How do you pack Isabel Allende’s densely imagined, generously populated, multigenerational epic The House of the Spirits into a small Off-Broadway theater with a cast of 11? Playwright Caridad Svich and director José Zayas telescope the book’s tumult and skimp on some scene-setting texture but keep a firm grasp on the work’s central relationship: between young, idealistic Alba (Denise Quiñones) and her cruel, stubborn grandfather, Esteban (Nelson Landrieu). Theirs is not primarily a face-to-face relationship, but in unfolding the story as Alba’s flashback, Svich effectively nails the book’s central drama: the way Allende interrogates her family’s—and, by extension, Chile’s—bloody history through the brutal moral logic of Esteban’s eventful life.
Robert Weber Federico’s modular, multilayered set evokes the work’s mysterious title residence, where hardheaded Esteban squares off with his ethereal wife, Clara (a beatific Beatriz Córdoba). The shifting backdrop also works well as a Pinochet-era torture cell, but falls short in sketching the novel’s shifting locales, from dusty farmlands to smoky brothels. With a cast this strong, though, enacting a story that only swells in urgency, even relevance, it’s easy to overlook this House‘s cut corners.