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Friday, 07 March 2014 00:02

Beware the gifts of the ancestors

Written by Bob Wilcox
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Beware the gifts of the ancestors
webster.edu

Isabel Allende established herself as a major Latin American writer in 1982 with her first novel, "The House of the Spirits." It traces four generations of a family through the upheavals in Allende's native Chile.

Recently, the Webster University Conservatory of Theatre Arts produced a stage adaptation of the novel by playwright Caridad Svich.

Condensing a novel about four generations into the two hours' traffic of our stage is a neat trick, and I had to check the cast list now and then to be sure I was following who was who.

But the focus was on just a few central characters. Playwright Svich puts us in the hands of a young woman, Alba, of the fourth generation of the family, who is remembering her family's history. When we meet her, it is 1973, and Alba is in one of the dictator Pinochet's prisons, being regularly tortured and raped, because her boyfriend was a suspicious character who associated with suspicious characters.

Reliving her family's history helps Alba survive.

At Webster, Cherlynn Alvarez bravely carried the weight of the narration and of Alba's suffering. Mason Conrad splendidly unfolded the life of Alba's grandfather, Esteban Trueba, who struggled from a modest beginning to a position of wealth and influence – and of heartbreak, when he discovers what his party has done to his beloved granddaughter.

Esteban was a man of violent extremes, and his wife Clara, explored in depth by Lara Dohner, suffered those extremes.

Ellie Kuhlke played both Clara's sister Rosa The Beautiful, who died young, and Clara's daughter Blanca, our narrator Alba's mother. Blanca fell in love with a worker on her father's plantation, Pedro Tercero,  played by Ryan Jacobs, and became pregnant with Alba. But Pedro was politically and socially wrong for Blanca's father Esteban, who forced her to marry a visiting French count, a trousers role smartly done by Caroline Amos.

Raina Houston played a gold-hearted prostitute who comforted and advised Esteban Trueba over the years. Joey Otradovec played both Alba's torturer as well as Esteban's illegitimate son, a product of his rape of one of his workers, played by Cassia Thompson. Meagan Stevenson doubled as another worker and as the mother of Esteban's wife Clara, with Jimmy Betts as her father and others.

That's a lot to keep track of, and I'm afraid I did drop a thread now and then.

With the audience encircling much of the stage, Stefan D. Azizi's scenic design kept things simple and clear, with striking costumes by Megan Harshaw, carefully shaded lighting by Paige Seber, occasional projections by Shelby Loera, sound by Tom Haverkamp, wigs and make-up by Becky Curl, and a few songs by student composer Kathy Ruvuna, with music direction by Larry D. Pry.Playwright Svich worked hard to make the novel a play, and visiting director Tamilla Woodard brought keen intelligence to telling the story clearly, but I think The House of the Spirits works better as a novel.

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