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A few times each season, a D.C. theater puts on a play with such seamless production design that the sets, costumes, sound, music, and projections don’t so much complement the script as envelop it. The design elements swirl around the story, but the words seem secondary to what’s onstage. Should those words be in a language some viewers don’t understand, no one in the theater is shortchanged.
For theatergoers who haven’t seen a show at Gala Hispanic Theatre, La Casa de los Espíritus (The House of the Spirits) should prompt them to give theater in Spanish a try. Based on the 1982 novel by Isabel Allende and carefully adapted by Caridad Svich, the play traces 50 years and three generations of women in the troubled Trueba family. Although Svich is an established playwright, the show feels less like a fully realized play than a beautifully staged dramaturgical homage to Allende’s story—rape, torture, revolution, a half-century of Chilean history, and all. There’s a backdrop of cursive script at the rear of the stage, in front of which lie stacks of books and children’s toys and other household props, all of them spray-painted white. Seven large picture frames hang from the ceiling and support translucent screens that provide additional projection surfaces. The English subtitles are projected even higher, on both sides of the stage.
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This stunning stage tableau is interrupted by the opening scene: torture in a prison cell. Alba (Natalia Miranda-Guzmán), our guide and protagonist, is blindfolded and being force-fed by a guard, who hollers something about her family and missing weapons. She screams. The guard disappears, the soundscape shifts, and we’re left to stare at Alba, and her bloody shirt, as she begins to tell the audience a story. “From bruises, wounds, cuts I don’t recognize, an ocean of words surrounds me,” she says. That’s the English translation. But the bilingual Svitch did double-duty herself, ensuring that no poetry would be lost in this production.
Miranda-Guzmán remains onstage for the duration of the show, hovering like a ghost over the actors playing her ancestors. The torture scene is occasionally reprojected onto the screens, effectively heightening the tension: We know where this play is going, but we don’t know how it will end or even quite how we’ll get there. The opening flashback scenes are to the childhood of Alba’s grandmother, Clara, memorably portrayed by Monica Steuer, in pigtails, and Antonio Vargas, manipulating the puppet version of Barrabás, the family’s doting, Airedale-looking dog.
Steuer’s free-spirited character effectively ages into a serene but clairvoyant sexpot. She’s one of several talented Gala newcomers who elevate House of the Spirits above the theater’s already professional standards. Others include director José Zayas, projection designer Alex Koch, puppeteer Ingrid Crepeau, and composer/sound designer Jane Shaw. In Allende’s novel, it’s Clara’s journals that preserve the stories of this family so bitterly divided by sins and civil conflict. In Gala’s set, some of those sentences have been writ much larger. For theatergoers, the onstage imagery just might outlast the words on the page.