The term "magic realism" has been in use for half a century — most recently in reference to the literary style....
The term “magic realism” has been in use for half a century — most recently in reference to the literary style of such leading South American scribes as Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Isabel Allende.
“My most important problem,” wrote “A Hundred Years of Solitude” author Márquez, “was destroying the lines of demarcation that separate what seems real from what seems fantastic.”
Arguably, this is a challenge theater always faces. But everything on stage is essentially an illusion, a conjuring act, in “realistic” dramas. And anything on stage can be believed — even a girl born with green hair or a three-legged table with special powers.
The latter phenomena are credible in Book-It Repertory Theatre’s world-premiere version of Allende’s famed novel “The House of the Spirits.”
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Respectfully adapted and staged by Myra Platt, the show strains to squeeze Allende’s seven-decade, multigenerational saga into about three hours. Though it falters in the end, for two captivating acts it gracefully bridges the surreal and the mundane.
Etta Lilienthal’s wondrous scenic design ushers us into the mystic, with its shifts of mood and color under Jessica Trundy’s fine lighting, its potent blue backdrop and radiant floor, its twirling mobile of birdcages and furniture.
As narrated from a stack of diaries by a pivotal character, the play begins in the “magical labyrinth” of Clara del Valle’s childhood. As an indulged, happy child (nicely played by Olivia Spokoiny), and as a bemused, ethereal adult (Jennifer Sue Johnson), Clara holds clairvoyant powers.
“The House of the Spirits,” Isabel Allende, adapted by Myra Platt and produced by Book-It Repertory Theatre, Wednesdays-Sundays through June 24, Leo K. Theatre, Seattle Center; $15-$40 (206-216-0833 or www.book-it.org).
Just as credible, in mythic terms, is Clara’s other-worldly sister Rosa (Marissa Price), an enchantress with pale green hair (to go with her yellow eyes).
But Allende’s book is not only about whimsy, and Book-It does not spare us from the brutality of Clara’s husband, the perpetually enraged Esteban (Todd Licea), a tyrannical plantation padrone.
Nor does the play skimp on Allende’s thinly veiled account of Chile’s social inequities and its checkered 20th-century political history.
However, it is more successful at fusing mysticism than politics into the narrative. While the novel roots specific strains of liberalism, socialism and fascism in the ancestral loam of three generations in the Del Valle and Trueba families, the Book-It version loses ambiguity and humor once it reaches the 1970s.
In that decade, a socialist politician (played by Wesley Rice and based on Allende’s uncle, Salvador Allende) wins the presidency, and reactionary conservatives like Esteban rally to undermine him.
There is much slogan-shouting and rushing about with weapons in the short-hand depiction of a military coup that shifts Esteban’s sympathies, and lands granddaughter Alba (Joy Marzec) in jail — where she is graphically raped.
Such episodes lack the economy and complexity of what becomes before. And one can’t help but wonder if condensing so much of this sweeping novel into one big gulp of drama (as opposed to a multi-part work) isn’t self defeating.
But for the first two acts, “House” does allow us to commune with the spirits in Allende’s symbolic abode. Platt and her fine design team deserve kudos for that, as do the viscerally commanding Licea, the ethereal Johnson, the sublimely comic Brandon Whitehead, and Rose Cano, who movingly embodies Esteban’s “spinster” sister, Ferula.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org