto Pinochet over­threw the pres­i­dency of her fa­ther’s cousin Sal­vador Al­lende in 1973. She knew she could not re­turn to say good-bye, so she be­gan what she called a “spir­i­tual” farewell let­ter.

The most im­por­tant thing she wanted to tell her grand­fa­ther — her mother’s fa­ther, not an Al­lende — was that he could die in peace, be­cause she re­mem­bered all his sto­ries. They would not be lost. Yet peck­ing at the keys of a man­ual type­writer on her kitchen counter, she re­al­ized within a few pages that she was not writ­ing a let­ter at all. When there were 500 pages stained with cof­fee and food on her counter, she called this epic first novel “La Casa de los Espiritus” — “The House of the Spir­its.”

Now the long let­ter that be­came a clas­sic work of fic­tion has mor­phed again, land­ing on stage in Washington, where GALA His­panic The­atre opened a pro­duc­tion on Thurs­day.

Adapt­ing art from one medium to an­other is risky busi­ness, of­ten end­ing in dis­ap­point­ment. (See the 1993 film adap­ta­tion of “The House of the Spir­its,” star­ring Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep.) When play­wright Cari­dad Svich and di­rec­tor Jose Zayas de­cided to make a play out of the ven­er­ated novel, Al­lende was pri­vately du­bi­ous.

“I thought, okay, go ahead,” Al­lende, 70, re­calls in a phone in­ter­view from her home in San Rafael, Calif. “I thought, this is im­pos­si­ble.”

The nov­el­ist kept her hands off the script and of­fered no dra­matur­gi­cal ad­vice be­fore the pre­miere at Reper­to­rio Es­panol in New York in 2009. She says she be­lieves that an artist from one medium should not med­dle with the work of an artist in an­other.

Sit­ting in the au­di­ence in New York, watch­ing this ver­sion of the novel un­fold on stage, Al­lende had tears in her eyes.

“I was amazed. I couldn’t be­lieve it,” she says. “I re­al­ized Cari­dad had cap­tured some­how the spirit of the book, which is the story of a coun­try re­flected through a fam­ily. What hap­pens to the fam­ily in a way hap­pens to the coun­try, and some­how she got it. I love that.”

The ques­tion is, how do Svich and Zayas make it work on stage? The novel has al­most no di­a­logue, three nar­ra­tive voices, a time-span of about 50 years and more than a dozen characters drawn from four gen­er­a­tions of two fam­i­lies.

A large part of the an­swer lies in the essence of the novel, in­formed by that orig­i­nal im­pulse of the let­ter drafted on the kitchen counter: Be­neath the elab­o­ra­tions of plot, char­ac­ter and style, the story is about the heal­ing power of sto­ry­telling, and the ur­gent hu­man duty to res­cue words from obliv­ion.

“I wrote it by in­stinct,” Al­lende says. “It was an ex­er­cise in nos­tal­gia. . . . I missed my coun­try ter­ri­bly. I had lost ev­ery­thing I had. It was a crazy at­tempt to re­cover

“Clara also brought the sav­ing idea of writ­ing in her mind, with­out pa­per or pen­cil, to keep her thoughts oc­cu­pied and to es­cape from the dog­house and live. She sug­gested that she write a tes­ti­mony that might one day call at­ten­tion to the ter­ri­ble se­cret she was liv­ing through, so that the world would know about this hor­ror.”

from Is­abel Al­lende’s “The House of the Spir­its”

ev­ery­thing I had lost, in those pages.” The point of adap­ta­tion

As Svich con­tem­plated the daunt­ing mon­u­ment that is “The House of the Spir­its,” she taped an in­dex card to her com­puter mon­i­tor with a stern re­minder: “Don’t go where the movie went!”

She was struck by a few lines in the novel’s penul­ti­mate chap­ter. Alba, the grand­daugh­ter, has been tor­tured to the brink of death by po­lice thugs of the un­named Latin Amer­i­can dic­ta­tor­ship. She has been locked in­side a dog­house and wants to die. Her dead grand­mother, the clair­voy­ant Clara, ap­pears to her.

