16 March 2009

Isabel Allende on stage — a magical translation

When Cuban-American playwright Caridad Svich was approached to adapt “La Casa de los Espíritus” (“The House of the Spirits”), she reread the magical-realism classic in both English and Spanish.

But in the end, Svich didn’t use any of the original text in her Spanish-language theater adaptation, which is playing at Repertorio Español on E. 27th St.

“This is another beast entirely,” says Svich, who calls her work a new play based on the novel. “It is very much my response.”

“La Casa de los Espíritus” catapulted Chilean author Isabel Allende into literary fame when it was first published in 1982 in Spanish. It has since been translated into 20 languages.

“It’s a novel most people adore,” says Svich of the epic book that covers three generations of women and decades of history.

The story follows the life of the Trueba family during decades of social and political disorder in an unnamed Latin American country not unlike Chile.

“I first read the novel in high school, and I thought it was amazing,” says Svich, who lives in New York. “ Then, the movie: Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Wynona Ryder… very Latino cast!” she laughs, referring to the 1993 film.

“I was thinking there was something it hadn’t captured, even though it had all these amazing actors, and felt sad about it. ... I put the book away, I put everything away related to the book.”

Until director José Zayas approached the award-winning playwright, whose work has been staged in the U.S. and abroad, about doing her first work for the theater in Spanish.

The novel was first adapted for the stage in the 1990s in Britain, and in 2007 in Seattle. The former lasted seven hours and was performed over two nights.

Svich was keen on keeping her play under three hours, which meant “eliminating things that I love, and cutting corners. ... Nothing against expansive theater, but after a certain while, people need to leave.”

The result is a powerful new play.

Where Allende’s novel is heroic, eloquent and, of course, magical, Svich’s play is raw, original and provoking.

In addition to the key characters and subplots — as well as songs she wrote herself — Svich incorporates surveillance video and film projections to evoke the oppression of the dictatorship.

The play also serves as an inadvertent tribute to Hispanics in New York, since Repertorio’s version showcases the range of flavors and accents that color Spanish in the city.

Though lead actors Nelson Landrieu and Beatriz Córdoba — who play Esteban and Clara Trueba — hail from Uruguay and Argentina, countries that are linguistically similar to Chile, other actors have different backgrounds.

Rosie Berrido and Selenis Leyva, who play Férula Trueba and Tránsito Soto, respectively, were born and raised in New York City. And Puerto Rican-born Denise Quiñones, a former Miss Universe, plays Alba Trueba, and narrates the whole play from a torture chamber, where she is held captive.

“Denise has a very soft Caribbean lilt; she created neutral ground for us,” says Svich.

Asked who would play the Truebas should her play move from the stage to the big screen, Svich laughs and says, “I would definitely want an all-Latino cast. No dream actors in mind ... unless Javier Bardem were to step up to play Esteban Trueba.” (nydailynews.com)
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