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Sunday, 16 October 2011 12:35

'The House of the Spirits'

Written by Dennis Corcoran
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The Details

The House of the Spirits is a very long, very challenging play to stage, seldom taken on by community theatre groups and rarely, if ever tackled by a university theatre program.  All the more credit, then, to the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL) theatre program which not only took it on but did an admirable job of it.

First, some background.  The novel The House of the Spirits, published in 1982, was the first literary work of Isabel Allende, whose father’s cousin, Salvador Allende, died (he is said to have committed suicide) in a bloody and repressive military coup in Chile in the 1970s. 

It chronicles 50 years, four generations, of the lives of the fictional Trueba family, set in an unnamed country.  It is a story of love, tenderness, magical vision, horror, hate, hope, violence, greed and more.  Its canvas is epic in scale as generation follows on generation and the number of characters, scenes, plots and sub-plots grows.  A magical animal larger than life, seeing the future, objects moved with mind or soul alone – all this and more takes the stage in this work of staggering breadth. 

The book was first made into a movie in 1993, a huge flop in spite of a star-studded cast.  It was later adapted into a stage play by Myra Platt and produced in Seattle and, more recently, adapted again in 2009 by Caridad Svich whose theatrical version of the novel has been staged in Denver, Houston, Minneapolis, New York (in Spanish) and elsewhere – including, now, St. Louis.

First impressions count.  The Touhill is a world-class theatrical venue.  You enter, take your seat, and begin to feast your eyes on a set powerfully and sumptuously designed.  A 20-foot tall chair downstage left, windows, doors, artwork, suspended at dizzying heights from light trees, or floating in space – all against a richly lit night-pink backdrop.

The play opens with Alba, played by Ashley Bauman, blindfolded, being tortured by Estéban García, played by Michael Pierce.  It is a very powerful start.  Movement of place, from prison, to hacienda, to houses, bordellos and interrogation centers is all handled smoothly with creative use of spotlights to draw focus away from the movement of furniture and prop and onto the next vignette.

There are two main characters in The House of the Spirits:  Abla, previously mentioned, who is both narrator and an in-the-moment character in her own right, and Estéban Trueba, Alba’s grandfather, played by Sean Green, once a poor miner, then rich and politically powerful, growing more insensitive, volatile and conservative along the way.

These are big roles.  In a two-plus hour production, there are seemingly few moments when Green is not speaking and never a moment when Bauman is not on stage.  Her frequent monologues are arguably the very heart and soul of this epic story:  poetic, haunting, panoramic. 

Bauman, for me, stole the show.  She was, with rare exception, brilliant – compelling, powerful, wholly believable.  Whether “crucified” on the side of the great chair, standing atop it, writhing on the floor in pain and fear from torture, or calling forth the magic in this great passage of human and Trueba history, she was consistently moving.

Other roles were well played, notable among them was Green’s role as a young man, then a father, then a cruel landowner, an angry, unforgiving parent, an unfaithful and intolerant husband, finally a doting grandfather, sorrowful for his own unintended role in his beloved granddaughter’s imprisonment and suffering.

Clara, played by Sydney Daniels, also did a fine job as, first, a little girl, then a young woman, a bride, a mother, and, finally, a grandmother – the spiritual head of the Trueba clan.

This is a difficult play to mount and a challenging one to watch. 

First it is long, seemingly too long.  I didn’t count the scene changes - my guess is anywhere between 40-60.  Until the director, Tlaloc Rivas, has firmly established his scenic change convention, there is almost a sense of vertigo with actors and set pieces coming and going with such frequency and rapidity.  And, even once established, there are still moments of confusion.

Perhaps it was Rivas’ directing but the several songs, whether solo, duet, trio or chorus were weak, at times almost inaudible over the solo acoustic guitar accompaniment.  

The guitar work of Matthew Wiseman was interesting and nicely set tone and context.

Generally the acting was good but not great.  It seemed that some of the voices didn’t well match the parts and some of the delivery was, at times, in certain roles, more recitative of line than revealing of character.  But, again, all in all, the acting was sound.

The use of light, video projection, and special effects, especially with Bauman’s voice as narrator, were very well done, and absolutely key to a successful production.  Sure, there was apparently an infrequent missed cue or technical malfunction but Glen Anderson’s work on set, lighting and projection was very artistic and well-executed.

The number of costume changes seemed to keep pace with scene changes.  And the speed with which some, many, of these changes had to occur must have made for a wild time back stage.   In spite of all the potential pitfalls in such pacing, all appeared to run flawlessly – and many of the costumes were beautiful.  Felia Katherine Davenport did a marvelous job.

There were several scenes in The House of the Spirits befitting the finest productions in the finest theatres in the land.  Composition, color, sight and sound. 

All in all, this was a job very well done by a student company taking on a most challenging production.  If I could have but one wish – shorter, and stronger singing (ok, two wishes).

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