Clara . . . brought the sav­ing idea of writ­ing in her mind, with­out pa­per or pen­cil, to keep her thoughts oc­cu­pied and to es­cape from the dog­house and live. She sug­gested that she write a tes­ti­mony ... so that the world would know about this hor­ror.

It’s a brief pas­sage in the novel, not even a fully re­al­ized scene. That was all Svich needed to start typ­ing.

“That line was some­thing I wanted to keep,” the play­wright says from her apart­ment in New York, where she splits her time with Los An­ge­les. “And that be­came cen­tral to the way I crafted the piece the­atri­cally. . . . One of the tricks of the novel that you catch up with is that Alba is one of the nar­ra­tors. I thought, okay, why don’t we start with her when she’s in prison?”

Zayas elab­o­rates: “In the novel, it’s some­thing that hap­pens in a para­graph, in a sen­tence, in a moment that’s meant to be very brief. In the adap­ta­tion, it’s the point of the adap­ta­tion. The adap­ta­tion oc­curs the moment where Clara and Alba can come to­gether to tell the story.”

Thus, in­stead of the im­mor­tal open­ing sen­tence of the novel — “Barrabas came

to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her del­i­cate cal­lig­ra­phy” — the play be­gins by fore­shad­ow­ing the tor­ture that the rest of the drama will lead up to. And there’s an early hint at a means to en­dure. Alba, played by New York-based Chilean ac­tress Natalia Mi­randa-Guz­man, steps out­side the ini­tial tor­ture scene and says:

“From bruises, wounds, cuts I don’t rec­og­nize, an ocean of words sur­rounds me, as I walk through the ru­ins of note­books that open up into the rooms of an empty house, a great big house on a cor­ner, that once be­longed to my grand­mother. Clara’s voice echoes through halls of pages that speak of a past, and fu­ture, recorded in glimpses of scat­tered me­mory.”

At this point the stage-set is cov­ered with screen pro­jec­tions of flow­ing words drawn from the novel, words as a pres­ence and an en­vi­ron­ment. Only then does the scene shift to a garden, with Barrabas the dog, and Clara, who is played by stage and film ac­tress Mon­ica Steuer. Alba re­mains present, out of time, watch­ing in her bloody shirt. For an in­stant, she and Clara catch each other’s gaze — “a look across time,” ac­cord­ing to the stage di­rec­tions.

In this way, Svich and Zayas es­tab­lish the nar­ra­tive rules of the drama, in which the past un­folds si­mul­ta­ne­ously with the fu­ture con­se­quences of that past. Alba is al­ways on stage, ab­sorb­ing sto­ries that took place be­fore she was born.

The di­rec­tor’s chal­lenge is to ac­com­plish smooth tran­si­tions be­tween the 39 short scenes that make up the play of 2 hours and 20 min­utes, recre­at­ing the flu­id­ity of the novel.

“To me, this whole play is a tran­si­tion,” says Zayas, co-founder and artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Im­me­di­ate The­ater Com­pany in New York. “It’s all driven by the ac­tors. Really, it’s a di­rec­tor’s gift and chal­lenge, and it’s scary.”

Svich, who re­ceived an Obie award last year for life­time achieve­ment in the the­ater, is the sole au­thor of the script but con­sid­ers Zayas such a close col­lab­o­ra­tor in launch­ing the project and re­al­iz­ing the fi­nal staged re­sult that she ded­i­cated her adap­ta­tion to him.

Al­lende ap­plauds their choice of dra­mat­i­cally build­ing on the dog­house epiphany. “In a very sim­ple way, Cari­dad picked up on that, which for me is very im­por­tant,” she says. “The whole book at the end makes sense be­cause the girl [Alba] is writ­ing with the note­books of her grand­mother, and with the things that she has been told in the fam­ily.”

While the play is in­spired by the im­age of Clara teach­ing Alba to write, it is also pre­oc­cu­pied with dra­ma­tiz­ing the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Alba and her grand­fa­ther, Este­ban Trueba, one of the great lit­er­ary an­ti­heroes, played here by Nel­son Lan­drieu, who orig­i­nated the role at the New York pre­miere. The sins of Trueba’s past bring on the tor­ture of Alba’s fu­ture.

