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Theater / WEEKEND REVIEW

Shorthand Version of Isabel Allende's 'House of Spirits'

September 30, 1996|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

In "The House of the Spirits," her multi-generational first novel, Isabel Allende earned the right to indulge liberally in melodrama. She created a parallel between a family torn apart by a tyrannical patriarch and a Latin American country torn apart by a violent and tyrannical government. In her novel, when the sin of the grandfather visits the granddaughter in the form of a melodramatic coincidence, the modern history of Chile seems bound up in the tragedy.

A new play embraces the melodrama in Allende's story but misses both the sweep and the specificity of the original. Produced by the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts and the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, the play is performed in English and in Spanish on alternate weekends. It opened at the Los Angeles Theatre Center on Friday night.

"The House of the Spirits" has been adapted by Margarita Galban and Lina Montalvo, who seem to trust that their audience has read the novel and adored it or that it will enter the theater already sympathetic and familiar with the story. They tell the tale in shorthand and, under Galban's direction, the actors act it also in a kind of shorthand, pressing familiar buttons but rarely touching authentic, original places.

Allende wrote of the tyrannical land owner Esteban Trueba (Daniel Novoa) and the remarkable women in four generations of his wife, Clara's, family. The adapters have found a solid dramatic structure for their retelling; they focus on Trueba's granddaughter Alba (Melba Tirado), a guerrilla sympathizer who in 1970 is tortured by the Chilean military police. The play crosscuts back and forth between Alba's prison cell, where she is visited by her dead grandmother Clara (Carmen Zapata), and the stories Clara tells of the family's past, a tale laced with nurtured wrongs and magical powers.

The young Clara (Denise Blasor) is particularly thus endowed; she is psychokinetic and also able to predict earthquakes and deaths. A devoted diary writer, Clara is also the keeper of the family story and the generous spirit of its women, who disagree with Esteban the patriarch on every major decision he makes. Clara passes on advice to Alba that seems a tad too practical to be of much use to her in between torture sessions ("stop feeling sorry for yourself"). Played with one-note grandeur by Zapata, Clara is the perfect wise old grandma whose wonderful healing presence we are asked to take on faith and cliches.

Under Galban's direction, the acting styles range from the documentary realism of Alba's extreme distress, well handled by Tirado, to the silent-movie overacting of Margarita Cordova's La Nana, a housemaid who mugs and gestures nonstop. Most of the performances are in this latter camp. Alba's torturers could step into any torture scene in any B-movie, whether about the Gestapo or the ruling junta.

As the patriarch Esteban, Novoa ages realistically from a strapping and fearful tyrant to a bent-over grandfather who is at last able to find redemption within the family he has loved well but not wisely.

In play form, "The House of the Spirits" is a Cliff Notes version of the original; many of the details are there, but the deeper spirit is missing.

* "The House of the Spirits," Bilingual Foundation of the Arts at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Spanish: Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m. Sunday, 3 p.m. English: Oct. 10-12, 8 p.m. Oct. 13, 3 p.m. Alternates weekly in English and Spanish, Thursday through Sunday. Ends Nov. 3. $15. (213) 226-1170. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Melba TiradoL Alba

Mauricio Mendoza: Col. Esteban Garcia

Carmen Zapata: Clara Vieja

Margarita Stocker: Nivea/Transito Soto

Denise Blasor: Clara Joven

Margarita Cordova: La Nana

Armando Di Lorenzo: Severo del Valle/Mr. Brown

Daniel Novoa: Esteban Trueba

Alejandra Flores: Ferula

With: Rafael Cardenas, Marco Trejo, John Paul Jones, Luis Ovalles

A production of the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts in collaboration with the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. Based on the novel by Isabel Allende. Adapted by Margarita Galban and Lina Montalvo. Directed by Margarita Galban. English translation by Lina Montalvo. Sets and sound Estela Scarlata. Lights Robert Fromer. Costumes Carlos Brown. Choreography Mari Sandoval. Music by Bobby Rodriguez.

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