Th­ese characters are based on Al­lende’s fam­ily mem­bers, to a point. Clara re­sem­bles her grand­mother, a spir­i­tu­al­ist who held seances that Al­lende watched as a child. She cred­its her grand­mother with mak­ing her a nov­el­ist, be­cause “I grew up with the idea that the world is a very mys­te­ri­ous place, and any­thing can hap­pen.”

Her grand­fa­ther, to whom she started writ­ing the farewell let­ter at her kitchen counter, was “a very strong au­thor­i­tar­ian, con­ser­va­tive man,” she says. But un­like Trueba, her real grand­fa­ther ab­horred vi­o­lence and “would never have raped or killed any­body.”

Al­lende is the grand­daugh­ter who learned to write by set­ting down the fam­ily sto­ries. But un­like Alba, she was never tor­tured.

At the end of the play, Alba’s grand­fa­ther has shared his sto­ries be­fore he dies, and Alba is poised to write. Clara ap­pears on stage, fol­lowed by Barrabas. Clara whis­pers in Alba’s ear, as if to con­firm the gift of sto­ry­telling promised in the open­ing scenes.

At that moment, the stage di­rec­tions call for words to rise from Alba’s note­book, via screen pro­jec­tions. The words are drawn from the last chap­ter of the novel, and they “slowly fill the space un­til the en­tire stage is il­lu­mi­nated with miles and miles of hand­writ­ten words.”

“Through all the mess, and there’s a lot of it, some­how the act of writ­ing is pos­i­tive . . . and can save you,” Svich says. “That’s what I want the au­di­ence to feel at the end. And also to think about the sto­ries that they have buried in their past, or that we as a coun­try have. How do we re­trieve them? How do we look at them? And how can we retell them, to save our­selves?”

A lit­er­ary an­niver­sary

This past Jan. 8, Al­lende sat at her wooden writ­ing ta­ble and once again be­gan sum­mon­ing words for a new novel. Be­side her com­puter mon­i­tor was a lighted red can­dle and two fresh red roses in a vase. Ever since that en­chanted Jan. 8 of 32 years ago, she has de­voted nearly ev­ery an­niver­sary of the date to start­ing a new book.

“Yeah, I’m locked away writ­ing like a mad­woman,” Al­lende says on the phone, with the sound of her puppy, Dulce, a white ter­rier, yip­ping in the back­ground.

Her next novel “Maya’s Note­book,” about a Cal­i­for­nia teenager whose Chilean grand­mother sends her to a re­mote Chilean is­land to es­cape drugs and crime, will be out in English in April. An­other, a crime thriller called “Rip­per,” is in man­u­script for up­com­ing publi­ca­tion in Span­ish. The new project is a love story.

“It’s very hard to write a love story that is not sen­ti­men­tal,” she says.

The tools and the lo­ca­tion have changed — her writ­ing stu­dio is at­tached to the pic­turesque home she calls “La Casa de los Espiritus” over­look­ing San Fran­cisco Bay — but the process con­tin­ues, the end­less cy­cling of words into sto­ries, to be told and re­told, reimag­ined and trans­formed.

PHO­TOS BY BILL O'LEARY/THE WASHINGTON POST

EN­GULFED IN WORDS: Natalia Mi­randa-Guz­man, left, and Mon­ica Steuer play Alba and her grand­mother Clara in “La Casa de los Espiritus.”

THE BRINK OF DEATH: Ac­tors Car­los Castillo and Natalia Mi­randa-Guz­man re­hearse a scene in which Alba is tor­tured as di­rec­tor Jose Zayas watches.

ANN MARIE POYO FUR­LONG

Cari­dad Svich wrote the adap­ta­tion for stage of “La Casa de los Espiritus” (“The House of the Spir­its”).

MICHAEL PALMA/ THE WASHINGTON POST

Jose Zayas: “The whole play is a tran­si­tion.”

COPY­RIGHT LORI BARRA

Au­thor Is­abel Al­lende wrote the book in 1981.

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